Concept Note

From GNH Philosophy to Praxis and Policy

November 4– 6, 2015 

  1. 1.    Background

International interest on Bhutan and the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH) has seen remarkable growth over the past decades. The Centre for Bhutan Studies and GNH Research (CBS) organized the First International Conference on Gross National Happiness (GNH) in Thimphu in February 2004 wherein more than 82 participants from 18 countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America presented papers. There was a daily attendance of 400 people in the conference. Since then, CBS has organized a series of important and relevant conferences on various aspects of GNH, and has made valuable inputs to advancing GNH as an alternative development paradigm.

The Second International Conference on GNH titled “Re-Thinking Development: Global Pathways to Global Wellbeing” was held in June 2005 in Halifax, Canada. About 500 participants around the globe took part in the conference. Since then, several seminars and symposiums on GNH have been organized at national and regional levels in Europe, East and South-East Asia, and South Asia and produced a number of articles and interviews in journals and media. CBS has been participating in these academic meetings. The Third International Conference titled “Towards Global Transformation – World Views Make a Difference” was organized by CBS in collaboration with 21 – member Thai organizing committee from the government, NGOs, academics, business and civil society in Thailand from November 22 – 28, 2007. 600 people attended the conference. The Fourth International Conference, focusing on “Gross National Happiness: Practice and Measurement”, was held in November 2008 in Thimphu. The conference witnessed attendance by 25 countries. Following from this, the Fifth International Conference, centering on “the Implementation and Practice of GNH” was held in Brazil in 2009. It was jointly coordinated by CBS and Future Vision Ecological Park.

CBS has provided inputs into important global debates on happiness and the need for an alternative development paradigm, including the resolution on happiness put forward by the Royal Government of Bhutan, which was passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 2011. Leading up to this historical submission, CBS collaborated in the organization of high level meetings of the International Expert Working Group in 2012 in New York (Royal Government of Bhutan, 2012) and 2013 in Thimphu (Ura et al., forthcoming), and a report that was submitted by the Royal Government of Bhutan to the UN General Assembly in December 2013 (NDP Steering Committee and Secretariat, 2013). More recently, Professor Joseph Stiglitz, in calling on world leaders to move away from a purely economic concept of gross domestic ­product, echoed this sentiment by referring to Bhutan in a Financial Times op-ed on the Commission for the Measurement of Economic Performance and Social Progress (the Stiglitz-Sen-Fitoussi Commission established by President Sarkozy) (2012a).

 At a time when the world is increasingly debating the shortcomings of GDP, narrowly framed economic-centred development paradigms and is interested in tried and tested alternatives, it is timely that an international conference on GNH brings together eminent scholars to discuss, debate and take stock of the achievements made in the past fifteen years, as well as challenges for the future.

This international conference will be held from 4th to 6th November 2015, in Paro, Bhutan. As Bhutan will be celebrating the 60th Birth Anniversary of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo, the organization of this conference will be a fitting tribute to the progenitor of GNH, the idea of which has now drawn global acceptance in remodeling the current single-minded focus on economic measures of welfare. The origination of the concept and Bhutan’s ownership of this noble idea makes it fitting and important that Bhutan continue to advance this concept. The conference will therefore honour His Majesty the Fourth King and will raise important questions for the future, founded on his original concerns about GDP, as well as take stock of past achievements and present challenges. The conference will especially focus on issues not sufficiently discussed and addressed in the past, especially in relation to His Majesty’s original ground-breaking philosophy and innovative vision.

  1. 2.    Aims

The aim of the conference is to bring together actors and agents of development, including scholars, researchers, leaders, policy makers, practitioners, civil society, intellectuals and academics to explore and examine issues, problems, questions and topics of local, regional, national or international importance for a range of critical development issues, and to exchange ideas and engage in serious dialogues and discussions on the following themes:

I – GDP-centred approaches to development

  • Shortcomings
  • Theoretical inadequacies
  • Critiques of GDP and capital-centric approaches to development
  • Inability to address widening inequalities
  • Development without values

II – Alternative approaches to development

  • Importance and need for alternative development approaches;
  • Alternative approaches to development and their practical application;
  • Shift in focus towards non-economic side of development;
    • The philosophy and conceptual framework of GNH in a modern context
    • Other indices of progress (HDI, SDGs, GPI, etc.)
    • How GNH, wellbeing and quality of life issues in development have evolved, been disseminated, reinterpreted and influenced social processes;

III – Measuring wellbeing

  • Measurement of true societal progress and the need for new/alternative indicators to track progress and change;
  • Progress and achievements in measuring GNH (Index)
  • Under-researched domains of GNH (time use, psychological wellbeing, community vitality)
  • Under-researched cross-cutting issues (indigenous peoples, pastoralists, gender issues, etc.)
  • Environment, development, and sustainability;

