Some thoughts on Bhutan’s democracy
1 January, 2008 - 'Go to where the silence is and say something’ was the motto at the end of Kuensel’s Editorial on Wednesday 12 December 2007. ‘On the eve of the elections, we would like to reflect on what the next five years will be like. We would like to think about a new political system and about its impact on our society.’ It presented an invitation.
Difficult to know what the next five years will be like; even the next year is a big question. The really difficult part of doing something for the first time is that one hasn’t yet experienced what it is all about. Whether it is learning to ride a bike or establishing democracy – doing it for the first time is always going to come with uncertainty and brings with it excitement, confusion, hope and concern . Experiencing the change, learning from experience and doing it differently next time, that is how individuals, organisations and societies develop and learn.
How to deal with change? As buddhists, living more consciously in the spirit of impermanence, shouldn’t it be easier to deal with change? I wonder. Not knowing what is ahead doesn’t mean that we have to sit idle and wait; one way of dealing with the unknown is to actively engage in debates and dialogues, share ideas and thoughts and reflect on possible options, thereby becoming part of the change itself. After all participation is at the heart of democracy.
How is Bhutan’s democracy shaping up? His Majesty the 4th Druk Gyalpo gave a wonderful gift to the Bhutanese people; the vision of Gross National Happiness with well being of his people as the ultimate goal. During the recent ‘3rd international conference on GNH’ organised by the Centre for Bhutan Studies and hosted by the Thai Government, it was mentioned more than once that Bhutan actually gave a gift to the world by adopting the concept of GNH. The eyes of the world are now on Bhutan and the expectations are extremely high. There is something at stake, for Bhutan and for the planet as a whole.
Leaders all over the world are searching for alternative approaches to development in light of the recognition that economic development and GDP in and of themselves do not necessarily make people happy. For quite some time there has been talk of ‘a paradigm shift’, an ‘alternative worldview’ – something more holistic and human, capable of transforming the world. The concept of GNH is a possible answer to this transformation.
Bhutan seeks to develop a society in which every Bhutanese citizen is fairly happy; in which development will be balanced between rural and urban areas; where the environment is not being destroyed at the cost of economic growth; where government provides services to the satisfaction of the people; where cultural identity and tradition are meaningfully integrated in change; where a culture of care is nurtured, whether it be family, the office or the environment. Bhutan holds the promise to show to the world a happy society practicing a democractic model in the spirit of the four pillars of GNH.
In his wisdom His Majesty choose democracy as the best possible system for achieving GNH. It is another gift: democracy as a means towards the ultimate goal of happiness. Such a democracy aims at sustainable development based on the four pillars of GNH and encompasses cultural, environmental and spiritual dimensions balanced with socio-economic growth. We haven’t seen such examples of democracies elsewhere. Though there is something to learn from other experiences, Bhutan will shape its unique form of democracy. How do the three sectors - the public sector, the private sector, and civil society - look in such a unique form of democracy?
So far there has been a strong focus on the political aspect of the democratisation process, in particular the elections. Establishing an infrastructure for elections is in itself an enormous undertaking. And separating that which until recently was one; the legislative, executive and judicial power another one. Identifying what is political and what is a-political is part of this process and is an issue that both aspiring political leaders, civil servants and others are currently grappling with. All very complex issues and yet at the same time simple if we take the nation’s vision as the guideline.
The responsibility of translating the vision and values of the nation into action will rest mainly in the hands of the executives in the bureaucracy and the upcoming political leaders. They will have the honor and privilege of steering everyone beyond short term gains and quick wins towards longer term and broader goals of sustainable development. What matters is that they ‘walk the talk’ of putting the GNH concept into action by truly translating the vision of happiness into a day-to-day reality of all Bhutanese people.
Civil service reforms are taking place to strengthen the bureaucracy towards facilitating the establishment of a strong and successful parliamentary democracy. Improving the quality of the services to the people will contribute to their satisfaction and well being.
