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24 May, 2011

A Speech That Will Change The Way The Travel Industry Thinks

Bhutanese Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley on Gross National Happiness: “The more I think of our future, the more I am convinced that we need to change. We need to relook at what constitutes true societal progress at the human level in the human context. We need to understand what constitutes real wealth and prosperity and what it is that truly promotes human well being.”


Editor’s Note: The following is the full text of a keynote address delivered by Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley, Prime Minister of Bhutan, at the 67th ministerial session of the UN Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, in Bangkok, 23rd May 2011. The theme of the ministerial session was “Beyond the Crises: Long-term Perspective on Social Protection and Development in Asia and the Pacific.”

Travel Impact Newswire has reported extensively on Gross National Happiness over the years. It was highlighted in a 2008 study on the future of small and medium-sized enterprises as well as in a July 2007 dispatch.

Begin Text

I would like to begin by expressing my full endorsement of the theme for this session of the Commission which calls for a long term perspective on social protection and development in our vast region. It must mean that in facing the challenges of adaptation as well as mitigation, we are desirous of understanding the causes or the triggers of the crises and how their impact and possibly, their frequency, may be reduced as opposed to accepting them as phenomena beyond our control. This will demand not only scientific acumen but equally, some deep introspection on the fundamental notions that guide our everyday life.

Having lived dangerously in the past one century, and having cheered in the new millennium with cautious hope and expectancy, the human race as a species, appears to be sadly, no less threatened. It ought not to be so. We crossed the threshold against a backdrop of extraordinary human achievements in pure knowledge, economy, science, technology, medicine, literature and the arts that ought to propel human society to higher civilization pursuing nobler aspirations.

The first decade of the 21st century has been a calamitous one. We are confronted with ecological crises including climate change, financial crises, crop failure and food crises, energy crises, health crises, conflicts of dangerous proportions, governance failures and of course, continuing social crises as our family and community structures (the social safety net) continue to break down to their nuclear core. There are more to count. The ESCAP report estimates that some 42 million additional people are at risk of remaining trapped in poverty and deprivation.

The theme for the Commission could not have been more appropriate, and timely as we continue with our endeavour into the second half of the decade for the millennium development goals. As we discovered during the High Level Plenary Meeting of the 65th session of the UNGA, several countries have fallen behind, and ten years may not be enough for them to overcome the basic challenges of poverty and survival.

All these crises tell us that there is something grievously wrong in the way human society conducts itself. They warn us that our way of life as dictated by market forces that are guided not so much by sense and sensibilities as our insatiable greed, is not sustainable, responsible or just. Unless we mend our ways, things are just going to get worse.

When competition is the rule of the game, how can it be that equity will prevail? When excessive consumption and proportionate waste are the engines that turn the wheels of our market economy to generate growth through higher productivity, how can the relentless extraction of our non renewable natural resources be slowed? How can we maintain ecological balance and stability? Can we ensure that the race for control of depleting natural resource reserves will not lead to greater and more devastating conflicts? When human population is growing at such rate as to possibly cross the 9 billion mark by 2050, equitable growth and distribution appear to be inconceivable, much less practicable.

What will it take to eradicate poverty when there will be lesser resources to fuel growth and create jobs? Against such eventualities, how can financial systems function, social services be delivered and security sustained? How can democratic systems serve at the community, national and global levels when inequality becomes a reality and when limited resources including water will be in the hands of the strong and the powerful whose narrative will be one of rivalry and escalating wars? And in a world where nuclear capability is spreading, and where vulnerabilities of such installations of both peaceful and offensive kind are becoming worryingly clear, how can the world be safe?

Such questions are not comforting. But the more I think of our future, the more I am convinced that we need to change.

We need to relook at what constitutes true societal progress at the human level in the human context. We need to understand what constitutes real wealth and prosperity and what it is that truly promotes human well being. We need to develop a consensus on the purpose of development beyond the senseless economic growth in a finite world. We need to develop and agree on a new and rational development paradigm.

What is wrong with the conventional development model regardless of how one chooses to call it in its different guises?

It’s principle flaw is its belief that growth means limitless economic expansion and that it must be pursued at any cost to achieve progress and prosperity. It treats the human individual as an economic animal and assumes that his needs are mainly material, all else being peripheral.

