During high school, most of my classmates thought I had an obsession with Bhutanese refugees. Indeed, a lot of my time went toward volunteer work for Atlanta’s Bhutanese refugee population. However, I remember the greatest struggle in getting my peers to understand my interest in Bhutan was explaining complexities of Bhutan’s reaction and approach to economic globalization and the ensuing cultural consequences, which I still find fascinating.
Most people who hear about Bhutan’s economic approach are skeptical about the nation’s economy. Indeed, Bhutan’s economy is unique in that it does not use GDP as its prime economic indicator as most countries do. Rather, it measures its economy with “gross national happiness,” an indicator based on the Buddhist-influenced notion that economic and spiritual developments aid each other, leading to the upholding of cultural values, sustainable development, natural conservation, and an effective political system.
Gross national happiness is predictably more of an abstract social indicator of the small nation’s well-being and progress, and depends more upon qualitative data, such as how confident people feel about their nation’s economy. While skeptics are concerned about the abstractness and “subjectivity” of measuring progress and well-being through GNH, I am moreover concerned with the underlying isolationist effect that GNH has had on Bhutan’s economy and how this has affected Bhutan’s culture and minorities.
The pressure to produce positive GNH results has led the Bhutanese government to more or less enforce happiness—that is, the government seems to dictate how people perceive happiness, whether it is through religion, enforcing a traditional dress code or requiring that everyone speak a national language. And as a result, those who do not conform are not meant to be a part of the nation.
Few people realize that the Bhutanese refugees that I worked with in Atlanta were not actually ethnically Bhutanese. They were ethnic Nepalis who had been living in Bhutan for generations before GNH and Bhutan’s five-year planning process began to take effect on minorities who “failed” to comply. Most of these ethnic Nepalis ended up living in refugee camps in Nepal, where they were not given amnesty or citizenship.
What is the real purpose of GNH? Is it so much an approach to economic well-being as it is to a reaction to economic globalization? There is definitely something to be said about the size of Bhutan and the pent up fears that it experienced as the nation watched its other Buddhist nations (such as Sikkim) become absorbed by India or become increasingly westernized. GNH seems to be an economic phenomenon that serves as Bhutan’s firm “No!” to globalization.