Monday, June 10, 2013

Fes Forum - Session Three - New Ways Forward

Francoise Pommaret

Monday's Fes Forum looked at new economic and social models, especially Bhutan's measurement of Gross National Happiness as a guide to national leadership

"A country should give its people the maximum opportunity to be happy," said Francoise Pommaret, who has been based in Bhutan for the past 32 years. She was referring to the decision in 1972 of the King to create a measure of Gross National Happiness. "It's complementary to measuring the Gross National Product," she said.

Since then, the small, landlocked country situated between India and China has seen encouraging results from its unusual experiment of measuring quality of life, as Ms Pommaret explained.

Ms Pommaret has a degree in Tibetan and a doctorate in the history of art and archaeology and is also an advisor at the Institute of Language and Culture at the Royal University of Bhutan.

"Gross National Happiness is based on four pillars," she said. "The first one is good governance; the second sustainable development; the third preservation of the environment and the fourth is the importance of preserving values, culture and traditional ethics such as respecting the other, community, and compassion."

Influential economist Joseph Steglitz was an admirer of this concept, Ms Pommaret explained, and further developed it to include nine fields: the general level of wellbeing; vitality of the community; health; education; level of cultural life; the interaction between humans and the environment; good governance; how citizens manage their time between work and leisure; and psychological wellbeing.

With a population of just 700,000, it is possible to see the effects of pursuing these policies in Bhutan within the past generation. "It's not Shangri-La, and 60% of the population are rural," said Ms Pommaret. "However, 90% of people are immunised against the five major diseases; health and education is free - all children now go to primary school and Bhutan has increased its forested area." This is in stark contrast to the development policies of many of the country's Asian neighbours, who have chosen economic development over quality of life.

Jigme Drukpa and Frédéric Lenoir

Philosopher, sociologist and religious historian, Frédéric Lenoir, spoke next. The author of some 40 works which have been translated into 20 languages, he gave an overview of the nature of happiness. Schopenhauer's definition, he explained, relates to an individual's pre-disposition towards seeing the glass half full or half empty, health, to the propensity for peace and external conditions such as culture, religion and the environment.

Then Mr Lenoir moved on to how Buddhists define happiness, as an absence of suffering. Individuals create their own suffering through an endless cycle of desire and rejection; the object of desire loses its lustre once obtained. "Because of the media people in the developing world can see American television programs, and they want what they see," he said. "For example, in Africa, everybody wants a smartphone."

Frédéric Lenoir
"Buddha tells us that to be happy we should work on our own thoughts and beliefs; we should go beyond ego...Happiness is a state of being; we need to work on the spirit."

The modern world, Mr Lenoir said, has shifted from pursuing quality to quantity. "The world has become a gigantic entity where everyone wants to earn as much as possible, and the frenzy of consumption is creating an ecological disaster." However, he said, we should not expect the state to solve our problems. We should act consciously as individuals.

"As Gandhi said, 'Be the change you want to see in the world'. This is the message that Bhutan gives us."

Jigme Drukpa
Jigme Drukpa, who is the founder and Artistic Director of the Aa-Yang Music School in Bhutan, began his presentation with a deep, melodic, Tibetan chant, which reminded those present to be in the moment. "How many hours a day are you happy, angry, stressed, hungry or at peace," he asked.
"Happiness has very little to do with the physical state. At best you can be put at comfort. You must go beyond that to mental wellbeing."

Mr Drukpa said it was important to experience a sense of peace and wellbeing every day.

"We are only here for a short time on earth. We need to cherish the moment, to enjoy and to practice happiness." 

Text and photographs: Suzanna Clarke

Summary: Seeking new paradigms for economics and development: the experience of Bhutan and Gross National Happiness

by Professor Katherine Marshall

Music: Namkha Llamo
Faouzi Skali: introduction; Katherine Marshall, Summary of June 9

Panel: Faouzi Skali, moderator:
Andre Azoulay, Jigme Drukpa, Frédéric Lenoir, Katherine Marshall, Françoise Pommaret

Monday’s Forum began with a prayer from Bhutan. The singer’s name means “Goddess of the Sky” and her song lifted our spirits to the heights of the mountain kingdom.

Faouzi Skali set the context for the discussion about happiness. He participated last year in a United Nations meeting that explored the global potential of Bhutan’s experience in setting its primary strategic goal as national happiness rather than economic wealth. The meeting, he said, echoed wide interest in redefining development goals in a more human, even spiritual fashion, and he highlighted the convergence between this approach and the Forum’s quest for “a soul for globalization”.

Gross National Happiness (GNH) began as the spontaneous inspiration of Bhutan’s young king. Buddhist beliefs about compassion, love, and the connections among all things lie at the heart of Bhutan’s effort to set a development path that is unique, fitting its history, culture, and circumstances. This is not a romantic vision of Shangri La (that would be simply idiotic, Françoise Pommaret reminded us). And we were cautioned against the danger of romanticizing either Bhutan or its development approach. The approach is rigorous and broad, building on four pillars: good governance (and the least corruption possible, an unusual and sensible framing of that goal), economic growth, development that protects the environment, and social development that honors and advances Bhutan’s culture. A core belief is that all efforts will be prejudiced if Bhutan’s culture and identity are lost. These pillars are translated into elaborate indices, and nine “domains” that include psychological well-being, standard of living and happiness, the vitality of the community, health, education, cultural life, environment, and good governance. The criteria are applied in the selection of development projects so that there are practical effects.

