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Putting Wellbeing at the Heart of Policy: Lessons from Bhutan and Ecuador

By Roger Higman, NOW Director

Photo on right shared via Gross National Happiness Centre, Bhutan

A commitment to wellbeing is central to the development strategies of both Bhutan and Ecuador, despite their very different cultures and histories, suggested presentations at a New Economics Foundation (NEF), seminar on alternative indicators on Friday 10th June. And a reverence for nature is a feature of both approaches.

Bhutan is famous for the adoption of Gross National Happiness (GNH), as an alternative to measuring societal progress through Gross Domestic Product (GDP). However, the concept has a deeper meaning than the use of the word happiness might imply in English, said Dr. Samdhu Chetri, Director of Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness Centre. He explained that the Bhutanese concept embodies a balance between material and spiritual wellbeing, with an emphasis on harmony with nature and living for a purpose.

Likewise, Professor Sarah Radclffe of Cambridge University said that “buen vivir”, the concept underpinning Ecuador’s new development plans, implies more than the term’s literal English translation - “good living” - might suggest. It is actually, “a form of living that permits happiness and sustainability of cultural and environmental diversity” and entails harmony, equality, equity and solidarity.

Despite the similarities between the alternative approaches in Bhutan and Ecuador, the contexts in which the two policies have emerged couldn’t be more different. In Bhutan’s case, Dr Chetri stressed that GNH comes out of Buddhist tradition. It was proposed by a progressive, reforming monarch and has been implemented, alongside constitutional changes, in a very traditional revolution from above. In Ecuador’s case, Professor Radcliffe noted that, although the idea of “buen vivir” has links with traditional  practices, the reforms have been pursued by a rainbow coalition of trades unionists, womens’ groups, LBGTI activists, as well as indigenous people. They are deemed a revolution but a revolution that remains highly contested with powerful interests in Ecuadorian society opposing them all the way.

What’s clear from both cases, though, is that the designation of other measures of success besides GDP does have an impact on policy. Dr. Chetri recounted how consideration of Gross National Happiness and the indicators that have been established to measure it, was instrumental in persuading the Bhutanese Government not to pursue membership of the World Trade Organisation. Professor Radcliffe demonstrated how the “buen vivir” policy had led to significant investment in education, health, water, electricity and income transfers to the poorest sections of Ecuadorian society.

The impact in the future of both concepts will be closely watched. As Bhutan becomes more connected with the rest of the world, new opportunities arise that could lead to challenges to its Buddhist traditions. In Ecuador, falls in the price of oil have directly cut Government income.  An Embassy official at the event confirmed that the country remains deeply divided.

However policies in both Bhutan and Ecuador offer a ray of hope and perhaps an inspiration for others. Imagine how life might change in the UK if our Government put living well at the heart of its policy. 

Those interested in this area, may also like to read / watch:

What do you think? Should wellbeing be placed more centrally at the heart of policy? Share your ideas and examples in the comments. 

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Comments (2)

  • Simon Bates I am trying to proselytise the Bhutan concept with my green infrastructure Board, but I was disappointed with the information I found on the Gross National Happiness website. In particular, it seemed to have a set of measures that actually scored ownership of TVs, fridges, mobile phones higher than those without! If anyone can share with me something that explains the target I would be delighted.. Wed, June 15, 2016 - 6:28:17
  • vicky bromley I would imagine that is because many homes are without these, as it is a poor country. Measurements of Wellbeing are subjective to the people of the nation being measured. If local people have identified this as important to them then it's included. Why shouldn't this be a measure? If the more wealthy of the nation can afford these already are the poor supposed to go without? One of the main points of measuring wellbeing is to reduce inequality. Thu, October 27, 2016 - 9:25:40

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