Photo: Gizmodo

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Gross national happiness

As world leaders come away from the UN in New York following this week's MDG summit and opening of the General Assembly, is anything likely to change for the people whose lives the MDGs are intended to improve? Let's be honest, given that the community of nations pledged 10 years ago to, "spare no effort to free our fellow men, women and children from the abject and dehumanizing conditions of extreme poverty," they were hardly likely to shrug their shoulders and back away from such promises. But are we any closer now to delivery on these promises?

What positives can we take away from the summit to reassure people across the world whose lives have gone unchanged, or become more difficult, since 2000? Aside the usual rhetoric of "must do better", there were some departures from the standard script. Presidents Sarkozy and Zapatero spoke passionately about the need to introduce a tax on international financial transactions to fund progress towards the MDGs. But with the continued lukewarm response from the US in particular, this is unlikely to see the light of day any time soon. The Swiss government's representative focussed on the need for a human rights approach to achieving the MDGs, a tool woefully absent from the framework to date. And there is finally some mention in the summit's outcome document of the need to respect, protect and promote human rights in order to reach the Goals. But no mention of how this will be fulfuilled.

My highlight though was the speech from the Prime Minister of Bhutan. He called on the voluntary adoption of a ninth MDG: happiness. Bhutan has long rejected mainstream development paradigms, opting to meaure its country's progress not by improvements in Gross National Product, but Growth National Happiness. Interestingly, the Bhutanese rightly point out that the MDG framework does nothing to tackle poverty and inequality in the developed world. Goals towards achieving happiness, they point out, would be equally relevant and valuable for the global north.

Below you can view the Bhutan Prime Minister's address. This concept is not to be dismissed out of hand. The wonders of economic growth, even before the crisis, have been unable to eradicate poverty and achieve full enjoyment of all human rights for all. Despite the laughter in the General Assembly from some quarters that accompanied Bhutan's idea, there is surely something to gain from taking a closer look at Gross National Happiness.


  1. Funny or not, what I found the highlight of the MDG summit was also this speech. Even though Bhutan still seems to need a lot of work in both human rights, certain freedoms and other areas, I think the whole idea behind GNH is spectacular, and I'd love it if more people take it seriously. My favourite quote out of the whole speech: "Must we continue to believe that human life is to be spent labouring for higher income, so as to be able to consume more at the cost of relationships, peace and ecological stability?".

  2. Thanks for the comment. There's certainly something to be explored in Bhutan's quest for a balanced and sustainable approach to development (although as you point out, Bhutan certainly has its shortcomings regarding its treatment of people of Nepalese and Tibetan origin).

  3. There are a lot of countries nowadays that prioritize people's happiness by providing them what they really need. They should not always think of GDP or other economic aspects. After all, these can be solved if people live happily. This is what Bhutan has been doing over the years.