Communication is a vital part of Bhutan’s strategy and life, and Facebook, twitter, and other social media are used actively, including by government officials. As an example, a golf course project was cancelled when an explosion of Facebook commentary highlighted potential problems and clashes with community interests. Thus democratic values are part of the framework.

The fascination with Bhutan’s gross national happiness reflects a long-standing effort that comes from many directions to broaden the very understanding of the meaning and purpose of development, far beyond crude measures of economic growth and wealth. We were reminded of the paradox around growth: it has a vital role in creating jobs and resources that support people’s lives, yet it brings risks and downsides, both for equality and for the environment More narrowly, the way we measure progress reflects what we treasure, and value. Thus indexes like GNH and social competitiveness matter because they define goals and progress and have real consequences, like resource allocation.

The discussion then turned to a far ranging, meandering reflection on happiness. It began with Buddhism, where happiness is not really the central concept. Rather, it is about contentment, and balance. Psychology enters the picture, as some people seem to be born happy while others are perpetually dissatisfied and grumpy. Fate may enter the picture: the alignment of stars at birth. But, Frédéric Lenoir emphasized, spiritual exercises can help any individual to attain at least some level of contentment or serenity. The insight of Buddhism is that happiness is related to suffering: suffering cannot be eliminated but with mastery of the tyranical ego the goal of serenity is something that each individual can achieve.

Lenoir reminded us of the story of two strangers who sought counsel from a wise man as they entered a new community. What is it like, each asked? The sage’s answers reflected their own response to what they expected and thus differed markedly according to the attitude each brought with him. He predicted that the pessimist would find a flawed society while the optimism would find positive features. Thus the discussion about happiness returned often to a continuing (and very spiritual) Forum theme: happiness, a sense of meaning, and the capacity to bring about change must start with the individual, the self.

But another theme that emerged was the jarring appreciation that we, humankind, face not just an economic or financial crisis, but crises across all sectors, a truly systemic crisis. Ecological systems are destabilized, and our hopes and expectations for our children are called into question. The philosopher suggested that the essence of the crises lies in an imbalance between the quest for quantity over quality. This has destabilized all domains, economic, spiritual, and material. Happiness is too much equated with consuming, and consuming more and more. This applies even to human relations where quantity of Facebook friends is a measure of success for some, rather than the quality of friendship, which, of course, is what truly matters.

And then the merits of happiness as a goal were called into question. Surely, the challenge was posed, there are more important goals than personal or even national happiness. Service to others, sacrifice, and fighting for justice are also honorable, even essential, and they also have deep spiritual roots and meaning. And is it possible to be happy when others suffer? Compassion and the happiness of others are part of the broader goal, which is about love.

Andre Azoulay entered mid way through the discussion and his presence took the discussion to a different plane, as he has reflected on his life goals and their links to his religion and his cultural heritage. In introducing Azoulay, Faouzi Skali paid him a special tribute that linked to the discussion: governing an empire is important, but so is the smallest action, like taking care in cooking a small fish. Azoulay combines both and his life work is a living testimony to the strength of his values and his faith.

Azolay took us on a journey from the earliest history of Jews in Morocco (a 3000 year history) and his own deep roots in Moroccan society. His Jewish faith, he stressed, colors all his actions and it drives his long and frustrating struggle, which he called a “combat”, a battle, to achieve justice in the Middle East and especially a Palestinian state. He called it his life’s challenge. “My Judaism is threatened”, he said, “if Palestinians do not have their rights”. His tone and conclusions were rather pessimistic but he came back again and again to the deep common ground that links the three faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. What is most important is the strong and shared commitment to justice. Conflict is utterly alien to what our faiths teach us, stressed. He cited the Dalai Lama in looking for hope in this difficult situation: I weep for my people but I keep peace in my heart.”

He then turned, with optimism and hope, to the story of the revival of his native Essaouira. A small rather dispirited, marginalized, and poor community has been transformed by building on its cultural heritage and its values of welcome and openness. Like the Fes Festival, Essaouira’s festivals build on its heritage of cultural diversity. The values of openness and honoring both ancient and modern strands of the arts mark the effort. The effects are nothing short of transformational. There is nothing conventional in this approach to culture. It is not rigid nor is it dogmatic. But through the shared emotion and the spiritual energy a new and fine wealth has been created. The music propels development and when culture is expressed, the values are invoked. Azoulay described Essaouira’s transformation as a small miracle: from 6 hotels to more than 200, and a wide community participation that opens new horizons and hopes. The 20 year journey is a tribute to what can be achieved, to the art of the possible.

Once again a lively discussion followed, peppered with comments and questions. Bhutan’s experience (including the troubling history of tensions and exclusion of Nepalese Bhutanese) was of special interest including its efforts to measure spiritual welfare (meditation is counted but not temple attendance). The topics of balance between honoring and sticking to cultural heritage and looking to new possibilities, of personal psychological well-being and the welfare of the community, the fate of Palestine, initiatives in Jerusalem, and the pitfalls of measurement were also evoked.

So, once again as the music of the birds in the great Barbary oak above us harmonizes with the diverse voices in the Forum, we are left with much wisdom, a multitude of questions, and the continuing challenge of how to capture the wisdom and translate it into action.

See Fes Forum Session One, including Katherine Marshall's summary HERE.

See Fes Forum Session Two, including Katherine Marshall's summary HERE. 

Fes Forum Tuesday June 11 at Musee Batha

Seeking meaning and inspiration in the legacies of Andalusia: linking development to its cultural heritage and the present.

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