Home' Technology Review : August 2005 Contents 62 FEATURE STORY
range from 700,000 to about two million people) has become a
rare innovator among developing nations. Rejecting the models of
urbanization and unregulated market development usually pro-
moted by the U.S. gover nment, the king has crafted the frame-
work for a political economy based on a theoretically harmonious
mix of representative government, south-Asian-style capitalism,
traditional religious values, environmentalism, hydropower, tour-
ism, mandated preventative medicine, and universal health care.
Now comes the real test: can Bhutan and the king s enlight-
ened framework withstand the messy business of democracy and
development, and the problems that tend to follow? "With China,
India, and Nepal sitting on its borders," says Stephen Cohen, a se-
nior fellow at the Washington, DC, policy think tank the Brook-
ings Institution who specializes in south-Asia security matters,
"and donor nations in the West constantly pushing new models
upon the developing nations they fund, anything can happen."
But if Bhutan can prove that democracy, social equality,
sustainable development, environmental protection, and limited
technology are compatible with Buddhism and 21st-century
moder nization, it will be an interesting example for other poor
nations who want modern technology and economies---but who
want them on their own terms.
Or as the king explained at a conference in his country last
year, "There must be some convergence among nations on the
idea of what the end objective of development and progress
The Happy Factor
If Bhutan s experiment succeeds or fails, many will credit or
blame the country s very Buddhist (or very eccentric, depending
on whom you ask) notion of "gross national happiness." In the
late 1980s, Bhutan s University of Oxford--educated king fa-
mously asserted that gross national happiness (GNH) was more
important than gross national product (GNP). Among the core
principles of GNH, he said, are good governance and sustainable
economic development, cultural and religious preservation,
eradication of poverty, and environmental protection. More re-
cently, health care and education have been added to the concept.
Even those who like the idea of GNH would admit that it is
half-baked. The Centre for Bhutan Studies, the agency in the capi-
tal city of Thimphu
responsible for the
promotion of GNH
cedes that GNH
can t be measured
it will be someday.
The center is al-
ready trying to cre-
ate a baseline. In
May, Bhutan s rst nationwide census set about trying to nd out
whether people are happier than they were 10 years ago. Conclu-
sions will be published next year.
It s easy to nd GNH quaint. Nevertheless, when I was in
Bhutan earlier this year, everyone I spoke to---from intellectuals to
entrepreneurs to young students in the countryside---said GNH
was a good way of keeping government honest.
In his modest o ce in Thimphu, over a cup of ginger tea with
milk, Prime Minister Lyonpo Yeshey Zimba told me, "Bhutan s
most valuable assets are its culture, religion, language, environ-
ment, and people. In a sense, we re like any small company with
a niche. We must moder nize to survive. But we must do it in a
way that ensures that we are not destroying, in the process, what
makes us unique. GNH was the king s e ort to make sure that
we don t lose ourselves in modernization."
What about more-conventional measurements? There s plenty
to measure in Bhutan: some of it good, some of it less so.
First, the bad. By some estimates, as much as 90 percent of the
population lives at subsistence level. The country has a $598 mil-
lion debt. Nearly two-thirds of Bhutan is still without electricity,
while a quarter are without clean drinking water.
This last fact may be one reason why Bhutan is not a very
healthy place to live. The average life expectancy is 63 years---
much lower than is common in richer countries. There are only a
handful of ambulances. Those lucky enough to make it to a hos-
pital in one of the larger towns, like Thimphu or Phuentsholing,
will nd large, modern-looking facilities. Trouble is, most of the
sta aren t trained in basics like surgery or outpatient care. Diag-
nostics and acute and chronic care are virtually nonexistent.
But then, Bhutan only began modernizing in the 1950s. Previ-
ously, there were no paved roads, most homes were built from
mud and grass, literacy was low, and the death rate was high.
That Bhutan has progressed so far is thus remarkable. The cur-
rent king, who came to the throne in 1974, invested the country s
meager nances in an airport, an east-west road, bridges, na-
tional education, health care, and select energy-producing tech-
nologies like hydropower, which provides almost all the country s
electricity. And it has worked, after a fashion.
According to the Asian Development Bank, Bhutan s GNP in
1985 barely topped $45 million. By 2002, it was more than $590
million. From 1999 to 2003, Bhutan s average GDP grew by 6.72
percent every year. Save for China, none of Bhutan s regional
neighbors---including India---saw more GDP growth during the
If Bhutan is still not a very healthy place to live, it s certainly
better than it was. The number of health facilities in the country
rose from 65 in 1985 to more than 200 today. Infant mortality
rates in 2000 were half of what they were in 1985, while average
life expectancy rose from 48 years to 63 during the same period.
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