Bhutan and New Zealand: Leading the way on wellbeing

New Zealand made international news recently with its plan to introduce a “wellbeing budget.” Based on the notion that people’s wellbeing rests on much more than just economic growth, New Zealand’s new budget will frame public spending around addressing mental health challenges, reducing child poverty and family violence, transitioning to a low-emissions economy, expanding the opportunities for indigenous peoples, and supporting a thriving nation in the digital age. According to Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister, “We're embedding that notion of making decisions that aren't just about growth for growth's sake, but how are our people faring?”


“We're embedding that notion of making decisions that aren't just about growth for growth's sake, but how are our people faring?”
- Jacinda Ardern, New Zealand’s Prime Minister

New Zealand’s budget represents an important step in implementing a government planning tool centred on people’s wellbeing. For Bhutan watchers, it’s also rather familiar. While New Zealand’s budget initiative received well deserved international fanfare, over the past 10 years Bhutan has been quietly developing and using its own series of policy instruments that put wellbeing at the forefront of public policy and planning. Bhutan’s national development approach, known as Gross National Happiness (GNH), incorporates multiple social, cultural, ecological, economic and governance dimensions of wellbeing. The GNH framework includes a number of policy tools as well. Perhaps most well-known is the Gross National Happiness Index (GNHI). The GNHI measures policy outcomes not just in terms of their contribution to GDP and economic growth, but how they impact nine wellbeing ‘domains’ of GNH. These domains range from people’s psychological wellbeing to cultural resilience to time use. The result: a measurement tool that provides a much broader and deeper understanding of people’s happiness and wellbeing, and the policies that help promote or hinder them.

GNH progress wheel at Lobesa Lower Secondary School, in Punakha

The GNHI might be the most well-known wellbeing policy instrument in Bhutan, but the country has developed several other unique policy tools as well. For example, the GNH policy screening tool represents an interesting experiment that requires a proposed policy to be successfully assessed against the nine wellbeing domains of GNH before it can be introduced to parliament. What does that mean? Suppose the government of Bhutan wanted to introduce a policy on mining. The GNH screening tool would assess the mining policy for its potential economic effects. It would also move much further. The screening tool would require answers to questions such as how will the proposed mining policy affect local culture? What will be its impact on the ability of people to spend time with their families? Will the policy have negative ecological effects? Will it increase levels of stress in the population? What impacts will it have on people’s ability to spend time in spiritual pursuits? If a proposed policy leads to negative consequences on these kinds of issues, it cannot proceed to parliament for a vote. Ultimately, the screening tool ensures that policies consider the full range of human wellbeing beyond economics and in areas one might not immediately associate with the specific policy.

Bhutan’s most recent tool extends its GNH focus beyond government policy and into the private sector. While still a proposal that has not yet been implemented, the GNH of Business tool represents an exciting advance in bringing wellbeing into the private sector. Similar to the GNH policy screening tool, the GNH of Business tool will enable businesses to evaluate their operations against the nine wellbeing domains of GNH. Doing so will move Bhutan’s business model beyond the corporate world’s common overemphasis on shareholder value and profit to better incorporate ecological, cultural and community concerns.

Ultimately, countries like Bhutan and New Zealand are demonstrating to the world that there is a better, more sustainable way to approach both public policy and the business world. New Zealand’s wellbeing budget and Bhutan’s GNH-based suite of wellbeing policy tools illustrate that it is possible for meaningful action on people’s wellbeing to occur on a national level.

Digital media and Gross National Happiness: Where to from here?

Photo credit: Cameron Brown

March 20 is the International Day of Happiness. It is also the day that the annual World Happiness Report is released. The Report, edited by renowned academics John Helliwell, Richard Layard and Jeffrey Sachs, ranks the world’s countries by the level of subjective happiness among their citizens (the 2019 Report can be accessed here). This year’s Report also analyzes the ways in which interactions within communities are changing, and the implications of this change for happiness. Central to the Report’s analysis is an exploration of the influence of digital media use on happiness.

“An ICT-enabled, knowledge-based society as a foundation for Gross National Happiness” E-Government Master Plan, 2014

The evolution of the role of information and communications technology (ICT) in Bhutan, and digital media in particular, is an interesting one. It is best viewed through the lens of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Gross National Happiness was initiated by Bhutan’s fourth King several decades ago and is the country’s national development strategy. It is a strategy that recognizes there is more to people’s wellbeing than simply increasing wealth. It articulates an understanding of development that incorporates cultural, environmental, socio-economic and governance pillars. As such, GNH is an attempt to construct development in a holistic manner that addresses the multiple dimensions of being human.

