Lessons on Good Governance from the World’s Youngest Democracy

lhakpa2This post from Ash Center research fellow Lhakpa Bhuti explores the origins and impact of the government’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy on social, political and economic development in her home country of Bhutan. Well-being and happiness as legitimate and useful measures of government performance have been gaining traction in cities across the US, from Seattle, Washington to Somerville, Massachusetts. With a focus on the natural environment, Bhutan’s GNH policy and its GNH accounting might also offer novel solutions for addressing global warming. Bhuti suggests that these and other efforts to improve governance and even increase public engagement might learn lessons from Bhutan’s long-running GNH approach to improving both its political systems and actual policy outcomes.


By Lhakpa Bhuti

Happiness has been the ultimate purpose of social and economic development in the small Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan since the 1970s, and the nation committed itself to the “pursuit of Gross National Happiness” in Article 9 of its constitution.

Bhutan bases Gross National Happiness, or GNH, on four pillars: improving quality of life through sustainable development; ensuring conservation of the natural environment; preserving the country’s rich culture and heritage; and strengthening good governance. His Majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, the king of Bhutan has said, “GNH has come to mean so many things to so many people but to me it signifies simply—development with values.”

What is GNH?

In the conventional approach, based on Gross Domestic Product (GDP) or Gross National Product (GNP), the measure of a nation’s development is based on income and productivity. GNH offers an alternative approach that measures a nation’s progress based on individual well-being, ecological footprint, equitable society, and good governance.


Prayer Wheel in Thimphu, Bhutan, some development activity visible off to the left side

As a tool, the GNH perspective enables government officials to incorporate public interest, human values, and environmental impact into public policy formulation and decision-making. It has drawn international attention and interest among scholars and researcher as it has challenged the theories, ideologies and values of the conventional concept of GDP.

The role of happiness in the public sphere in Bhutan dates back to 1729, when it was written into the legal code: “If the government cannot create happiness (dekid) for its people, there is no purpose for the Government to exist.” The term “Gross National Happiness” was coined in the early 1970s by the fourth King of Bhutan, His Majesty Jigme Singye Wangchuck, who envisioned the central purpose of social economic development as finding greater well-being and happiness for his people. Since then, GNH has ensured that the interests of the Bhutanese people to be the guiding principle for mainstreaming policy decision-making.

Happiness in this context refers not only to the individual, but also to the nation and to society, as well as to the happiness of future generations. The range of dimensions of human well-being include social concerns (living standards, health, and education); softer measures relating to psychological well-being (time use, emotional well-being); and also cultural values such as, community vitality and environmental diversity.

Compared to other countries within the region, conventional measures show that Bhutan has been performing well, on average Bhutan has seen an annual growth rate of about 8% over the past 15 years.

Bhutan has also been successful in conservation of the environment, preservation of culture, and to a certain extent in ensuring good governance. For example, Bhutan holds 72% of its land protected under forest cover (its constitution mandates 60%), while biodiversity has grown from 45% to 84% over the last four decades. Bhutan has one of the lowest rates of fossil fuel use of any country in the world and is the only country that has vowed to become carbon neutral

Good governance is one of the nine domains of GNH aimed toward enhancing the well being of the Bhutanese people. Efficiency, transparency, and accountability have long been an integral part of government and political structures in Bhutan, which have internalized GNH values. Bhutan has secure political stability. This included the reigns of successive Kings of Bhutan since the 1970s, and a smooth transition from monarchy to parliamentary democracy in 2008—making Bhutan the world’s youngest democracy. The uniqueness of the democratic transition in Bhutan is that the King initiated and handed down democracy to the people.


Iron Chain Bridge connecting Tachog Lhakang, established by great master architect and yogi Thangtong Gyalpo in 15th century, on the way to Paro International Airport

Further, as per the Transparency International Report titled Corruption Perceptions Index 2013, which measures the perceived level of corruption in 177 countries and territories, Bhutan is ranked number 33 out of 177 countries and territories and gives score of 63 (on a scale of 0-100 where 0 means that a country is perceived as highly corrupt and 100 means it is perceived as very clean). And as per Transparency International 2011 Bhutan was ranked 7th out of 33 countries in Asian Pacific Region.

