The Guardian: Bhutan risks making the same mistakes as other Asian countries by destroying its environment and social cohesion if it fails to engage young people in its gross national happiness (GNH) strategy.
This is the warning from Tho Ha Vinh, the programme director of the GNH Centre, an NGO which is dedicated to protecting and supporting the movement to maintain deep contentment as the mainstay of the Himalayan kingdom’s way of life.
“The danger is that the kind of mindless growth and modernisation that has taken place in most of Asia could also come here,” he warns. “Many Asian countries have had phenomenal economic growth but at what cost, in terms of environment, in terms of social fabric, in terms of cultures and values.”
Tho says the weakness of GNH is that it has been delivered in a top-down approach, having been the vision of the previous King and subsequently implemented by government. As a result, he worries that many of the 700,000 citizens have little knowledge or understanding of its practical applications and do not feel a sense of ownership of the idea.
“People need to have a clear understanding of GNH,” he says. “Everybody knows about GNH in Bhutan but it’s sort of vague so we really need a better grasp. What are the values and what are the principles and also the technicalities of it.”
Equally worrisome is that the growing influence of western consumerism is beginning to erode the Buddhist way of life, which at the moment is still very much alive and has helped create a deep understanding of the sacredness of nature.
Tho says spirituality is becoming increasingly disconnected from the daily lives of young people, who have been flocking to the capital Thimphu in search of jobs and a more modern lifestyle.
“We have rituals and temples and lots of monks and hermits and people who are practising very deeply. But while young people in Thimphu might join a family Puja, the rest of the week they don’t really have much connection with it.
He adds: “We need to be able to show that what is still there from tradition is not only something from the past for their grandparents, but is relevant to a modern young person in Thimphu; that these values and beliefs and practices translate into everyday life.
“It’s really about finding a balance. In Buddhism one of the fundamental values is the middle path, neither asceticism nor indulging. It’s not about keeping Bhutan backward or preserving some kind of ideal past that is a total illusion. Life was very hard in the old days. So there is this need for modernity, but at the same time not falling into this kind of one-sided consumerism that is actually destroying the planet.”
There is profound interest in GNH around the world and Tho says Bhutan is in a unique position to act as a role model for other countries which are seeking to balance development with sustainability and redefine what is meant by progress.
The reason Tho believes Bhutan can be used as a laboratory is that it is at a very early stage in its industrial and economic development and can therefore leapfrog other countries’ mistakes by moving directly to a green economy.
“We speak a lot about brand Bhutan, which is why people are willing to pay $250 (£148) a day to come here, but this is limited to tourism right now,” he says. “But we could imagine brand Bhutan for medicinal herbs, for organic agriculture and for green technology. So if Bhutan could really build on its unique strengths, I think it would be relatively easy, for instance, to find markets. The mistake would be to try to do the same thing as India and China, which will end up being more expensive and no better.
“So I think Bhutan could really be sort of a role model in terms of a little lab where one can experiment and the world can come and learn and also share.”
The reason Tho believes GNH can have a profound effect is because it can help end three areas of disconnection in peoples’ lives:
• With nature, which allows us to exploit it in a completely destructive way.
• With one another, which leads to the acceptance of tremendous inequality because of a loss of empathy with our fellow human beings.
• With ourselves, which makes it difficult for people to find their deepest aspiration and their true values and then align these to the work they do.
In order to help with this reconnection, the GNH Centre is developing a number of projects ranging from mindfulness courses for young people to the planned creation of a GNH village.
“We are seeking to hold a space where people can come back to themselves and find what is the meaning of their own lives,” he says. “If GNH is to become a reality it has to be implemented in concrete projects and we feel that it can be done at a very small scale. What would a GNH family life look like; a school, an organisation, a business? So how do we help people come up with projects that they really want to implement and how do we give them the resources, the know-how, the mentoring, coaching, whatever they need to implement?”
The GNH village is planned on a 46-acre piece of land, located between river and mountain in central Bhutan. The GNH Centre has worked with both local and international architects to develop traditional homes which are energy efficient. Construction work will start in the next few weeks.
Tho hopes to show that young people can thrive without having to migrate to the capital Thimphu. Rather than believing they have to go to university, they could have an alternative education that is not based on diplomas or accreditation. Instead, explains Tho, it would be based on “life skills, emotional skills, social skills, trying to help people become good human beings and developing this kind of creativity that will help them find what it is that they really want to do in life. Which is I believe the key to real success.”
While this is one small project, what does Tho believe could be possible if Bhutan were to embrace GNH in a more comprehensive and dynamic way?
“Until now it has very much been a country that was ruled from above, by a benevolent, wise king,” he says. “Even democracy was a gift from the throne, it was not the will of the people.
“So I think it’s enabling, especially within the youth, a vibrant social, civil society to arise that really takes responsibility for the development of Bhutan, rather than waiting for either foreign investors, government or international organisations to show the way.”
Started in year 2010, ‘Climate Himalaya’ initiative has been working on Mountains and Climate linked issues in the Himalayan region of South Asia. In the last five years this knowledge sharing portal has become one of the important references for the governments, research institutions, civil society groups and international agencies, those have work and interest in the Himalayas. The Climate Himalaya team innovates on knowledge sharing, capacity building and climatic adaptation aspects in its focus countries like Bhutan, India, Nepal and Pakistan. Climate Himalaya’s thematic areas of work are mountain ecosystem, water, forest and livelihood. Read>>