The nature of GNH, and its pillar focused on protecting Bhutan’s traditional culture in particular, meant that technology that brought global influences into the country was initially not allowed. Only in 1999 did the government allow the introduction of television and, soon after, the internet. Technological evolution, however, ultimately led to a shift in focus. Digital technology’s growing reach and pervasiveness represented an opportunity to pursue Gross National Happiness more effectively. Effective use of digital technology can enhance education, increase knowledge within a democratic citizenry, improve access to social services and generally expand opportunities, all components of GNH. By 2014, the Bhutanese government’s E-Government Master Plan recognized ICT as the key to GNH, outlining the country’s technological vision as “An ICT-enabled, knowledge-based society as a foundation for Gross National Happiness.” Bhutan’s embrace of ICT and digital technology has since been significant. According to the World Bank, mobile phone use in Bhutan has grown from 0.4% in 2003 to 87% in 2015. Internet use also grew from 0.1% to 40% between 1999 and 2015, with all of Bhutan’s districts now connected through fiber optic cable. Bhutan is rapidly becoming a digital society.

Photo credit: Cameron Brown

Back to the 2019 World Happiness Report: What has this increasing Bhutanese embrace of digital technology meant in practice for a society pursuing Gross National Happiness? There are some very positive impacts. For example, a Government to Citizen Services (G2C) online initiative has contributed to good governance, one of the pillars of GNH, through more effective and transparent government services. The expansion of digital media, however, raises some concerns for a GNH society. The World Happiness Report analyzes the impact of digital screen time – social media, gaming and internet surfing – on American youth. The findings, while perhaps not surprising, are notable. The amount of screen time has increased dramatically among American youth since 2012. Face-to-face interactions, religious or spiritual practices and sleeping time, in contrast, have decreased. This change has implications for happiness. According to the Report: “In short, adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on most other activities are happier” (p. 92).

“Adolescents who spend more time on electronic devices are less happy, and adolescents who spend more time on most other activities are happier” World Happiness Report

The average screen time in Bhutan may not yet be the same as in the USA, but the rapid expansion of digital media, and the increasing use by Bhutanese of social media in particular, may contribute to a future situation similar to the one outlined in the World Happiness Report. As anonymous screen time increases, so too may less respectful interactions among people and growing unhappiness, all further paralleled by a decrease in those factors the Report outlines as increasing happiness: time spent in face-to-face interactions, spiritual or religious practices, and adequate sleeping. Significantly, each of these happiness factors from the Report are also key indicators in how Bhutan actually measures GNH (see here for more information on the GNH Index).

This concern is nothing new for the Bhutanese public. There are already significant concerns within the country on social media’s potentially corrosive effects on people’s increasingly anonymous interactions and subsequent unhappiness (for some examples, see here, here, here and here). The findings of the 2019 World Happiness Report therefore suggest Bhutan needs to remain vigilant in how it harnesses the clear benefits of digital media while proactively addressing the potentially negative influence on happiness. Fostering respectful digital media literacy will be critical for a successful GNH society.

International Women’s Day 2019: CSOs for gender equality and women’s rights

Photo credit: Andrea Williams

March 8 is International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate the achievements of women and acknowledge the ongoing challenges to reach gender equality. The celebration of International Women’s Day also brings attention to the work of civil society organizations who play a fundamental role in supporting women’s rights. Below is a brief glimpse at three unique Bhutanese CSOs that focus on women’s empowerment and use educational programs to achieve their objectives.

RENEW (Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women)1 was founded in 2004 by Her Majesty the Queen Mother Sangay Choden Wangchuck to empower survivors of domestic violence as well as sexual and gender based violence. Their services include counselling, legal aid, shelter, emergency medical aid, educational scholarships, and capacity building for entrepreneurs. RENEW has worked in schools and youth to increase consciousness and build dialogues on gender based violence, gender equality, and sexual and reproductive health and rights.

Established in 2012, Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BNEW)2 promotes and facilitates the leadership of women, particularly in community and local government. BENEW aims to achieve gender equality in Bhutan by providing a networking platform for women, building leadership capabilities, and advocating to transform societal mindsets and attitudes. Recently BNEW ran a series of educational workshops for journalists to promote gender sensitive reporting and encourage female perspectives that challenge gender stereotypes.

Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAWE)3 supports the needs and aspirations of women entrepreneurs and uses a GNH perspective to achieve female economic empowerment. Established in 2010, BAWE’s programs include BAOWE-Pelzing: Microfinance Institute, capacity building for rural and urban women, and networking opportunities with both regional and international entrepreneurs. In 2018, BAWE organized training sessions for farmers to strengthen their economic opportunities.

Visit RENEW, BNEW, and BAWE to learn more about how they promote gender equality and women’s rights in Bhutan.

1 Respect, Educate, Nurture and Empower Women (RENEW). 2019, http://renew.org.bt/.

2 Bhutan Network for Empowering Women (BENEW). 2019, https://bnew.bt/.

3 Bhutan Association of Women Entrepreneurs (BAWE). 2017, http://www.baowe.org/.

Happy International Development Week! Celebrating Canada’s history of partnering with Bhutan

Canadians are celebrating International Development Week (IDW) across the country from February 3-9, 2019. The week recognizes the work of Canada and its partners in the Global South as they strive to improve wellbeing and reduce poverty. IDW has been held in Canada every first week of February since 1991.

The week marks a good time to reflect on Canada’s role in working together with Bhutan to promote education and wellbeing in the country. Going all the way back to the early 1960s, Canadian Jesuit Father William Mackey established the first secular school in the east of Bhutan. Since then, Canadian organizations like WUSC, the University of New Brunswick, Humber College and the Bhutan Canada Foundation have continued the tradition of supporting Bhutan’s education efforts.

This year’s IDW theme is “Together for gender equality.” Bhutan’s education system has made significant strides in providing both girls and boys with equal access to education. Recent statistics from the Ministry of Education1 show that girls now have a slightly higher net school enrollment rate (93%) than boys (92%) as they represent 51% of total enrollment up to class XII. Yet gender challenges remain. Women still lag behind men, for example, in adult literacy rates at 57% to 75%. Girls also underperform when compared to boys in areas such as math. As Bhutan moves forward to address these kinds of challenges, Canada will continue its history of working with Bhutanese partners to strengthen the education sector and build networks between Bhutanese and Canadian education institutions. International Development Week is a good time to both celebrate the history of Canadian- Bhutanese collaboration in education and look toward to the future.

For more information on IDW, please visit the Global Affairs Canada website here. And don’t forget to check out and tweet #IDW2019

1 Ministry of Education (MoE). (2018). Annual Education Statistics 2018. Thimphu: MoE. http://www.education.gov.bt/wp-content/uploads/2018/10/Annual-Education-Statistics-Book-2018.pdf

Bringing Bhutanese research to life: The International Society for Bhutan Studies inaugural conference

The International Society for Bhutan Studies (ISBS) held its inaugural conference in January 2019 at Magdalen College, Oxford University. Attended by Dr. Kent Schroeder, Executive Director of the Bhutan Canada Foundation, the conference brought together a diverse range of researchers and scholars from around the world. Presentations focused on all things Bhutan: education, Buddhism, linguistics, culture, the environment, anthropology and Gross National Happiness.

Photo copyright: ISBS

A keynote address delivered by the former prime minister of Bhutan, His Excellency Dasho Tshering Tobgay, highlighted the conference. The address asked “Does Bhutan matter?” and explored the progress and challenges the country has experienced since democratization. The keynote address can be viewed online here.

The intent of ISBS is to strengthen existing areas of research on Bhutan and inspire exploration of new ones. The Bhutan Canada Foundation hopes to continue to engage with ISBS, particularly around how to better link scholarly research to practical and policy concerns in Bhutan. The inaugural conference was organized by ISBS in partnership with the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, the Samuel Centre of Social Connectedness, the Bhutan Society of the United Kingdom, Magdalen College and the University of Oxford.

Student Story: Bhutanese Students Write Their First Book

This September, the students at Jakar Higher Secondary School in central Bhutan wrote their first book. It was a collection of stories and poems called We Are Bhutan

Book Launch Party: Students are signing books and celebrating with pizza

The book was first published on Amazon, where it currently ranks as the #43 best-selling book in its category. Students used these profits to pay for printing the book here in Bhutan. They printed 1,000 copies and have already sold almost half of them.

The project was organized by BCF teacher Mr. Evan, who collected the stories, helped the student editors, and sold the book to its American publisher. “This was a really cool project,” Mr. Evan said, “but the students did most of the work. I just got them started.”

