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The emperor’s new gho. The child and the chu
Diederik Prakke, the Netherlands, August 13, 2013
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Remember the story of the emperor’s new clothes – the emperor who walks around in his butt? Having known Tshering Tobgay for nearly two decades, I want to warmly congratulate him on becoming Bhutan’s second elected Prime Minister. He calls GNH a distraction when it takes precedence over creating jobs – simply talking about GNH can be the emperor’s new gho.

Actually Tshering Tobgay talked about delivering basic services, but in my view creating (an enabling environment for) gainful and meaningful work is basic service priority number one, two and three. With meaningful work people are happy, and for the right reasons. Without it people lack direction and purpose. Whatever your precise definition of GNH, people flourishes when making a contribution and perishes when they are irrelevant, even if they swim in money.

Work over words - and I rejoice in Tshering Tobgay’s election as I expect him to focus and deliver in the area of employment. Over the years I made a case of taking Buddhism to heart and for getting to the heart of it, seeing spiritual wisdom as neither something to discard nor as folklore to cling to and preserve rigidly. As such I rejoiced in Jigme Thinley taking pride in the GNH “mantra”; taking it centre-stage; squarely asking what dream we chase. But I was also weary how the debate could derail. In 2009 I wrote: “GNH could stand for second-rate science and flowery wishful-thinking. We have debates that miss the mark by being vague and sentimental about spirituality, and we have debates that miss the mark by safely refraining from spirituality altogether. At times ‘GNH’ stands for rather embarrassing statements by Bhutanese or naïve Bhutan well-wishers about the presumed essence of Bhutanese culture.

We have idealized claims about the Buddhist relation to nature, and we have ill-informed assertions” (Crown of the Dragon, page 140). Tshering Tobgay promises to cut lofty daydreaming, especially where it eclipses attention for harsh and pressing realities.

Ultimately this could do “GNH” a favour – harnessing it against the deserved criticism of decadence and otherworldliness. At heart I remain a GNH adept, convinced that we will only survive on this planet if we fundamentally change. In an interdependent global village we can no longer hope that brave aggression can solve our problems, and as such we need wake-up calls, think-tanks and fora to inspire and inform us of alternatives. As such I hope Bhutan will not throw away the child with the bathwater; that it will not throw the Buddha in the chu, along with the pulp that did start to clutter around GNH. I don’t have a blue-print on who should do what.

Tshering Tobgay is right that debating GNH is not any government’s first job. And yet, if we want to change the world’s Titanic course, somebody’s got to take the first step. And the next step. Bhutan raised the right question – the question what development is all about.

What is the view and what is the purpose? Bhutan should take pride to continue asking exactly that question. At times the debate erred into blind statistics, but we’ve got to return to square one. At times Bhutan erred by cooking up or believing it had the answers, as if a farmer in Lunana has the key to the global economic turn-down, climate change as well as Al Qaida. That’s embarrassing, if not insulting or hilarious.

While numbers have their place, the essence of GNH is not (just) about indicators and clever management. The essence is to continue to cry out for beliefs and actions that are radical and different enough to change the world’s suicidal trajectory. In essence it is about sanity rather than simple satisfaction. While Tshering Tobgay goes clear-minded at a tough and concrete task, I have good hopes he’ll be crazy, humorous and open-minded enough to keep nagging at the bigger picture as well.

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