An Inquiry into the Political Economy of Gross National Happiness: An Integrated Policy Response for Sustainable Happiness and Wellbeing through Enhanced Government Performance

Tobden, Jamba
Devine, Nesta
Couch, Daniel
Peetz, David
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Doctor of Philosophy
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Auckland University of Technology

Spirituality and compassion have been integrated with governance since the foundation of Bhutan as a nation state. Bhutan’s measurement of Gross National Happiness (GNH) is a deliberate attempt to embed Bhutanese cultural and historical values into national governance structures. The GNH index is a unique approach that includes both traditional areas of socio-economic concern, such as living standards, health, and education, and less traditional aspects, including culture, community vitality, and psychological wellbeing. One of the issues tracked in the survey which forms the GNH index is the perception of government performance.

The intent and scope of this thesis was to examine Government Performance as a key indicator within Bhutan’s policy framework with the aim to support GNH that would enhance sustainable happiness and wellbeing in Bhutan. Bhutan’s GNH official policy is precisely to maximise Gross National Happiness for its people. According to the index, happiness and wellbeing are thriving in Bhutan, in light of GNH policies and programmes which Bhutan initially pursued in the 1970s. The concepts entered western discourse in the 1980s and have become a fashionable topic since 2000. In these enabling conditions, nation-wide GNH surveys have been conducted every five years in Bhutan since 2010. For Bhutan, the development philosophy of GNH entails four pillars, nine domains, and 33 indicators. The four pillars are: sustainable and equitable socio-economic development; promotion and preservation of culture; conservation of environment; and the execution of effective and inclusive good governance. Since the 2010 GNH survey, these four pillars have been further elaborated into nine domains. Good governance is one of the nine domains, and government performance is one of the 33 indicators, along with three other indicators under the good governance domain. The basis of the inquiry is the results from the latest GNH survey on government performance and an analysis of the responses of key political and administrative figures in Bhutan.

The latest report (CBS, 2016) showed that the perception of government performance was among the lowest of the 33 indicators. More strikingly, this indicator declined the most when compared to the 2010 survey. For Bhutan to improve its GNH, this indicator must be investigated in depth. This thesis centres on a significantly understudied context of government performance as it explores the nature of GNH qualitatively. This work is of national importance to Bhutan, representing a high-level and intellectually rigorous engagement with national policy for social good. The social good for the people is largely affected by government performance, and that government performance is influenced by political economy. Framed within social constructivism as the theoretical framework, this study employed a qualitative inductive approach with in-depth semi-structured interviews involving an understudied sample of 28 key participants in the policy process. The participants consisted of advanced Researchers, Chief Policy Officers, Members of Parliament, Presidents of Political parties, leadership of various institutions representing government, civil society organisations and private sectors, and other public figures within Bhutan. Adopting thematic analysis of the interview data, the responses were inductively thematised and analysed in relation to the expert interview methodology. The qualitative exploration in this study offers unique insights into the interpretations and complexities of the political economy of GNH and its influence on people’s wellbeing and happiness through government performance underpinning an intricate and textured picture of the lives of Bhutanese.

This thesis deepens the literature and contributes to the insights into GNH from an experts’ perspective, in particular the policy architects in Bhutan. The analysis reveals the current issues pertaining to government performance, defines the perfecting reforms in the government machineries, and ultimately offers alternative policy options for achieving sustainable happiness and wellbeing in Bhutan. This thesis makes a novel contribution to the literature on Bhutan’s political economy of GNH, the first of its kind. It argues for greater attention by shifting its focus away from a series of quantitative GNH index studies to a qualitative analysis. It also argues for a re-examination of government policies and processes to enable the maximisation of GNH. This thesis argues for greater attention by shifting its focus away from simply measuring a quantitative GNH index to analysing the policy and implementation problems to prevent the maximisation of GNH, which in itself requires a qualitative analysis. The idea of shifting the focus away from quantitative index to qualitative analysis suggests how maximising GNH could be achieved. The expert participants defined GNH as “development with values”, and a deliberate attempt to embed Bhutanese values into national governance structures. This thesis reveals that GNH provides clarity on what it means to be a politician, to be a public servant, as a citizen and as an individual human being. That clarity is primarily the need to pursue everything in moderation, and the need to provide policy, focus, and sharpness. The dominant themes that emerged from the interviews were government performance in job creation, the gap between rich and poor; practical and policy challenges in maximising GNH; that GNH must be dynamic and how Bhutan achieves GNH must change; and a need for a national GNH narrative. In addition, this study has wider educational, economic, and social policy implications for countries seeking to structure national identities which go beyond employability, clearly aligning with the global vision for an inclusive economics.

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