In a continuing effort to bring you conference report updates from conferences we didn't (couldn't) attend, here's Junko Edahiro's report from the Fourth International Conference on Gross National Happiness in Bhutan last November. The report is coming to you straight from the folks at Japan for Sustainability, an organization I highly recommended to you back in 2007 and whose indicators report sets a new standard for engaging the community.
Following the reports on China in our November and December issues in 2008 as part of our evolution toward "Asia for Sustainability" (AFS), JFS co-founder Junko Edahiro reports on a meeting she attended in Bhutan, the Fourth International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH). It was held in Thimphu, the national capital, from November 24 to 26, 2008.
Gross National Happiness (GNH) is an index used to measure national strength and progress based on people's happiness, rather than on levels of production as measured by gross national product (GNP) and gross domestic product (GDP). This concept was described in 1976 by Bhutan's fourth king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, as "more important than GNP," and was chosen as the nation's primary development philosophy and its ultimate goal of development.
See also: GPI, GNH, GCH: True Indicators of Progress http://www.japanfs.org/en/mailmagazine/newsletter/pages/027838.html
The first International Conference on GNH to promote the concept and creation of a GNH index was held in Bhutan in 2004, the second in Canada in 2005, and the third in Thailand in 2007.
The theme of the fourth International GNH Conference was "Practice and Measurement," indicating a step forward into a new phase focusing more on how to reflect GNH in policies, and how to grasp the current situation and measure progress, rather than considering GNH as simply a principle or philosophy.
A total of 90 people from 25 countries attended the conference, with about 10 from Japan, which was the second highest number of attendees next to Bhutan. In the morning of the first day, the organizer gave opening remarks after a ceremony conducted by Bhutanese monks, then H. E. Jigmi Y. Thinley, the first prime minister of Bhutan following the country's shift to a democratic parliamentary system, gave the keynote address.
The prime minister touched upon the words of King Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, Bhutan's fifth king, who, in his coronation address the week before the conference, clearly said that the "promotion of GNH was his responsibility and priority." The prime minister in his speech also repeatedly said that GNH lies at the foundation of Bhutan's national policies. He also noted that, while most believe economic growth is necessary in order to alleviate poverty, "to believe this is to believe in killing the patient in order to cure the disease. Even the justification for economic growth for poverty alleviation seems very shaky, unless we radically improve redistribution."
After the opening ceremony, the general meeting began, and one of the highlights was the announcement of the GNH Index by the Centre for Bhutan Studies. The idea of GNH is well-known, but how can it be measured? This is what the world wants to know today.
Bhutan has made four pillars of GNH the basis of its major governance principles: economic self-reliance, a pristine environment, the preservation and promotion of Bhutan's culture, and good governance in the form of a democracy. Nine dimensions support the four pillars: living standards, health, psychological well-being, education, ecology, community vitality, time use, culture, and good governance.
This time, in order to gauge the progress of advancement with the four pillars of GNH, 72 variables were selected to correspond to the nine dimensions, and a national survey was carried out. At the conference, a researcher from the Centre for Bhutan Studies presented the types of variables selected and an overview of the survey findings. Participants from other countries also gave papers on their studies and practices to measure happiness, which led to some lively discussions. (See also the Gross National Happiness website, operated by the Centre for Bhutan Studies, for the GNH Index and the survey results, at http://www.grossnationalhappiness.com/.)
While the Bhutanese government actively promotes GNH, this does not mean that it guarantees the people's happiness. It simply promises, as the nation and/or the government, that it will work to create the conditions under which individuals can seek GNH.
During the conference, one Bhutanese participant said, "Bhutan should build its own GNH-based economy, politics, and culture. Considering GNH, it is clear that even democracy is not an end. Democracy is a means of good governance necessary for GNH." From such comments, I could sense a move to start considering GNH as a foundation of nation building, not just as a concept or an index, as many people think.
Obviously, Bhutan is not a utopia just because it advocates GNH. For example, in many areas of the country, infrastructure such as adequate water supply has yet to be developed well enough. The country also has many other problems related to modernization, particularly growing concern about an increase of juvenile crime and other social problems since the introduction of television.
In addition, even the term "GNH" is not specifically mentioned in Bhutan's current tenth development plan. Later on, at the wrap-up session of the conference, a Bhutanese participant said that GNH should not be used to solve world issues but to solve national problems in Bhutan first.
The three-day conference was concluded with a strong message that putting GNH into the mainstream of Bhutanese politics will be a driving force in creating a more holistic society in the country. The next conference will be held in Brazil.
The fact that the prime minister gave the conference's opening speech, with many ministers and cabinet officials in attendance, is an indication of the importance the government places on GNH. On the third day of the conference, I sensed the essence of GNH at an event at a luncheon hosted by the king, to which I was invited together with all the participants from outside Bhutan.
Prior to the lunch meeting, the newly coronated 28-year-old king stood in front of the entrance of the palace, shook hands with guests one by one, exchanged words for a while, and welcomed them all politely. I myself shook hands and talked with him for a while. There was no hurry with him at all to meet individually with the several dozens of guests. He focused his entire attention on the here and now, serene like a calm lake. I sincerely felt that he cherished the time with me, and I was deeply impressed with this.
In regard to the character of the king, a person I interviewed who knows Bhutan well said, "At the coronation ceremony last week, citizens gathered from villages across the country to see him, even for just a glimpse, with many having made an overnight trip to get there. Tens of thousands of people stood in line. When people became impatient and were about to rush to him, the King took the microphone and said, 'I promise to shake hands with the person at the end of the line. Please wait.'
When the time was almost running out, the King started walking and shook hands with everyone up to the last person and exchanged words, instead of standing in place and waiting to greet the people there."
Also, as an example of the character of the former king, who established the basis of GNH, he administrated state affairs while living in a modest house, and when the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake hit Japan, he prayed for three days without eating.
When I talked with Bhutanese people, I felt that they sincerely admire and respect the fourth king. And also I could feel that the fifth king, just as his predecessor, wants to cherish his people in earnest.
After greeting the conference participants, the king entered the luncheon hall alone, and lined up for food just like the rest of us. When he had his food, he seated himself at one of the tables and started talking with people around him while eating. Watching him, I realized in a true manner that the king embodies the essence of GNH as one that treasures his people one by one, as well as sensing the hearts of those who respect the king.
Setting the GNH Index itself is only a start. Creating an index and measuring progress is one thing, while the holistic idea that "there is something important in those unmeasurables" is another. The question is: How do these ideas get incorporated into their principle goal of making the Index useful for Bhutan and the rest of the world?
This is a very important process unfolding. I would like to watch its progress and promote the idea with like-minded people and groups around the world who think there is something more important in life than GNP and GDP. If you too are trying to measure or visualize something along these lines and want to change society by communicating it, JFS would really like to hear from you.
Written by Junko Edahiro
Keep these conference reports coming!