While GNH has gained worldwide acclaim, it has not been free from criticism. Some opine that GNH is relevant only to Bhutan and cannot be compared across countries. Further, with globalization and modernization Bhutan’s people especially the younger generations are focusing more on materialistic pursuit rather than spiritual values. Country is faced with economic challenges as youth unemployment is rising and financial reserves are being depleted. Thus today’s challenge has become how to continue to develop and overcome the economic challenges while preserving Bhutan’s culture and maintaining a balance between material and non-material needs.

Good Governance Lessons from Bhutan’s GNH

In June 2012, the United Nation passed a resolution on “Happiness as a holistic development approach” and declared March 20th as “World Happiness Day.” The recent economic downturn and inability to address climate change appear to have drawn the attention of the global community toward alternative development approaches. Many countries are developing well-being frameworks within their own context.


Students in traditional dress school uniform on their way to school in Thimphu, Bhutan

What lessons, if any, should these jurisdictions and institutions learn from Bhutan about effective policy tools and frameworks that follow the “happiness” approach? The indicators related to good governance are particularly relevant in different contexts and cultures. In the same way that good governance is key to economic success, it is also key to creating an environment for happiness.

Efficiency, transparency and accountability have been the main thrust of good governance in Bhutan. Additional indicators include other characteristics of the governing process, such as freedom of speech and opinion, equal pay for work of equal value, freedom from discrimination, access to health care, and quality of water supply.

Other indicators of good governance include measures that address critical needs such as creating jobs, reducing the income gap, fighting corruption, protecting the environment, providing for educational needs, and improving health services. These indicators address challenges that are not, of course, unique to Bhutan.

In the U.S., new indicators of progress and societal well-being are also being developed, proposed, and adopted. In 2013 the Social Progress Imperative launched an index on “Basic Human Needs, Foundations of Well-being, and Opportunity.” Vermont is home to the organization GNHUSA, which embraces happiness as a measure of societal achievement. Meanwhile, the state of Vermont has established a Genuine Progress Indicators to measure advances.

And dozens of U.S. cities are deploying policy goals and performance measurement systems that center on the notion of happiness.

President Obama’s most recent State of the Union address noted that climate change is a “fact.” The President called on the country to act with more urgency, and directed his administration to set stricter standards for carbon emission. He also called on to businesses to take a more responsible role in creating jobs. And he called for equal education opportunity and health facilities for all.

Within these approaches are the seeds of more inclusive policies and development activities—programs that benefit all people. If the United States had taken into account indicators such as those established in Bhutan decades earlier, it might not be facing many of today’s challenges such as heath care and social issues. Indeed, it might have created a more cohesive national community.


National Memorial Chorten in Thimphu, Bhutan, a monument to the Third King of Bhutan and to world peace

The United States might also consider GNH Accounts a comprehensive set of new national accounts being developed by Bhutan to measure the true costs of economic activity. This tool, aims to record and report the country’s natural, social, cultural and human capital assets instead of focusing only on financial and manufactured wealth alone. In this case, human capital includes the health and education of the populace, while cultural capital includes the knowledge and practice of the country’s arts, languages, culture, and traditions.

Social capital–certainly, a familiar term at Harvard Kennedy School–assesses the strength of social networks; the safety, security, and vitality of communities; community engagement; and civic participation.

With such measures, governments can accurately identify their assets and strengths, so that they can build on them and protect them. At the same time they can identify their liabilities and weaknesses, so that they can work to overcome them as soon as they detect early warning signals. Ultimately, National Accounts and the GNH approach overall can provide policy makers with practical and realistic tools to achieve genuinely sustainable prosperity and to protect the nation’s true wealth.

In a time when the national discourse in the U.S. has turned toward climate change and social inequality, a GNH approach would support policies that shift behaviors towards sustainability and build a society that nurtures the happiness and well-being of individuals, families, communities, and the natural world.


Lhakpa Bhuti is a 2013 graduate of Harvard Kennedy School and recent research fellow with the Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation.

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