Tag Archives: Financial Times

Gross National Happiness – an idea whose time has gone?

In a piece in between a challenge and a provocation, the Financial Times’ Beyond Brics blog this week claimed that “Gross National Happiness is a bad idea whose time has gone”.

Criticising Bhutan is not new. The Himalaya kingdom famously has inspired the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) in the 1970s (earlier discussed in several posts). But the country remains poor. Average GDP per capita stood around $7,000 in 2013, below China and Thailand but above India and the Philippines.

Bhutan. Photo via Let's Travel Somewhere.

Bhutan. Photo via Let’s Travel Somewhere.

A young democracy

It is a young democracy. The royal family in 2008 decided to hand over power to the parliament. The elections in 2013 where the second in Bhutan’s history and saw the ruling party hand over power to the opposition. Nevertheless, Bhutan by no means have the democratic culture similar to Western democracies. Like in many Asian countries, Bhutan has a history of serious troubles with minorities. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of ethnic Nepalis have been expelled, suggesting the idea of one harmonious society does not extend to people following other faiths than Buddhism.

Do all these ills discredit Gross National Happiness as a concept to inspire government to bring about higher levels of well-being for the population?

In an interesting statement quoted by the FT, current Prime Minister Tshering Tobgay says:

If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services, then it is a distraction. Rather than talking about happiness, we want to work on reducing the obstacles to happiness.”

GNH is a tool

Both FT writer Alan Beattie and from PM Tobgay here blatantly misrepresent what GNH is. GNH is not a religious credo offering answers to all questions. Like GDP, it is a tool that should be used to judge where the government should focus its efforts. Using a broader indicator like GNH can help a state of offer more holistic objectives beyond promoting economic growth. GDP is better suited to factor  in environmental and social criteria.

GNH as a concept is not the problem. It is the lack of a systematic administration that can thoroughly implement the idea. The contradiction between GNH and basic services. If GNH is the focal point, and you ask yourself what you can do to enhance the quality of life of your citizens, the major way you can increase well-being is realise these basic services. Spending a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH is just as unproductive for a government as spending a disproportionate time of talking about the weather.

The duty of a government is to take care of the population it governs. That means taking care of safety and security, functioning healthcare and education systems, and doing so in a way that ensure well-being and a good life for the future generation. How can people be happy without basic services?

Any index is arbitrary

Gross National Happiness, or alternative indices offering national accounts of well-being, have also been criticised for a lack of transparency. They are not perfect. Indeed, in an autocratic state – of which Bhutan still appears to have some characteristics, there are ways to manipulate the outcomes of an index. But at the same time, GDP or economic indicators are not an exact science. They can be manipulated, albeit with more difficulty. And like GNH, elements included in GDP can be arbitrary or inflated. Should investment in research account as productive, or a cost? Should the shadow economy be included? Is prostitution productive? And what about money spent on jails or rifles, as Robert F. Kennedy asked?

There is one point where I agree with Alan Beattie. He appears to support the OECD’s Better Life Index. Rather than formulating results in one number with little value per se (as GDP and GNH do), the Index offers a comparison between several objectives. This makes it easier to compare performances in different fields, and to assess where performance is lagging and efforts should be focused on.

Where I disagree with Beattie and Togbay is in my belief that GNH, if applied well, is getting closer to the right answer than GDP. Considerations of GNH can set the direction. GNH is not a goal per se, but sets a horizon and offers a sense of direction. Where confronted with various options for government measures to invest in, happiness considerations can guide politicians in prioritising the area where the most impact on well-being can be made. They might sacrifice a couple of percentage points of economic growth, but perform better for social or environmental terms.

The main lesson of Bhutan, in the last decades, is that there is more in life than economic development. By raising his standard against GNH, Beattie risks losing four decades of slow and hard needed progress: social, environmental and economic.