Good Governance in Bhutan

Posted on December 14, 2010

Good governance is one of the 4 pillars of Gross National Happiness. GNH is now so firmly established and enshrined in Bhutanese society and politics that it could not be dismantled even if there were individuals who wanted to do so. The country has had 4 centuries of largely good governance, which can really be nothing more than a lucky fluke, but when there have been so many wise rulers making wise decisions, it does work its way into the fiber of society. And this is what makes most everything in Bhutan feel so right. Here's a country investing in its future in the way that very few others are doing.

In neighboring Nepal one of the kings would have his throne set up atop a cliff and his army would force people to jump to their deaths as entertainment. Another one had 120 lbs. of lips and noses hacked off dissidents. (You can look these horrors up and verify.) And less than 10 years ago the crown prince gunned down almost the entire royal family, as he was pissed off at his dad, the King. Long before this the royals in Nepal had lost the love of the citizenry. The monarchy in Nepal, combined with a unique heriditary prime ministership has long ruled that country with little thought to the well being of its citizens, and the final result has been the dissolution of the monarchy, the election of a new Maoist government, and resulting paralysis of the country.

Shabdrung Ngawang Namgyal who unified Bhutan 4 centuries ago spoke in favor of woman's rights, against animal sacrifice (substituting elaborate sculptures made from butter, called Torma and now found on all altars), against substance abuse (he was particularly anti tobacco, which was just beginning to make its way into the country), and instituted an early form of separation of religion and state (all the more unusual as the society is strongly Buddhist). He established a school of the 13 Traditional Arts, whose graduates would learn the arts and crafts that make Bhutan look the way it does. This school flourishes today and graduates many from its 6 year curriculum who then go on to find work in building and restoring, ensuring that Bhutan today looks much as it did in the 17th century.

The king is revered in Bhutan. Not feared, but loved and all have the right to petition a hearing with him if they feel their situation warrants.

The king is revered in Bhutan. Not feared, but loved and all have the right to petition a hearing with him if they feel their situation warrants. The fourth king announced in 2005 he would abdicate in favor of his 25 year old son. And that elections would be held 2 years hence, changing the Kingdom into a constitutional monarchy. This announcement was met with consternation across the country. The idea of elections was universally unpopular, but the king said he felt this would be best for the country, and what to do?, but go along with the wishes of the beloved and benevolent king. He said he would devote his days to advising his son, and to the study of Buddhism. Two momentous years of democracy education followed, with instructors helicoptering into tiny isolated villages for a month at a time (the country has no helicopters, borrowed Indian helicopters dropped them) to ensure everyone understood what elections meant and how to properly vote. A year before the actual elections they held national mock elections, complete with 4 dummy political parties, each with its own platform, just so the citizenry could get the hang of it. Mock protests were organized, with people encouraged to go out in the streets and march, banging pots and pans. This frightened many, who called the police to come get the agitators (as they'd never had such commotion before). The authorities had to take to television to explain that in a democracy, not everyone would be happy and dissent was part of the process.

In the end the elections went off smoothly, and the proud Bhutanese basked in being the worlds youngest democracy. But on all my visits since then they express chagrin, that they voted wrong. Most everyone voted for the party whose platform was essentially "no change' as opposed to the party whose platform was 'little change.' Elections are again to be held in 2012, and you hear people saying they'll not make that mistake again, they learned in democracy class that unless there is a strong opposition, your democracy's not a strong one. I find the idealism and earnestness of the people touching.

As you travel the country you find public service boards. First erected in the run up to elections, they carried only election news then. Now they carry public service announcements, which one could construe as making Bhutan appear a nanny state. The messages exhort people to work and study hard for Bhutan. And have information about public health and illness (H1N1 info abounds), another common one now says, in regards to 'Stop Violence Against Women Month', "be the man whose man enough to say no to violence", messages about the need for more women to be involved in politics, and my favorite, the messages stating that anyone in politics or civil service has to publicly publish their salary and finances, in a move to stop corruption (the country is considered one of the least corrupt).

