Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How does Bhutan beckon?

From Jesuits to Jetsetters - BOLD BHUTAN BECKONS - Inhaling Gross National Happiness‘Bold Bhutan Beckons’, by Tim Fischer and Tshering Tashi, was first published in 2009. I almost bought a copy then. I had just written a review article about Bhutan’s gross national happiness (GNH) objective and was naturally interested in Tim Fischer’s views on Bhutan – since he is a fellow Australian and former leader of the National Party. Anyhow, the moment passed and I didn’t think again of buying the book until a couple of weeks ago when I had it in my hand in a bookshop in Thimphu. As soon as I flipped through the pages I knew that I had to read it.

In his introduction, Tim Fischer mentions that when he and his friend Tshering Tashi (a businessman and writer who lives in Thimphu) were talking about joint authorship of this book, someone warned him that joint book writing was ‘possibly a guaranteed way to spoil a friendship’. That might have been good advice, but the way Tim and Tshering have written the book seems to have been designed to reduce the potential for conflict. Rather than attempting to write jointly, they have each made separate contributions to the book and have told readers who wrote each chapter.

One of the highlights of the book, in my view, is the discussion of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyal, whom Tshering describes as the founder and conscience of Bhutan. Tim tells the story of how two Jesuits visited Bhutan in 1627, when Zhabdrung was a young king. Zhabdrung offered them hospitality and apparently allowed them to attempt to convert local people to Christianity. Zhabdrung might have been confident that the Jesuit’s proselytising efforts would be unsuccessful, but he also claimed to be respectful of individual liberty in other contexts. Tshering notes that many times the king told his lamas that ‘though they are most submissive, everyone is his own master to do what he likes’ (p 25). It is not clear from the book, however, whether Zhabdrung’s acknowledgement that everyone is his own master extended to their use of what he described as ‘the evil, stinking, poisonous weed named tobacco’ (p 29).

Zhabdrung stressed the virtues of perseverance and self-discipline. He quoted his teacher who said: ‘If you do not work hard you will not find sweet food. If you do not know the taste of suffering, you will not know the taste of happiness’. Zhabdrung’s achievements include the building of seven dzongs (combining the functions of fortresses and monasteries) built in strategic locations in different parts of the country. The first was built in 1629 at Simtokha, about 5 km south of Thimphu (the capital city) on the road to Paro and Phuentsholing. The photo below was taken from the road from Thimphu to Punakha.

The Punakha dzong, shown in my last post, was also built by Zhabdrung.

Another highlight of the book is Tim Fischer’s discussion of road-building in Bhutan in the 1960s. While we were being driven along the relatively good road from the international airport at Paro to Thimphu, my fellow passengers were discussing the fact that Bhutan was virtually closed to the outside world before the major road construction effort that occurred about 50 years ago. The idea that road construction in Bhutan began only when I was in my final years at school resonated much more strongly a few days later, however, when I was being driven over the narrow, winding mountain road from Thimphu to Punakha. This road barely copes with the amount of traffic using it, but I was impressed with the regard to safety of most of the drivers and with the signaling system that drivers use to let following vehicles know that it is safe to pass. (The left indicator means that it is safe and the right indicator means that it is unsafe. Vehicles drive on the left hand side of the road.)

Since I have already distracted myself away from reviewing the book, this might be an appropriate opportunity to present some photos I took on the road from Thimphu to Punakha.

This is my guide, Nado Richen, who was most helpful. After my return to Australia, Nado emailed a fact sheet to me to ensure that I understood what he had been saying. Nado was concerned that his command of English was not strong enough to answer some of my questions.

Bhutan is very keen on use of hydro power - and not just for electricity generation. This photo shows a water-powered prayer wheel.

These are the Druk Wangyal Chortens -108 stupas at Dochula pass (3050m) a popular place, with panoramic views. Stupas are spiritual monuments offering observers a direct experience of inherent wakefulness and dignity.These stupas were built by the eldest Queen Mother, Her Majesty Ashi Dorji Wangmo Wangchuk, in honor of soldiers who fought in the 2003 low-intensity border conflict to expel Indian militants. The Indian militants had been threatening Bhutanese sovereignty by using camps in Bhutan as a base to pursue their revolutionary aims in India. Tshering Tashi wrote a chapter discussing the conflict in ‘Bold Bhutan Beckons’.

Prayer flags at a lake in the Royal Botanical Park at Lamperi.

This truck is typical of those passed on the road from Thimphu to Punakha. The prayer wheel in Nado’s car is shown in the foreground and is reflected in the windscreen.