Although there is a growing argument against this dogma, the powerful ethics of consumerism is so deeply engrained and when the interests of the big and powerful are sustained by such waywardness, narrow and short term interests make it a holy cow. Besides, the risks of departing from the accepted practice are too high with too many unknowns for the immediate future. That is what keeps human society on this path that has become increasingly perilous, not because we are not prescient but because we do not care enough to face the truth.

There are many who can be blamed for pushing humanity on able path. But none can be more guilty than GDP the universally accepted yardstick for growth. Yet, Simon Kuznets, the very person who created this monster was greatly disillusioned by his failure to convince his audience that it is not to be mistaken as an indicator of human progress and that it should be limited in its use only as a measure of the sum total of goods and services exchanged in the market place at a given time. But it was used as a singular indicator in the aftermath of the Great Depression in the US, and later adopted by the Breton Woods institutions to develop the post war economy. What happened thereafter is what has led us to this precarious point in human history.

We are at a crossroads.

While accepting the many good that GDP has done, current and looming circumstances compel us to make a turn. In calm contemplation away from the dizzying effects of the chaotic world and all its guiles, we need to understand what truly matters to us as individuals and as one that has the role of stewardship over the many species that share this planet with us.

It was such reflection that led the former King of Bhutan who abdicated the throne at the age of 53 to realize that there must purpose of development that is more than simply economic growth. He was convinced that this purpose need not be served at the cost of environmental destruction, social dislocation and spiritual impoverishment. This long term perspective on development was how human well being, best manifest in the extent of happiness of the individual citizen, became the goal and purpose of Bhutan’s development since 1972. This is not to say that the king, by edict, declared that every citizen must make happiness their goal. What was taken as a policy decision was that the primary function of the state must be to create the enabling conditions and environment for its citizens who indeed choose to make happiness the reason and pursuit in their life .

What then is happiness?

I believe it is a sustained condition that arises when the basic needs of the body are met and are matched by an abiding sense of mental calm and contentment within a stable, supportive and peaceful environment. The best thing about happiness is that it generates a sense of compassion that brings about the motivation to raise happiness in others. In so doing, one’s own happiness is enhanced. There can be no losers in the pursuit of happiness.

It is in pursuing happiness mindfully that human society will indeed be able to redefine true wealth as those assets that in addition to physical well being, raise the emotional and psychological well being of its members on a sustainable basis. And it is in creating the enabling conditions for happiness that one sees the need for a holistic approach to development. These conditions demand:

a. Equitable or inclusive and sustainable socio economic development,

b. Judicious use of the natural resources while conserving the environment,

c. Cultural promotion and refinement as the main driver in that it creates and motivates human relations as well as the development of the finer senses that enhance the capacity for happiness, and

d. Good governance that comes generally through democracy as may evolve according to one’s unique national circumstances.

These in turn direct us to the nine domains which condition level of happiness in an individual. These are:

1. Health or physical well being,

2. Educational attainment,

3. Income level and distribution,

4. Environmental resilience,

5. Cultural diversity,

6. Community vitality,

7. Time use and balance,

8. Emotional and psychological well being, and

9. Quality of governance.

Broken down into 72 variables, all these can be measured. I should point out that GNH or Gross National Happiness, the Bhutanese development model, does not reject GDP altogether. Rather, it is put to the limited use that its author designed it to be.

Last year, at the High Level Meeting of the 65th UN General Assembly, I proposed that Happiness be included as a voluntary Millennium Development Goal (MDG) as a sublime, timeless and unchanging goal for humanity. We proposed it as one constant human aspiration to which time-bound objectives that we must periodically set for ourselves, as indeed the 8 MDGs are, will subscribe. It is a goal that transcends the boundary which separates the rich from the poor and reminds us that as humanity, we are bound together by a shared vision regardless of the differences in our material conditions.

In this context, I am grateful that GNH has received recognition of the Commission at this session, and that our proposal for the inclusion of happiness as a Voluntary Ninth MDG, as included in the Ulaanbataar Delaration, is being well received. We hope to receive the same level of cooperation and support when this proposal is considered at the General Assembly in New York.

Please accept my wishes for the success of this important ESCAP session and for your happiness at this meeting and in your life.

Tashi delek. Thank you.