The sense you get, is that this is one well run country. You also get the sense, it's going down the tubes fast. Because the press is constantly harping at the problems in Bhutan: alcoholism, obesity, lack of respect to ones parents, TV being the ruin of the family, crime, gangs, environmental destruction, lazy civil servants, rudeness, drug use, rampant development, littering. Name a social ill, and you can bet the Bhutan Times or Observer or Kuensel has written about it lately. Aside from littering in the towns, I'm unaware of any of these problems. This is what an unfettered press brings, the desire to report a places shortcomings, with the aim to keep them from mestastisizing

When Bhutanese fall ill, a National Health Care system sees to their needs, gratis. One chooses between traditional Bhutanese medicine or western medicine. A patient with a condition that cannot be treated in Bhutan is taken abroad at governement expense for treatment. People say with pride that their village now has a BHU (Basic Health Unit), so that at least rudimentary care is available in the smallest villages. The government even pays for cremation, giving new meaning to cradle to death healthcare.

Bhutan became the first and only country to ban tobacco in 2005. In doing so they cited the words of Shabdrung 4 centuries ago who thought tobacco use unwise. But don't fret, as a tourist you can bring one carton of cigarettes if you visit, though you'll have to pay $50. tax. They'll want to see your cigarettes, count them, and issue a receipt. Makes a cool souvenir.

All that untouched land seen throughout Bhutan will mostly remain untouched, with policy to keep the country 70% forested. Timber felling is controlled and no timber can be exported, so it's only used for domestic consumption. You want to cut down your own trees to build your house, the ranger comes and approves which and how many trees. The many rivers are a source of hydropower, accessed by adapting a European technology that constructs a small dam, with turbines then placed in the water. This generates enough hydropower, without large environmental costs that there's enough electricity for export to India and Bangladesh. The resulting moneys fund many of Bhutan's development costs. The entire country is now mostly electrified, with the notable exception of the Phobjikha Valley, known for its beauty, but also the wintering ground of endangered black necked cranes. Solar panels were distributed to all homeowners here, the thought being the cranes might entangle themselves in the cables. This left the locals grumbling, as only minimal electricity is generated this way. This visit we see ditches, with great wooden spools of cable alongside, this win win solution will keep residents happy and cranes safe.

Education is a priority, both the government and populace recognize this. Schools dot the county, many of them boarding schools that students might have to walk a few days to reach. All education is in English, with the result that everyone is at east bilingual, and most comfortable with 3 or 4 languages. Dzongha, the national language is the most widely spoken language, but in the east Scharchop is spoken, in the south Nepalese, and small pockets of other languages are found throughout the country. Teachers are meant to identify promising students in their classes and these students are then sent on to elite high schools where they face rigorous courses and often end up overseas for university study. The curriculum seems thorough and demanding, and I guess this explains why people seem so worldly. Ask any high school kid what they are studying (you see them walking to and from school, they always stop to talk) and the list of maths and sciences is more than I ever took (maybe this says something about me and my deficiencies) and they also study literature and all read Shakespeare (they say because he is the greatest English language play right). In my fancy high school we never read Shakespeare, and in recounting this, I don't know who is more surprised, they that I did not read him, or me that they do read him.

It all makes Bhutan a 'feel good country.' Across so much of the world there are so many troubles: poverty, corruption, environmental destriction, political oppression, gender inequality, discrimination. More than most places, Bhutan is free of these, and to add to the feel good quotient is the realization this tiny poor country has a committed government policy to better the lives of its people all the while protecting the environment in which they and their descendants will live. Not to say that Bhutan is really the Shangri-La that some liken it to, devoid of problems, but it's miles ahead of so many countries and does so much with so little, that it does make a person feel hopeful while there, and for me the feeling lingers long after I depart.