Why GNH should have an integral role in the post-2015 global development agenda

Adopted in 2000, the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) formed the first global policy vision consisting of 8 goals, 18 targets and 48 indicators with targets ranging from halving extreme poverty rates to providing universal primary education all to be achieved by 2015. The MDGs form a “blueprint agreed to by all the world’s countries and all the world’s leading development institutions” (United Nations 2013a). Although the MDGs have achieved some real progress,Aryeetey et al. (2012) note that the MDGs have weaknesses to learn from and they only mark a midway point as they will expire in 2015. Hence, the question of what next has been doing the rounds recently. This essay will argue that Gross National Happiness (GNH), a development philosophy spawned by the tiny Himalayan Kingdom of Bhutan should have an integral role in the post-2015 global development agenda for all countries.

Many countries and organisations are working on proposals for the post-2015 development agenda for consideration by the United Nations General Assembly in September 2013. Likewise, Bhutan has formed an expert working group consisting of eminent scholars from around the world to work on the proposal of GNH as a possible post-2015 international development agenda (Wangchuk 2013).Providing impetus to such post-2015 efforts, the UN Secretary General has established the UN System Task Team, a High-level Panel of Eminent Persons and appointed his own Special Advisor on Post-2015 Development Planning (United Nations 2013b).

Gross National Happiness, “as the guiding philosophy of Bhutan’s development process, was pronounced by His Majesty the Fourth King Jigme Singye Wangchuck, soon after his enthronement in 1972” (Thinley 2005). GNH calls for a paradigm shift in the way we think about development. It is a holistic, rational and more humane approach to development. Many conferences and discourses over the last one decade “have led to increasing elaboration and development of this concept as well as its practice” (Thinley 2005).Presently, the GNH index developed by the Centre for Bhutan Studies (Ura  et al. 2012) consists of 9 domains with 33 indicators as shown in Figure 1. The 33 indicators are further composed of 124 variables, which they call “the basic building blocks of GNH Index”. Ura  et al. (2012) are quick to note that the GNH Index, “unlike certain concepts of happiness in current Western literature, happiness is itself multidimensional – not measured only by subjective well-being, and not focused narrowly on happiness that begins and ends with oneself and is concerned for and with oneself”. They add that the “pursuit of happiness is collective, though it can be experienced deeply personally”.


Figure 1. The nine domains and 33 indicators of the GNH index (Reproduced from Ura et al. 2012)

How is the GNH index used to measure ‘happiness’? Under each of the 33 indicators, weights are attached to variables. These weights differ, with lighter weights attached to highly subjective variables. A threshold or sufficiency level is applied to each variable. At the level of domains, all the 9 domains are equally weighted as they are all considered to be equally valid for happiness (Ura et al. 2012).

Any post-2015 proposal should take due cognizance of the strengths and weaknesses of the MDGs, the challenges it faced and the successes it has achieved because it has to carry on from where the MDGs leave off. The MDGs were built on the agreements made at the UN conferences in the 1990s. The actual impetus came from the United Nations Millennium Declaration signed by the largest ever gathering of Head of State in September 2000 (United Nations 2000), though in practical terms, the MDGs only gained global momentum after the historic agreements at the 2002 UN Conference on Financing for Development in Monterrey, Mexico, which affirmed the international ODA target of 0.7 precent of gross national income  (Aryeetey  et al. 2012).

As far as the achievements are concerned, the target of reducing extreme poverty by half has been achieved ahead of the 2015 deadline (see Figure 2), “as has the target of halving the proportion of people who lack dependable access to improved sources of drinking water. Conditions for more than 200 million people living in slums have been ameliorated—double the 2020 target. Primary school enrolment of girls equaled that of boys, and we have seen accelerating progress in reducing child and maternal mortality” (United Nations 2012).






Figure 2. Aggregate extreme poverty headcount ratio since 1981 (% of total developing country population living under $1.25/day) (Reproduced from Aryeetey et al. 2012).

According the UN Secretary General (United Nations 2012), “these results represent a tremendous reduction in human suffering and are a clear validation of the approach embodied in the MDGs”. But, he warns that they are not a reason to relax. There are differences in achievements across regions. Besides, it is projected that in 2015 more than 600 million people worldwide will still be using unimproved water sources, almost one billion will be living on an income of less than $1.25 per day. “Lack of safe sanitation, biodiversity loss, and greenhouse gas emissions will continue to pose a major threat to people and ecosystems,” he adds.