Some cows on the road near Punakha.

Rice fields near Punakha.

Now, where was I before I interrupted myself? I was writing about Tim Fischer’s account of road building in Bhutan in the 1960s. Tim was helped in writing this story by his discussions with Hardy Pradhan, an Australian engineer who worked on the first roads in Bhutan. The roads were built with the help of Indian expertise but the labour involved was largely a national effort by Bhutanese people. All Bhutanese were apparently expected to work on the project for 33 days.

Another highlight of the book, for me, was Tshering’s account of his meeting with Tsham Penjor, whom he describes as the great hermit. I know little about hermits, but some aspects of the story did not surprise me. I had expected that any person who had spent most of his life in solitary meditation would have little attachment to material things. The part of the story that surprised me is that despite his solitary life, Tsham is apparently a warm, hospitable and happy person.

Tshering argues that the pursuit of materialism and the desire to be admired respected and noticed brings with it a great deal of uncertainty. He suggests that ‘it is in the simplicity of people like Tsham Penjor that the truth and greatness really live’. Through the example of his life Tsham ‘reminds us that the mountains have the power to liberate humans from this uncertainty’ (p 78).

Is that why Bhutan beckons? Is it the challenge to spend more time on our mountains – geographical or metaphorical - aiming to live in harmony with nature and our neighbours and to seek goodness and enlightenment? That seems to me to be an important part of the story. Tim Fischer has another important part of the story in his suggestion that Bhutan acts as a magnet because its culture, customs and traditions survive to this day in a careful blend with modernity (p 19). For me, the main attraction is that the Bhutanese people are taking charge of the blending process themselves, individually and collectively, with the aim of building a happier society.

Postscript 1:
In thanking me for this review, Tshering Tashi has reminded me that Bhutan may also be the last bastian for many endangered animals. He has written about this in the book. He has also written an article in Kuensel about the blue bear, which is believed to be extinct.
Postscript 2:
I neglected to mention that my main reason for visiting Bhutan was to attend a conference on 'Happiness and Economic Development'. Some of the conference presentations are now available on this site.

Monday, August 22, 2011

How should a libertarian view the pursuit of happiness in Bhutan?

I was pondering this question last week on my first visit to Bhutan. Some readers may wonder why anyone who loves liberty would actually need to ponder this question. It is obvious that such a person could not support a law requiring citizens to wear national dress, particularly when this law means that ethnic minorities with a different cultural heritage are expected to wear the traditional attire of the majority of the population. Nor could anyone who loves liberty support a law specifying that any person found with more than the permissible quantity of tobacco products for personal consumption ‘shall be guilty of the offense for smuggling’.

My pondering has focused on the issue of whether such restrictions of liberty are central to Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) objective. My conclusion is that I don’t think they are. While GNH seems to be mentioned whenever the government does anything in Bhutan, restrictions of liberty seem to me to be more appropriately attributed to the historical legacy of isolation from the rest of the world, the reasons that the Druk majority have had to fear that they might lose their cultural identity and political independence, and the history of paternalistic government that is greatly respected by a high proportion of the people (and which has generally deserved that respect).

It seems to me that attributing restrictions of liberty in Bhutan to GNH would be as silly as attributing the recent riots in Britain to its Westminster system of government, or the existence of a relatively high prison population in the US to the ideals expressed in its Declaration of Independence. Principles deserve to be considered on their merits, even though the claims to moral leadership of the countries that espouse those principles are often impaired to some extent by bad policies and policy outcomes.

The following remarks of the current king of Bhutan, his majesty Jigme Khesar Namgyel Wangchuck, seem relevant in this context:

‘GNH acts as our National Conscience guiding us towards making wise decisions for a better future. It ensures that no matter what our nation may seek to achieve, the human dimension, the individual’s place in the nation, is never forgotten. It is a constant reminder that we must strive for a caring leadership so that as the world and country changes, as our nation’s goals change, our foremost priority will always remain the happiness and wellbeing of our people – including the generations to come after us’.

The GNH concept originated in the early 1970s in a remark by the former king that ‘Gross National Happiness is more important than Gross National Product’. Systematic efforts have been made over the last decade or so to specify the objective clearly, to measure GNH and to incorporate relevant criteria in government decision-making.

