Time for a new course

Bhutan should take bold decisions and forge a brave new path

In an article for 9DASHLINE titled “Struggling brand ‘Bhutan’”, Dr (PHD) Lhawang Ugyel, an academic with the School of Business at UNSW Canberra in Australia underlines Bhutan’s challenges, transformation and the way forward. On the economic front, he states that though some measures have been taken towards encouraging international remittances, there is still scope to capitalize on opportunities for “brain gain” and attracting investments from Bhutan’s migrant population. Meanwhile, Bhutanese who have read the article agree with Dr. Lhawang, and most say economy should be the focus and that Bhutan cannot afford to be left behind. Others say that pursuing development entails making choices and that the country should also be ready to make trade-offs, if required. 

Apart from other important observations, Dr. Lhawang’s article underlines that how Bhutan considers moving forward is important. The article says “there now appears to be a shift in the thinking of Bhutan’s development philosophy,” and quotes Bhutan’s Prime Minister who has admitted that recent trends have put the country’s GNH philosophy into question. Emphasizing that choices made will have consequences both domestically and globally, the article spells that for Bhutan, it might mean having to give up the ‘happiness’ and ‘net-carbon negative country’ brand, painstakingly built over the last few decades. “For the rest of the world, this would mean losing an exemplar that shows that there is an alternate pathway to development.”

Commenting on the above, Dorji Phuntsho, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the Royal Security Exchange of Bhutan Limited (RSEBL), expressed that the ultimate aim of any development philosophy is the holistic betterment of society. He emphasized that the central essence in attaining this comprehensive state of wellbeing and contentment is rooted in economic development.

He further referenced the notion put forth by Dr. Lhawang that the pursuit of development necessitates making choices, ones that may call for courageous trade-offs. Dorji underscored the significance of embracing these choices as an essential aspect of progress.

He also emphasized that, on an individual level, achieving financial wellbeing holds a significant place within the broader tapestry of overall welfare. He likened this individual financial stability to the larger ambition of economic wellbeing, which he equated with the quest for happiness. He asserted that while the ultimate objective remains consistent, what is required is a shift in perspective and approach to realize that objective.

“My commentary elucidates the core principle that development philosophies are fundamentally oriented towards enhancing societal wellbeing,” he said, and underlined the pivotal role of economic development in achieving the overarching goal, while stressing on the importance of making thoughtful choices, “even if they involve challenging trade-offs.” Dorji also drew parallels between individual financial wellbeing and the collective pursuit of economic prosperity, asserting that a change in approach can lead to the realization of the same ultimate aspiration.

The article further outlines that perhaps it is time for the world to step up and convince Bhutan that its values are worth standing up for by investing in a sustainable economy premised around the well-being of its individuals. Further, the article underlines that Bhutan, best known for introducing its policy of Gross National Happiness (GNH) to the world, “stands at a crossroad.”

Commenting on this, Tandin Wangchuk, a young entrepreneur said “it is true.” The values Bhutan has are concrete and abstract, and the former has not been optimally harnessed,” he said, adding the fusion of the two will aid Bhutan in her economic journey. “Tourists visit Bhutan because of our culture and the people. These abstract aspects add value and it will do so in Bhutan’s economic ventures,” he said. Though Bhutan has now ventured on digital asset mining, he said other alternatives should be explored. “To be frank, as the country which propounded GNH, we had to abide by its principles. But there is a time for everything and GNH became popular as it came on the global stage when the world was looking for an answer.” He said that today, economy has become very important. “This is the reason why we need to interpret GNH flexibly. And for how long do we remain as The Last Shangrila and what use would it be if our economy plummets?”    

Rinchen Dorji, a practicing journalist said Dr. Lhawang’s statement on conservation is “spot-on”. The article says that Bhutan’s conservation efforts come at a huge economic opportunity cost for the country and that it is doubtful how much of a difference Bhutan’s individual efforts to mitigate carbon emissions will make to diminishing global climate change. Speaking about it, Rinchen says that no matter what, Bhutan will always have more than 65 percent of its area under forest cover. “Our contribution as a Carbon Sink, even if minimal will remain. Thus, other natural resources should be harnessed.”  

Touching on the massive number of Bhutanese who have migrated to Australia, the article says people are leaving the country in search of better economic opportunities.” Commenting on this, Sangay Dorji, a senior corporate employee said, economic opportunities means “money.” “Though people cite different reasons like unemployment, job satisfaction, low salary, ‘bad boses,’ and others as reasons for migrating, everything boils down to economic opportunities or money.”

According to the article, from July 2022 to March 2023, 10,755 Bhutanese got their visas to Australia. It also reports that as per the census conducted in Australia in 2021, 12,004 people reported being born in Bhutan. Almost 66 per cent of these people were between the ages of 25 to 44 years and more than 40 per cent of them had a qualification of a bachelor’s degree level or higher. “Such skilled and qualified migrants of a productive age cohort are very attractive to recipient countries such as Australia but come at a great loss for Bhutan,” the article says.

Sangay further added that Dr. Lhawang’s information about those unhappy coming from the poorer sections of society further validates the importance of money and economic opportunities. “Yes! Money cannot buy happiness. But it can create the conditions for happiness,” he said. The article reports that though the latest GNH Index shows that the Bhutanese have become “happier,” there are some tension between the ‘happiness’ and ‘income’ relationship. “Although the report claims that income is “not highly correlated” with GNH, results show that the group of poorest people (i.e., the bottom 20 per cent of the income quintile) also had the largest proportion of unhappy respondents, while the group of richest people (i.e., the top 20 per cent of the income quintile) had the highest share of happy respondents,” Dr Lhawang’s article says.

Meanwhile, in an interview over telephone, Dr. Lhawang emphasized on the creation of opportunities that are appropriate to the skills and qualifications of Bhutanese. “As these levels have increased, so must the jobs,” he said, highlighting that specialized jobs, especially in the service industry should be the focus.

On “brain gain”, he cited nursing, a profession demanded all over the world as an example. “If there are more institutes of the kind churning out about 100 nurses annually, everyone will not migrate. At least, 40 will remain in Bhutan, who can then work in wellness institutes or hospitals,” he said. “Additionally, skills should be developed taking into context plans that are in the pipeline.”

When asked about creating opportunities for Bhutanese in Australia to invest in Bhutan, he said that Bhutanese are venturing into small businesses. “They are looking for opportunities in Bhutan and one area could be promoting Bhutanese products for export to Australia    

“Struggling brand ‘Bhutan’,” also mentions Bhutan’s reforms such as the transformation exercise, the revised Tourism Policy, Bhutan’s foray into crypto-currency and others.

Ugyen Tenzin from Thimphu