Bhutan is an inspiration for developed countries, but also leapfrogging traditional industrialised powers in a number of areas.
For the greater part of its history Bhutan was one of the most isolated countries in the world. The small Himalayan kingdom started to attract international attention in the early 1970s when Jigme Singye Wangchuck came to power as the fourth king of Bhutan and introduced the concept of Gross National Happiness (GNH). Since then GNH has become an integral part of the philosophy underlying the country’s development, a foundational idea mentioned in most official communications. Bhutan takes its people’s happiness seriously, but is not necessarily the happiest country in the world.
In terms of economic development, Bhutan is one of the world’s smallest economies. It serves, however, as a brilliant example for other developing countries, proof that economic progress need not come at the expense of cultural heritage and natural resources. Bhutan’s very constitution dictates that at least 60% of its land area must remain forested in perpetuity, and it is the world’s only carbon-negative country, its vast woods absorbing more carbon than the kingdom produces.
Bhutan is also an inspiration for developed countries, taking advantage of its small size to leapfrog traditional industrialised powers in a number of areas. The country provides free education and healthcare to all its citizens and is testing the use of drones to deliver medical supplies to remote areas. It was the first country to ban the sale of tobacco products. It plans to eliminate chemical fertilisers and pesticides and make all of its agriculture 100% organic within a decade.
Small wonder then, that Western media have elevated Bhutan to a nearly mythical status, but Bhutan is still a real country with real people facing real challenges as it strives to maintain a delicate harmony between modernisation and cultural identity. We decided to travel to this unique place to talk with people who live there and experience it first-hand rather than relying on the often inaccurate depictions of outsiders. We learned about the uneasy conditions for business and culture, but also about individuals who make a real difference: filmmakers who engage with their audiences by touring the country to show their movies, postage stamp designers whose work helps to raise funds for further economic development, and artists who are taking on a wider social responsibility and helping indebted farmers in the countryside.
The trip to Bhutan was eye-opening, and we hope that you enjoy the stories we brought back with us.