The central idea behind Bhutan’s GNH objective is to integrate environmental conservation, promotion of cultural activities and good governance with economic growth and modernization. This idea has gained considerable international support. The UN General Assembly recently adopted by acclamation a resolution sponsored by Bhutan inviting countries ‘to pursue the elaboration of additional measures that better capture the importance of the pursuit of happiness and well-being in development with a view to guiding their public policies’. Bhutan has been invited to convene a panel discussion on the theme of happiness and well-being during the Assembly’s next session, which begins in September.

While offering its view of the pursuit of happiness to the rest of the world, the government of Bhutan does not claim to have resolved all the problems of economic development and social change. For example, public literature about GNH acknowledges that Bhutan faces problems associated with rural-urban migration, youth alienation and substance abuse.

One possible area of concern about pursuit of GNH is whether attempts to integrate environmental and cultural concerns with economic development will reduce economic freedom and constrain economic opportunities available to Bhutanese people. I’m not sure how restrictive the project approval processes might be, but it seems to involve a weighing up of the good and bad effects of individual projects. This approach seems to me to have potential to enable approval of a larger number of good projects than would the process in Australia of requiring projects to jump a series of environmental and/or social impact hurdles imposed by different levels of government. The inclusion of a good governance criterion should also help to ensure that projects are not held up by corrupt officials or narrowly focused interest groups.

Although the Heritage Foundation’s index suggests that Bhutan has a relatively low level of economic freedom (a ranking of 103 among the 179 countries ranked) it is not clear that its ranking is adversely affected by the pursuit of GNH. Bhutan’s economic freedom ranking is considerably higher than that of neighbouring countries such as India (124), China (135) and Nepal (146) whose governments do not have GNH as an explicit objective. I don’t see why pursuit of GNH in Bhutan would not be consistent with greater economic freedom than at present.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Bhutan. I think it would be hard for anyone to visit the country without ending up with a great deal of respect for the peaceful people who inhabit this country. The people are so kind that the dogs even seem to feel safe sleeping on the roads. I don’t like the paternalistic restrictions on liberty in Bhutan but I think that there is a fair chance that the government will decide, before long, that such policies are actually inimical to individual flourishing and to GNH.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Do all well-being indicators tell similar stories at a regional level?

I have previously noted that there is a tendency for many different well-being indicators to tell similar stories in international comparisons. The most obvious reason for this is that well-being is related to socio-economic circumstances. People who live in countries with relatively high average incomes could be expected to have good housing, better health outcomes, greater life satisfaction etc.

It would seem reasonable to expect a similar pattern at a regional level within countries. Regions that have a high rating on an indicator, such as subjective well-being, might also be expected to have a fairly high rating on a range of factors that are known to be related to well-being.

There is an excellent facility in Victoria (Australia) to test whether this is the case. The site, known as Community Indicators Victoria, enables visitors to look at relationships between a large number of variables across local government areas (LGAs). I used the double data map facility to examine the relationship between subjective well-being (SWB) and a range of variables that I thought might reasonably be expected to be correlated with SWB. The SWB measure used is the Australian Unity Wellbeing Index combines satisfaction with life as a whole and satisfaction with various domains of life (standard of living, health, achievements in life, community connection, personal relationships, safety and future security).

The relationship with some relevant variables was strongly positive, as I had expected. The LGAs with higher average SWB also tend to have higher ratings in terms of: satisfaction with being part of the community, social support (ability to get help from friends), citizen engagement (e.g. attending town meetings, writing to politicians), safety (e.g. feeling safe walking in the local area at night) and volunteering.

However, the relationship with some other relevant variables was negative. These included household income (Census data), food security, satisfaction with work-life balance and acceptance of diverse cultures.

The explanation seems to lie mainly in differences between rural LGAs and those in Melbourne or close to it. The LGAs with highest average SWB tend to be rural. There seems to be an association between high average SWB and the relatively strong community networks in the rural LGAs. The variables for which a negative relationship was observed, such as household income, tend to have higher values in Melbourne and in LGAs close to Melbourne.

When I was growing up in country Victoria the people where I lived used to say that Melbourne might be a nice place to visit, but they wouldn’t want to live there. They were smiling but they weren't joking. People who live in rural area seem to be highly satisfied with their lifestyles. Perhaps an ideal lifestyle can only be obtained by earning a big-city income and living in the country.

A report prepared a few years ago by Bob Cummins et al, looking at SWB by statistical sub-division (SSD) over Australia as a whole, indicates that the SSDs with the highest levels of subjective wellbeing were all rural and those with the lowest subjective wellbeing were all inner-city. The authors noted that subjective wellbeing is generally lower in cities with more than 40,000 inhabitants and that the most important domain driving this is connection to community.