Streamlining and simplification of procedures and acknowledging that mindsets and attitudes of service providers need to change. They must become more client oriented and commence to see the world through the eyes of their customers and to act according to the convenience and interests of the same. Leaders and managers will help their staff to see and live up to their newly-identified responsibilities.
How will the private sector develop? Many democracies in the west are being shaped by the private sector with economic growth as the main indicator for development. However, this model is increasingly being questioned and we see examples of businesses becoming more aware of social responsibility (in addition to profit) abound. As much as good governance issues affect the government, there will also be an equal number of governance issues affecting the private sector. Corporate governance is making headway; companies can profile themselves through allocating a percentage of their profit to social or wellfare issues.
The vision of GNH and the values of transparency and accountability demand a business sector that addresses sustainability in addition to fast-paced economic development. Not an easy mandate, particularly in a sector where profits and ‘quick win’ agendas dominate. The government will have to develop policy guidelines and frameworks that encourage businesses to go beyond mere profit. The recent establishment of DHI is a promising example of private sector development in which the interest of the public in general is being safeguarded. What about tax exemptions for producers of environmentally friendly or organic products; subsidies for starting small scale businesses or annual awards for a safe and healthy work environment and proper waste management, just to name a few? And what about making a decent living as a professional plumber or electrician? A start has been made to changing the perception of blue collar jobs but there is more to be done.
Civil society, the third sector, is considered critical to an effectively functioning democracy. Initially, it will be the government’s responsibility to establish a civil society capable of operating in a sustainable manner. And again, the nation’s vision of happiness and the buddhist principles and values that underscore it should be used as the building blocks.
With the CSO’s Act coming into being, the sector will undoubtedly grow and discussions are already ongoing regarding the preferred model of civil society in Bhutan. A framework for civil society organisations is yet to be developed. How can Bhutan develop its own model of civil society whilst learning from experiences elsewhere? No need of becoming gap fillers as we see in other countries; CSOs must play a complementarity role in close collaboration with the government and in doing so they should be asked to spell out their specific contributions to GNH in their vision and values. CS development should be with the people rather than for the people and hence safeguarding the traditional self-organising capacity of Bhutanese communities and groups.
The government in Bhutan has been very careful in choosing its international partners; the choice for collaboration is based on shared vision and values. A similar approach of ‘selection at the entry’ could be applied for choosing international NGO’s to work with.
In particular on this issue other countries often have gone wrong.
GNH starts at home
In looking for a role model of inspiring and visionary leadership, there is little need to look outside the country! HM the 4th King is a shining example. Selflessness, humbleness, and modesty, leadership qualities that make world leaders, are to be found right here at home. Strong leadership looks beyond quick wins and is able to see the long term future beyond the existing reality. Nowadays we get used to the idea of thinking and acting ‘out of the box’; visionary leadership is about shaping a new box.
During the 3rd international conference on GNH Bhutan was depicted as an ideal place and for some of the participants from South East Asia, it reminded them of their country 30 to 40 years ago. They raised the question whether it will be only a matter of time for Bhutan to become like their countries or whether Bhutan will be able to make a difference and establish an alternative model of democracy?
Bhutan has the right ingredients to establish its unique model of democracy. With world-class exemplary, committed and visionary leadership at home, the ultimate answer lies in the hearts and the hands of each and every individual citizen of Bhutan, who now holds the responsibility to take the democratisation process forward whole-heartedly as envisioned by His Majesty the 4th Druk Gyalpo. Accepting this gift in making a conscious effort to know and understand what the changes are about and the relevance of elections in the democratisation process. To actively seek information on the new system, parties and candidates and engage in discussions with colleagues, family and community members to share and exchange knowledge and information. And above all exercising the right to vote as it is well informed and responsible voters who will elect leaders who are capable of leading Bhutan into an alternative model of democracy that is worthy of being shared with the world.
Contributed by Anne-Marie Schreven OD Specialist