Opinion

Anya Schiffrin

Can Bhutan become like other countries – and should it?

Anya Schiffrin
Jun 12, 2012 18:51 UTC

On our way to Bhutan’s capital earlier this month we drove through a long valley surrounded by tree-covered mountains. This magnificent scene of natural beauty was dotted by the occasional Buddhist chorten. A  river rushed below – spanned here and there by a shaky pedestrian bridge made of planks and wire draped with prayer flags.

After this uplifting drive from the airport, it was a bit of a shock  to see downtown Thimpu surrounded by half-finished four- and five-story buildings. We passed 2 miles of frozen construction sites that resembled Bangkok after the 1997 economic crisis, when parts of that city became a ghost town. In Bhutan’s case the housing bubble has not yet burst, but the demand for raw materials from India has been so enormous that the country now has a temporary rupee shortage and has restricted imports of construction materials.

New York’s Mayor Bloomberg is probably not famous among Bhutan’s citizens, but he might be pleased to know they have some ideas in common:  Bhutan fines people for smoking in public and has banned the importation of cigarettes for resale. The Bhutanese recently added an extra tax on non-essential imports: cars and foreign junk food. As a result, construction seems to have slowed. But the shacks of the Indian laborers who do the building in Bhutan remain, sometimes screened from public view by a green fence. “We are building proper housing for them,” a government official promised.

Many economists, including my husband, are not worried about the rupee shortage, because Bhutan has about 740 million dollars in U.S. dollar reserves – an amount relative to its GDP that puts it in the same league as China, according to International Monetary Fund data from December 2010. Curiously, while Bhutan has been borrowing to buy rupees, paying an outrageous 10 percent interest, it has essentially been lending to the U.S., getting back close to zero return. It can easily sell off some of its dollars to pay back the rupee-denominated loans. Fixing the problem is largely a matter of better liquidity and portfolio management. Hard-currency shortages are common in import-dependent developing countries with overvalued exchange rates and dwindling reserves, but not in a country with large reserves.

Nonetheless, the rupee shortage has worried many Bhutanese, and the press has been warned by the government not to refer to it as a “crisis.” “I need to think of my grandmother in the village,” said one Bhutan Broadcasting Service reporter when describing his reassuring evening news coverage.

The limits of happiness

Anya Schiffrin
Apr 3, 2012 18:19 UTC

Despite being a cynical New Yorker, I was charmed by Bhutan on a visit there a couple of years ago. The beauty of the unspoiled scenery, the rhododendrons in bloom, the mountains and the monasteries — all were uplifting. The quiet intelligence and the thoughtfulness of the people we met were inspiring. Bhutan is  a country of  traditions and pride in local culture. Visiting the villages we saw astounding feats of archery, which is the national sport, and we took long walks with a local guide who also happens to be a serious cyclist and has helped spread mountain biking throughout the country. One scene stayed with me: Walking to a monastery one day we passed a man sitting on a mountainside doing embroidery as he looked out over a dramatic view of cliffs and mountains covered with trees. With him was a friend who peered over the embroiderer’s shoulder as he stitched. We went for a long walk, and when we came back a few hours later, the two were still there embroidering and watching.

Peace and quiet and the time for leisure must surely be part of what makes people happy, and the Bhutanese have become famous for popularizing the concept of gross national happiness (GNH), which is a favorite cause of the current prime minister. The Sarkozy commission (which my husband co-chaired) also worked on the subject and in 2009 issued a report that provided a framework for how to think about going beyond gross domestic product and how to measure success in a broader way.

The Bhutanese are out in full force this week for a conference on happiness. There was an all-day meeting organized by Jeffrey Sachs at Columbia University on Sunday, and on Monday diplomats from all over the world met at the United Nations to discuss what constitutes happiness and how it can best be measured and promoted. The star of the morning was Costa Rica’s president, who spoke about the country’s conservation laws and the need to protect the environment. It was also agreed that altruism, compassion, social life, feelings of belonging, political stability and good health are essential to happiness. The Bhutanese spoke of the importance of community and their program of introducing meditation into schools to promote contemplation, concentration and quiet reflection.

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