GNH – lost in translation?

The title has two meanings. First, that my reporting will be distorted by my spotty capacity to absorb and understand a massive download of information plus all the background interpretive conversations. Second, that there is a rumble about the Western translation of the distinctly Bhutanese initiative.

Gross National Happiness in Bhutan is a sustained government effort to create operational indicators of well-being for the people of Bhutan so they can create, evaluate and adjust programs to maximize the well being of the community. It has been expressed as an alternative to GDP, but it~s more of an expansion. In addition to economic vitality, GNH includes psychological well being, environmental integrity, cultural integrity, rest and refreshment and several more dimensions. Together they offer the government a picture of their people as the Western influences come to the country. These dimensions are not just distinct elements in a standard top down corporate charge. Each element relates to all others so GNH creates a ´field´ of data, not a liner sequence of data. It is very ambitious. The domains are tested in a 60 question survey administered to people in cities and the rural areas and taking many hours to complete. The data analysis is also problematic from a Western statistician point of view – massaged rather than purely read.

The most evocative evidence of GNH starting to influence policy is that a group of 24 officials were asked to decide whether Bhutan should join the WTO. On the surface it seemed beneficial since it would mean rapid economic development, a condition most believe is essential. The vote was 19 to 5 in favor. Then the group was asked to evaluate the choice using the 9 domains of GNH. It was clear that the social and psychogical cost of that choice would be significant. They revoted and the result was the reverse 19 against, 5 in favor.

This is very`Your Money or Your Life´. Initial attraction to all that money can buy, no matter the need or cost. Then evaluation in terms of lasting enjoyment and personal purpose and values. Aha! many choices fall away once non material criteria are applied to personal choice.

What makes GNH difficult to translate however is the cultural context.

1. They have a King who, even though he ceded power to a democratic government is still a single leader, not only a political leader but spiritual as well. This gives coherence to the nation. We do not have a King. Clearly. We have a somewhat dubious process called majority rule of creating policy coherence. How do we create something called general happiness for such a rowdy bunch.

2. They have a shared values matrix called Buddhist. A priori they have a reference point for policy choices – even for creating the 9 domains of evaluation that make up GNH. Some in the US would say we are a Christian country and our policies must reflect Christian values. But many are not of that faith. So the only other shared values matrix is freedom of a particular sort. Freedom of the individual to pursue individual good and gain. How can we have something like GNH in that condition. It sounds to our mind like ´shop til you drop.´

3. GNH itself is designed for the collective good. The good of all. But not of all individuals. Of the people. Of the whole cosmological and cultural self. How can we have GNH when we don´t have a cultural ´gross´ – a sense of the importance of collective well being. We are too individualistic to even think this way.

4. Bhutan along with Ecuador are the only two countries thus far that have given rights to nature. Not rights to people to enjoy and utilize nature but the rights of seas and watersheds to their own integrity. People can sue on behalf of a watershed or a forest, speaking for the life that have no words but an eloquent language. How can we have GNH when humans appropriate all the rights, ignoring that we are embedded in nature?

5. All this adds up to a shared understanding of happiness – but in the West this term often means delight or luck or passing joy. We need to understand happiness in this more mature collective lasting satisfaction sense to make any progress.

Yet there are efforts to do this translation. I will cover this more later. A project close to my home – on Vancouver island in bc – headed up by Mike Pennock is trying to replicate GNH. He worked in Bhutan for many months to understand GNH and then encourage them to share their ideas and methodology with the world. He shortened their questionaire. and started a community values clarification and policy generation project.

This reminds me of the Indicators of Sustainability I helped create in Seattle in the 1990´s – a community values, systems thinking and policy influence project.

It also reminds me of my current work with Transition Whidbey where we are attemping, as part of a larger relocalization movement, to understand the material and spiritual resilience and self reliance of our Island and develop a shared plan for an energy constrained but joyful future.

There is foment here as well. Critique of WEstern appropriation of a cultural ideal, colonialism all over again. Critique of the process in Bhutan being top down. Critique of their analysis that rural life is more GNH than urban – yet having to develop rapidly towards economic vitality or die.

I will keep trying to understand this and share my insights. For now I hope this is a tasty morsel. Off to another overwhelming and confusing morning.


One thought on “GNH – lost in translation?

  1. I appreciate your every word and perspective. Collective well-being is a topic we Westerners have a lot to learn about.
    Thanks and love,

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