Bhutan for Canadians
Quick, what is ‘Bhutan’: 1. an ancient Gaelic word for ‘button’? 2. a new tanning lotion? 3. An emerging constitutional monarchy situated in the Himalayan foothills, famous for inventing ‘Gross National Happiness?
Fortunately for all of us, it’s the last on this otherwise whimsical list.
It is a small country, 132nd on the size charts, but that still makes it bigger than Switzerland or the Netherlands or even Denmark. Its population, at seven hundred thousand, is about that of Bahrain, or twice that of Iceland.
Imbued with Buddhist spirit and Vajrayana Tibetan traditions, Bhutan conveys, to its short-term visitors, a sense of peace, social harmony and the potential of achieving a contemplative life. It can be a Shangri-La for the harried Canadian in search of somewhere, anywhere that can provide escape from Crackberries and the news cycle, and open a window on a more subdued and contemplative life.
Well, yes. There is no denying that Bhutan is all of that. But it is much more. From its Himalayan mists, Bhutan is emerging as a complex mix of tradition, political reform, economic development, outreach beyond its borders, and with a youthful population seeking a modern way of life that can take in Bollywood movies and Desperate Housewives in stride, without losing its balance and self-assurance.
The transition is at warp speed. Bhutan’s Fourth King, Jigme Dorji Wangchuck, came to power in 1972 at 16 on the death of his father. He was, in effect, an absolute monarch, but leading an impoverished country with few roads, virtually no telephones or television, an education system just emerging from the middle ages, and very limited medical facilities. He set out to modernize his kingdom through the active promotion of a modern educational system, infrastructure development, particularly hydro power, and eventually, a constitution and democratic framework that progressively limited his powers. In 2008, a few days after Barack Obama won the election in the US, he formally handed over a constitutional monarchy to his son, the present King, His Majesty Jigme Khesar Nambyel Wangchuck, the Fifth King of Bhutan.
It is safe to say that His Majesty is the only reigning monarch on the planet to have an Honorary Degree from the University of New Brunswick.
In 1963, the Third King invited William Mackey, a Jesuit educator in nearby Darjeeling, India, to establish a modern education system in Bhutan. Mackey, who was born in Montréal and educated in Canada, proceeded to Bhutan and did just that, inviting other Canadians to participate in the endeavor and building the Canadian education connection and brand.
Eventually, CIDA too developed an extensive program for university education in Bhutan, through a program that lasted until 2008. The end result is that the greater part of Bhutan’s leadership today, in politics, government and business, was either taught by Canadians, or had teachers who were. Hundreds of Bhutanese studied in Canada, especially at, you guessed it, the University of New Brunswick, which has played a key role in Bhutanese higher education. Thus, the King’s Honorary Degree.
Although much less numerous than in the past, a number of Canadians are still active in Bhutan. Nancy Strickland, who first came to Bhutan as a WUSC volunteer in the 1980s, is still there today. She runs the Bhutan Canada Foundation which recruits teachers for Bhutan’s schools. Mark Laprairie, another Canadian, is the World Bank representative.
Another Canadian, Ron Colman, may have the most cutting edge job: he is tasked to develop performance criteria for Bhutan’s unique development model, termed Gross National Happiness.
Coined by Bhutan’s Fourth King, ‘Gross National Happiness’ can sound like something that came out of a late night frat party, but it has become a well considered and refined development strategy. Its emphasis is on promoting and measuring the creation of public goods and the quality of life, giving to them equal when not greater importance than the much more straightforward metric of creating private wealth. In practical terms, this means instituting policies that promote and protect human rights, a fair and transparent legal system, the environment, equitable income distribution and so forth. This is not very far from what most Canadians want and what our governments work to advance. But in Bhutan, this stated policy is part of the Constitution.
Ron and a small coterie of officials are developing over 70 criteria against which Bhutan’s progress in the pursuit of these objectives can be measured. All of these have to fall within some definitions of ‘wellness’ and ‘happiness’. This may be where things will get fuzzy. Measuring ‘mental wellness’, ‘social wellness’ or ‘political wellness’ and overall national happiness may turn out to be beyond the capacities of serious social science.
Still, GNH may be an idea whose time has come. There have already been several international conferences on Gross National Happiness. Prime Minister Thinley has been invited to a number of countries to explain the concept and its practical implementation. With the succession of booms and busts that the world economy has experienced over the last 20 years, and with humans pressing against the limits of natural resources, it is becoming hard not to argue that the number of well educated and healthy people in a country is of greater import than the number of billionaires.
Canadians may have been instrumental in paving the way for the birth of modern Bhutan, but this small country with a very big idea may now have something to teach its teacher.