To celebrate the book’s release, all student writers gathered on 5 October for a book signing and pizza party. Over 80 students were in attendance, along with the school’s vice principal. The party was hosted by Mr. Evan, who helped the eight tables of students autograph as many books as possible.

 

“I think it will really inspire others to write for our next book” 

-Tshering Wangmo, grade 9 student

 

“I felt very happy to attend this party, and I think it will really inspire others to write for our next book,” said Tshering Wangmo, a student from Grade 9 who contributed two poems.

Also among the guests were the four students who won international awards with their writing: Dorji Wangchuk (Grade 10), Tila Rupa Chhetri (11), Amandika Thapa (9), and Tandin Tshering (10). Their stories and poems received special recognition, each winning an award in America.

“I was really surprised when I saw my poem in a magazine,” said Tandin Tshering, the most recent winner. “The publisher didn’t even tell me I won. They just sent me a copy of the magazine.”

As for We Are Bhutan, the students hope to sell the remaining copies within the next two months. They plan to set up a booth during next week’s tshechu (festival) and sell to all the visiting tourists.

“Once we raise enough money,” Mr. Evan said, “we will use it to print our second book in January.”

 

 

This story was written by Choki Om. Choki is a grade 9 student in Evan Purcell’s class. Congratulations to the students at Jakar Higher Secondary School for publishing We Are Bhutan – this is an incredible accomplishment! And thank you Choki for taking the time outside of publishing a book to share this story!

You can purchase We Are Bhutan here

Newsletter from Jakar Higher Secondary School

Ever wonder what goes on in schools in Bhutan? Take a peak at the student made newsletter to learn more about their reading week “Wall Magazine” contest and their new School Museum!

 

Jakar Higher Secondary School Newsletter

 

This newsletter was made by the English Literary Club at Jakar Higher Secondary School. Thank you BCF teacher, Evan Purcell, for sharing all the great work your students are doing!

 

Three Published Authors in Central Bhutan

When I first volunteered to teach in Bhutan, I did not expect to see my students become published writers. I thought I’d teach some classes and maybe do a few school-wide projects. I didn’t expect my students to be so ambition… and so talented.

Now, during my second year at Jakar High School in central Bhutan, I have three students who just sold their writing to publishers in America, and I couldn’t be prouder.

Our first writer is named Dorji Wangchuk. He’s a student in grade ten, and he wrote an original fable called “Tree God,” about a village on the brink of environmental disaster and a mysterious visitor who teaches everyone how to fix their own problems.

It’s a really good story, and you’ll be able to read it in October when the anthology I Write Short Stories by Kids for Kids Vol. 9 comes out. The book, funded by the Houston Literary Organization, collected stories and poems from students all over the world. Dorji is the first Bhutanese writer to be a part of this project.

“I was really surprised when I heard the news,” Dorji said. “Nothing like this has ever happened to me before.”

His award ceremony is scheduled for October 27 in Houston, Texas. I really hope he gets to go, but plane tickets might be too expensive. Still, even if he doesn’t attend, he’ll always have the honor of being a published writer at sixteen. I’m really proud of him.

My other two writers are both poets. Amandika Thapa from grade nine and Tila Rupa Chhetri from grade eleven will both be featured in the Sewing the Seeds of Peace anthology, also based in Texas. Amandika’s poem “A Conversation with Peace” and Tila’s poem “Looking for Peace” are both beautiful pieces of writing.

Their big award ceremony is scheduled for next month, to coincide with the International Day of Peace on September 23.

I love my job in Bhutan. The students here are so motivated and clever. As a foreign teacher, I truly feel that it’s my responsibility to help them reach their full potential. Because Bhutan is such a small country, it can be hard for the students here to know how to express themselves. They all want to be heard. I just gave them the megaphone.

 

This blog post was written by Evan Purcell, a BCF teacher in central Bhutan. Read the published story in the national newspaper in Bhutan, Kuensel, here.

You can also follow the writers’ work at https://iwrite.org/i-write-contest/ or https://www.inspiritry.com/pages/peace/art-of-peace-tyler

Summer Reading Program: It’s a Wrap!

With the summer almost at an end, it also brings the end of another very successful reading program.

Our teachers came together for a lively discussion sharing their own unique experiences and debriefing on the program. We are very thankful of the contributions each of our teachers made this summer. To each of our teachers, thank you for supporting education to youth in local communities across Bhutan!

Interested in joining our reading program? We are now seeking teachers to join us in 2019! Read more information at: https://bhutancanada.org/programs/bhutan-reading-program/