Home' Technology Review : August 2005 Contents 63
The country has seen a remarkable growth in general educa-
tion. The literacy rate is almost 50 percent, whereas in the early
1990s it ranked the lowest among the least-developed countries.
More than 90 percent of Bhutanese children now reach at least the
fth grade. The country s rst university opened its doors in 2003.
Technology use has increased, too: according to World Bank
gures, from 1999 to 2003 the number of xed-line
and mobile-phone subscribers jumped from 18 to 45
per 1,000 people; personal-computer ownership
nearly tripled from 5 to 14 per 1,000 people. In 1999,
the country introduced its rst commercial Internet
service provider, DrukNet, and its rst television
broadcasts, through the Bhutan Broadcasting Ser-
vice (BBS). For roughly $60 a year, a Bhutanese
home can have both. This is, of course, a lot of money
in Bhutan. According to DrukNet, neither it nor the
BBS has a large subscriber base, as yet, because two-
thirds of the households in Bhutan don t have elec-
tricity. But DrukNet claims there are already a
combined 120,000 subscribers.
Bhutan has gone from being o -limits to tourists to being the
most coveted destination for well-heeled adventurers---in part be-
cause travel visas are rationed, giving travelers the sense they are
seeing something very special. They are, especially if they are for-
tunate enough to stay at the ve-star Como Uma Paro or the
Amankora, or the soon-to-open Yangphel Hotel.
But even as it modernizes, Bhutan has also strengthened or
enacted laws designed to control pollution, mining, and logging.
Almost 70 percent of the country s forests are protected. New
laws ban smoking, gambling, and prostitution; anticorruption
and constr uction codes have also been enacted.
The Challenge Ahead
In its e orts to promote its citizens happiness, the Bhutan gov-
ernment remains preoccupied with health care. Health care in
Bhutan is free; but health-care costs are rising, says Gado Tsher-
ing, director of Bhutan s health department. Tshering wants to
invest in a magnetic-resonance imaging station that would let
doctors diagnose disease earlier and with greater con dence.
"Capturing disease faster would save us a lot of money," he
says. When a patient s illness exceeds Bhutan s medical capabili-
ties---which happens often, since most of the country s health-care
facilities are focused on treating pain, broken limbs, and gastroin-
testinal-tract illnesses---the government pays to have the patient
sent to Calcutta or Bangkok. This is expensive and unsustainable.
"Eventually, probably sooner than later, we will need a lot
more money, because the nature of disease in Bhutan is chang-
ing," Tshering says. "We re seeing more obesity, pain, depres-
sion, and hypertension." These are expensive diseases to treat,
especially when not caught until late stages. Left unchecked,
health-care expenses will impinge on development plans.
George Martin suspects that Bhutan s king and his GNH
framework will be studied for years to come. Recently retired
from a career at the National Institutes of Health, Martin traveled
to Bhutan last year as part of a delegation to assess the country s
progress in public health. "Health care is still a str uggle because
of things like geography, nances, training, and sanitation," he
told me recently. "But they get
that the name of the game is
Can a poor nation like Bhutan
achieve limited moderniza-
tion, adopting only the media,
the particular technologies,
and the developmental poli-
cies that t into its odd concept
of GNH? Will Bhutan keep its
forests o -limits to loggers?
Will it continue to put a cap on the number of tourists who visit
the country? Can it a ord to invest more than a third of its bud-
get in health and education?
So long as Bhutan declines foreign investment that goes
against its environmental policies or infringes upon its sover-
eignty, it can do all of these things. Whether it should is some-
thing the Bhutanese themselves must decide.
One can easily imagine an economic liberal arguing that once
they are no longer r uled by the king s whims, the Bhutanese may
prefer a more conventional kind of development to their pictur-
esque poverty. The Bhutanese might want more a uence and
economic choice for themselves and their families. The eco-
nomic liberal would insist that it is Westerners who are most be-
witched by the idea of Bhutan as an untouched paradise.
The country tends to evoke strong sentiments in visitors. It
bewitched me. And I am not alone. Long-time Time essayist and
travel writer Pico Iyer has seen more of the world than most. He
calls Bhutan the last Shangri-la. In a picture book about Bhutan
commissioned by the Amankora hotel, Iyer writes, "We aspire,
many of us, to step out of the accelerated rush of our wired planet,
and into somewhere pristine; and we nd more and more, that
it s nearly impossible....In Bhutan...the King has outlined a no-
tion of gross national happiness to stand for a di erent kind of
wealth and shelter."
Maybe the Bhutanese think that Shangri-la is worth preser v-
ing. During my visit to Bhutan, I felt that most Bhutanese share
the king s aspirations. Iyer saw what I did: "The whole kingdom
has made a sustained and conscious e ort to hold on to what is
precious in its past while trying to bring its people into the com-
fort and safety of the future." ■
Stephan Herrera is a contributing editor to Technology Review.
"The whole kingdom
has made a
to hold on to what
is precious in its
past while trying
to bring its people
into the future."
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