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Redefining Progress

A report from the Gross National Happiness conference in Bhutan

By Prahlad Shekhawat | January 22, 2009

Bhutanese monk blowing bubbles. CREDIT: Steve Evans (CC).

Prahlad Shekhawat attended the fourth gross national happiness conference in Bhutan in November 2008. He reports here on the conference proceedings and shares his thoughts on the growing constellation of efforts to calculate alternative measurements of well-being. Shekhawat directs the Alternative Development Center in Jaipur, India.

The world is facing a breakdown of communities, environmental degradation, global warming, continuing poverty, and climbing rates of hunger. It is the perfect opportunity to reconsider development, progress, and purpose in terms of what is truly most important in life. Development is under scrutiny as a cycle of more production for more consumption to boost gross national product. A search for alternative modes of progress is underway. There is an urgency to reconsider development in a broader, holistic manner and reclaim the concept of progress as genuine desirable change.

Some pioneering visions of alternative progress have emerged in Asia, chief among them the concept of Gross National Happiness as coined by Former King of Bhutan Jigme Wangchuck in 1972. Gross National Happiness has four pillars: the promotion of equitable and sustainable socioeconomic development; preservation and promotion of cultural values; conservation of the natural environment; and establishment of good governance.

The fourth international conference on Gross National Happiness was held in Bhutan in November 2008. Scholars, administrators, and representatives of international organizations from 25 countries gathered to discuss alternative indices, ideas, and experiences, particularly in relation to the practice and measurement of non-economic conditions of happiness.

Gross National Happiness values are measured by tracking wellness in seven domains: economic, environmental, physical, mental, workplace, social, and political. These seven broad measures were recently incorporated into the first country-wide Gross National Happiness Survey in Bhutan.

Conference Summary

In his opening speech, the Prime Minister of Bhutan Jigme Thinley emphasized the need to measure Gross National Happiness and translate the indicators and data into public policy. He pointed out the three core values of peace, security, and happiness that guide Gross National Happiness, and that the well-being and happiness of all sentient beings should also be included in the agenda. He called for a new internalized ethical consciousness and a new paradigm to combat consumerism.

The UNDP representative for South Asia spoke of the need to focus attention on the most vulnerable people in developing countries who will be worst affected by global crises.

Jon Hall of the OECD pointed out the need to measure welfare, not output. A redefinition of development is required to find agreement on goals and means, to manage and have more accountability, and to provide informed choices in the reformulation of policy. He drew attention to emerging indicators like trust, social capital, and vulnerability. The OECD, he said, is committed to developing partnerships and networks as part of their project Measuring the Progress of Societies.

Nic Marks of the New Economics Foundation (NEF) in London discussed the growing movement in Europe to redefine progress. The National Accounts of Well-being in the United Kingdom divides well-being into personal and social. Personal well-being includes aspects like emotions, vitality, resilience, good functioning, and a satisfying life. The social aspects refer to relationships, social support, trust, and belongingness. These measures put Scandinavia in general and Denmark in particular at the top of the list of countries. Mr. Marks emphasized the need to standardize and normalize the measures to understand changes over time, review and evaluate policy decisions, draw comparisons, and assess differences within nations.

The NEF has developed the Happy Planet Index, which calculates the environmental efficiency with which countries around the world deliver long and happy lives for their people. The NEF has also designed a survey to calculate one's personal Happy Planet score.

Sabina Alkire, director of the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), inspired by Amartya Sen's concept of human development as capabilities, proposed multidimensional measures for poverty in the context of Bhutan's cultural values. These included indicators like psychological well-being, cultural well-being, time use, governance, community vitality, ecology, education, health, and living standards. Other poverty measures that the OPHI has been advocating are insecurity, sanitation, powerlessness, dignity, shame, humiliation, and participation in decision-making.

Mike Pennock from Genuine Progress Indicators (GPI) Atlantic argued that measures such as Gross National Happiness provide a guideline for developing a framework of national accounting where suitable monetary value can be placed on assets such as the environment and voluntary work. Thus costs and benefits can be calculated and accounted for in a balance sheet, and policymakers in turn cannot overlook vital aspects of human, social, and natural capital.

The GPI Atlantic survey of communities incorporates dimensions such as core values, spirituality, security, community attachment, voluntary activities, social support, risk behavior, and employment, in addition to measures of health and well-being. The GPI survey found that self-perception of well-being is supported by a variety of determinants, which could help us to compare one community with another. Measurements of well-being need to be sensitive to the underlying expectations of the people concerned.

Reflections

Apart from the OECD participant and a political scientist, representatives from the United States were conspicuous by their absence at the conference. In order for the Gross National Happiness movement to have a major impact, it is important to have greater American participation. American society has a lot at stake in the quality and distribution of economic growth, and particularly the value of housework, care for children and elderly, voluntary work, free time, and family and community activities. These factors can be viewed as good for the economy and well-being although no money changes hands and no increase in GDP takes place.

As a Bhutanese journalist noted at the end of the conference, Gross National Happiness and Bhutan need to be demystified. The Gross National Happiness movement in Bhutan remains a top-down proposal of the elite. Not only do Gross National Happiness measures have to be internalized as a new national ethic, but these ideas and indicators have to be reformed and further developed with the active participation and genuine voice of all the Bhutanese people.

I proposed that diverse organizations and individuals come together on a common platform to agree on values and indicators, so that a united voice can have a greater impact. There can be differing emphasis and norms for national indicators of well-being, but at the international level where we face common problems we need to act as a unified humanity. An alternative vision of progress is possible.

Currently there are two parallel global movements. The first can be characterized by the World Economic Forum, World Bank, and International Monetary Fund, supporting traditional notions of development. The second is the World Social Forum, Gross National Happiness, and allied movements that seek to redefine progress. This is the time to build bridges between the two camps so that mainstream bodies can be more sensitive to alternative approaches.


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