New Bhutan premier's focus is jobs, not 'happiness'

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 August, 2013, 2:26am

Bhutan's pursuit of "Gross National Happiness" (GNH) has brought it global fame as a model of alternative development, but its new prime minister, Tshering Tobgay, believes the doctrine has distracted from tackling the country's problems.

The country's pursuit of "happiness" - effectively economic development that takes into account the environment and people's psychological well-being - was first proposed by Bhutan's former king in the 1970s.

While its promotion by prominent Westerners such as economist Jeffrey Sachs has helped give Bhutan a prominence not normally accorded to such small countries, the model faces increasing criticism at home.

Tobgay, 47, backs the principles and the notion that "economic growth is not the be all and end all of development", but he confesses to finding the complexities of GNH hard to grasp.

"I'm sceptical of how it has been overused by some people and how they have been distracted from the real business at hand," he said over the phone from the capital, Thimphu.

I'm sceptical of how it [GNH] has been overused by some people and how they have been distracted from the real business at hand

In a speech last year, the charismatic former civil servant called it "complicating stuff for me" and "very difficult".

While campaigning for the election, often on foot through remote villages, Tobgay focused on what he sees as "the business at hand" for Bhutan: chronic unemployment, poverty, corruption and a sense that politicians were too remote.

"If the government of the day were to spend a disproportionate amount of time talking about GNH rather than delivering basic services then it is a distraction," Tobgay says.

Some critics have taken to referring to GNH as "Government Needs Help".

"There are four issues that can compound to make matters extremely bleak: our ballooning debt that if we're not careful will not be sustainable; the big rupee shortage; unemployment, in particular youth unemployment; and a perception of growing corruption," Tobgay explains.

In his first interview with a foreign media organisation, Tobgay refused to be drawn on whether greater engagement with China would be part of his foreign policy. Bhutan has no formal diplomatic relations with China, but the first meeting between their then premiers, Jigme Thinley and Wen Jiabao , in June last year rang alarm bells in India, Bhutan's main financial backer.

"China is a reality, China is a neighbour and we cannot ignore that fact. We also have an unresolved border issue with China which needs attention ... but we have to be sensitive to the geopolitical realities of the region," Tobgay said.


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