IV – GNH policy and practice

  • The ways that GNH can influence and translate into policy-making
  • Avenues for translating GNH into the practice of development
  • Increasing general knowledge and awareness raising

V – Challenges for GNH

  • Challenges for GNH in a GDP world (what has worked and what has not worked?)
  • Disjunctures between theory and practice/policies
  • GNH in a rapidly changing Bhutanese and global context
  • Integrating qualitative methodologies
  • Gaps in research and knowledge
  • How can GNH address growing inequalities, populations, food security, and geopolitical change?
  1. 3.    Objectives

Inspired by the vision of His Majesty the Fourth Druk Gyalpo and growing interests and initiatives all over the world in exploring similar paths to development, the international conferences on GNH have been focusing on:

  • Providing a continuous and creative platform to discuss, debate and innovate concepts and policies concerning human wellbeing, societal progress and happiness;
  • Encouraging innovative research collaborations and best practice models to design framework for operationalization of GNH; and
  • Providing creative platform for cross-cultural exchanges to revitalize indigenous cultures.

In this spirit, this international conference will build on previous achievements and focus on:

General objective

  • Share knowledge on alternative framings of development with a focus on GNH achievements, and shortcomings of GDP-focussed approaches.

Specific objectives

  • Share research findings and indicators/frameworks/approaches/methodologies that measure happiness, wellbeing and sustainability;
  • Take stock of the state of the art in terms of development alternatives with a focus on GNH, and guide strategic orientation for future research and practice;
  • Encourage and emphasize the application and linkages of such indicators to guide policy and decision-making; and
  • Review challenges for the implementation of GNH in terms of policy and practice.
  1. 4.    Rationale

GDP fails to measure wellbeing. It takes into account the monetary value of consumption but ignores something that is conserved and not consumed. It does not take into important realities which it treats as “externalities”. It considers quantitative productions of goods and services but remains neutral to the aspect of qualitative productions. It values paid time and ignores free time and unpaid work and it is blind to inequity, whatsoever. It values productive aspects of the environment, and not its intrinsic value. Nor does it take into account psychological wellbeing or the importance of meaningful social relations. Hence, the shortcomings of this narrowly defined measure are extensive and miss out on important elements of life, happiness and wellbeing.

GNH as an alternative pathway to development embodies holistic approach to development that GDP ignores. Therefore, many countries now increasingly give due reorganization to the importance of wellbeing and happiness, and hence, several studies have been carried out on those subjects to reorient public policy and government spending (add references).

Bhutan realizes that GNH, grown and nurtured only in Bhutan, will be difficult to survive if there is no cross fertilization of innovative ideas from all countries and cultures, or if there is limited access of scholarship and sharing of ideas. Already, countries such as Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Japan, etc. have expressed keen interest in learning from the experiences of Bhutan. Hence, it is imperative to promote international research and analysis on GNH through international conferences, research collaborations and publications. It is also important to bring together leading intellectuals and decision-makers to take stock of achievements as well as fine-tune concepts, methodologies and strategize for the next decade.

Happiness is what individuals seek. If so, public policy should be oriented towards enhancing human happiness and reducing human misery. In that case, unlike libertarian concept, happiness is and must be a public good. The government’s progress, therefore, must be evaluated in terms of achieving collective happiness. Developing GNH indicators, policy guidelines and reviewing challenges would enable Bhutan to track its development progress within the framework of GNH.

  1. 5.    Format of the Conference

The detailed format of the conference will be worked on at a later date but based on the experiences of the previous conferences the format has usually been arranged into  panel and parallel sessions. It is envisioned that the following format will be engaged:

  • Opening ceremony
  • Welcome address
  • Keynote speakers
  • Panels according to five themes
  • Summary remarks
  • Closing ceremony
  1. 6.    Outputs

Outputs of the conference will include:

  • Conference declaration on the shortcomings of GDP and the importance of GNH
    • Conference proceedings published as a book
    • Conference papers published in Journal of Bhutan Studies
    • Conference papers/presentations delivered at conference and shared on conference website
    • Policy briefs
  1. 7.    Outcomes
  • Sharing of achievements and strategies for research, policy-making, practice and implementation of GNH
  • Critical stock-taking of the concept, measurement and methodology of the GNH index, including best practices and challenges
  • Better understanding and sharing of achievements and challenges of GNH
  • Formulation and charting of new agendas and innovative strategies for GNH research, policies and practice
  • Strengthened frameworks for integrating GNH into policy and decision-making
  • Strengthening networks on GNH, wellbeing and happiness
  • Key messages, recommendations and innovations
  • Celebration of His Majesty’s 60th birthday and honouring of the visionary philosophy of GNH.