It seems that GNH has certainly been a success story in Bhutan. Health conditions and education levels have greatly increased. It seems to be a sound economic model, which would surprise most people.
Yes, living standards have increased. We had poverty at 30 per cent, now it’s down to 23 per cent. Each year when we measure, things are better.
I think most people would be surprised that GNH is a concrete model for development. In fact, its ideas are often criticised as being anti-development. You don’t feel that’s the case?
No, not at all. I think that’s one of the main resistances. People feel that if you follow the principles of GNH, you may slow down your progress. What I’m saying is—what does progress mean? The current model will never stop. Researchers will never stop looking for better iPhones, a software engineer will never stop improving computer programs. What we are saying is, you don’t need an iPhone 5. Why couldn’t you just have an iPhone 1 and, whatever you develop, provide it for that phone? Why build something that has to be entirely replaced? If it needs to be replaced, you need to produce more and you create more solid waste. And then what do you do with this? A lot of materials can’t be broken down.
In terms of progress, you’re quite a good example, personally, of how Bhutan has changed. You’re a success story. You’re a prominent politician and you were born in a cowshed…
Yes, I was born in a cowshed and brought up with nature around me. I always wanted to be with nature and animals. That’s why I took an early retirement. Working for 25 years of my life, I felt I’d done too much for my country; I wanted to create a similar impact for my community. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have telephones, we didn’t have any kind of communication. We had to go via India to get into our district. I began writing to the newspaper. I put a bit of heat on the government and within six months, everything changed. We had electricity, we had telephones, we had mobile connectivity—everything except roads. But soon we’ll be connected that way too.
So you really feel you’ve achieved something?
I feel so proud. Then, of course, came the democracy movement. I started to get calls. I kept telling them, ‘I’m not a politician, I don’t know what politics is. I don’t want to be a part of it.’ But people in the capital kept saying, ‘Come back, let’s form a party’. Eventually I thought, Okay, I’ll go back to Thimphu. I never intended to stay, but I ended up forming a political party called Bhutan People’s United Party and that later became the Druk Phuensum Tshogpa Party. We won 45 out of 47 seats and formed a government. After that, I wanted to go home, so I went back to my village. Of course, the prime minister started looking for me. In my village, we had no mobile phones and they were still building the telephone lines. So they sent a wireless message to the local authority, saying to trace me and send me back to Thimphu. When I got back, the prime minister said, ‘Help me.’ I said, ‘Your expectations are very high, I have no idea how a government should run and I have no wish to fail you. If I fail you, I fail the entire country.’ He said, ‘That’s not what you should be thinking. Work with me, I’ll tell you what to do.’ The prime minister took me to an office and said, ‘That’s your table and chair, from today you sit here.’ He kept giving me work to do and I kept trying to resign. Finally I said, ‘Sir, I think I’m going to go and be a teacher.’ He said, ‘Every time you see me, you say you want to leave.’ And then he smiled broadly and said, ‘We will resign together and go teaching.’ After that, I got the message. I shouldn’t resign, I should stay. Whatever work he gives me, I’ll continue to do it. Recently, he asked me to take over the Good Governance Centre.
And that’s a project that will occupy you for some time.
He has already made it mandatory that for five years, I’m fixed. I’ll be there for five years before I can pursue my dreams [laughs].
So you still dream about returning to your village?
Oh yes, very much. I would like to connect back to my own people, my environment. But this is a heroic task. I don’t know why he thought I could do it, I sometimes wonder if I am really capable of doing it. But he has given me so much trust and I think his trust is making me work very hard to achieve our goals.
Going back to spreading the message of GNH abroad, I notice that it’s been said that a nation need not be a Buddhist nation to take it on board, but is it necessary to have a sense of the spiritual? Are secular societies necessarily excluded?
People call it a Buddhist idea, but I don’t think it is one at all. To counter that, we’re going to have a meeting in June of all the religious leaders in the world, on the platform of GNH. Meditation is not Buddhism; it’s in every religion. Reflection, meditation, connecting to God or to a superhuman being is always there. We’re not saying you should follow the Buddhist model. Meditate your way. All we want is for you to be yourself, be present in the environment around you. That helps you rejuvenate and go for the right kind of goals—rather than running behind money. All of us cannot be Obamas. We have to find what our heart really says. I want to help my community, to work with them, to appreciate them. Well, I hope I get that time. That’s my aspiration.
What we’re trying to do with the GNH Centre is to establish many satellite units around the world. For example, Hawaii and Iowa have been considering this for some time. Some US states such as Maryland and Vermont are already using GNH practices. They’re going to open a GNH Centre in south Germany. Vietnam is going to have one. Our target is four to five a year. There’s someone in Brisbane who wants to start a centre, there’s someone in Sydney. I’m hoping for one here in Melbourne as well.