Against this backdrop, I believe that GNH should have an integral role in the post-2015 global development agenda for all countries for the following reasons:

  1. First and foremost, GNH is a holistic development approach that touches upon not only the material aspects of human well-being, but also on the intangible psychological, mental or spiritual aspects. It challenges our obsession with the consumerist GDP-driven model of development by asking some of the most fundamental questions: what is the purpose of development? Isn’t it to bring about a happy, peaceful and humane society? Is unlimited growth possible on a planet endowed with only finite resources? This is especially relevant in the wake of the global economic crisis and its aftermath as they “mark the end of a relatively benign period and present an opportunity to rethink progress, indicators and institutional arrangements as the Sarkozy Commission noted recently” (Sumner & Tiwari 2010). GNH could be an answer to Sumner and Tiwari’s (2011) “three core post-2015 issues that are essential to debate in terms of the contents of a new framework: the deficiencies of the MDGs (notably on ownership, accountability and reaching the poor/poorest); the changing context (of new vulnerabilities and shifting patterns of global poverty); and the new, post-economic crisis global politics (the role of the G20, emerging powers and new donors)”.
  1. GNH is a good rallying cry for development because happiness is something that every human being can relate to in a positive and easy way. According to Thinley (2004), “Happiness is a shared desire of every human being. It is possibly the ultimate thing we want while other things are wanted only as a means to its increase”. This overcomes one of the weaknesses of the MDGs which is being “cumbersome for public advocacy”. The acronym “MDG” speaks “mainly to those with policy knowledge rather than the general public or the poor themselves” (Aryeetey et al. 2012).
  1. The 9 domains of GNH could easily be converted into 9 goals, with indicators and variables under each domain. The 9 domains can be kept universal whereas the indicators and variables under these domains can vary according to different countries or places. I totally agree with the following words of Aryeetey  et al. (2012):

“Environment and development processes interact and manifest themselves in very different ways across the human landscape. The MDG regarding slum-dwellers was a partial recognition of this fact, but it was formulated in an awkward manner and did not receive significant attention. For human landscapes where the pace of change is rapid, where the cross-sectoral linkages dominate, and where business-as-usual projections are alarming, goals and targets could be framed in a place-specific manner”.

  1. The vision of GNH is global and all inclusive irrespective of whether a country is developed or not, whereas some MDG communications strategies had “fostered a misunderstanding that Goals 1 to 7 applied to developing countries while Goal 8 applies to developed countries” (Aryeetey et al. 2012). Such misunderstanding could be avoided with GNH.


  1. Some of the strengths of MDGs were being ambitious, simple, quantifiable and deadline-driven. These attributes can be preserved for goals based on the 9 domains of GNH too by specifying simple and measurable indicators and variables as “it is important that new goals and targets meet the SMART criteria: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound” (Aryeetey et al. 2012).


  1. MDGs did not take into account some very important issues like good governance, environmental degradation, climate change etc. For instance, Aryeetey  et al. (2012) lament that the MDGs “do not directly address issues of discrimination, exclusion, inequality, violence or government repression, all of which can be defining drivers of poverty, as well as bad development outcomes in themselves. Nor do they directly address issues of risk and vulnerability, a major challenge for the extreme poor, particularly in light of climate change.” The domains ‘good governance’ and ‘ecological diversity and resilience’ in GNH take care of these issues.


In conclusion, it can be stated that GNH provides a very relevant alternative to the dilemma of post-2015 international development agenda in the wake of the recent global economic crisis and the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation looming large. GNH is a powerful concept that is capable of providing a paradigm shift to our obsession with unlimited growth and the consumerist GDP-driven model of development. If GNH were to be adopted as the post-2015 development agenda along with the requisite commitments from all countries, especially the G20 countries, we will be on course to achieving a more environmentally sustainable, poverty-free, hunger-free, peaceful and happy world.


  1. Aryeetey, E., Esty, D., Feulner, E., Geiger, T., Kaufmann, D., Kraemer, A. et. al (2012) ‘Getting to Zero: finishing the job the MDGs started’. In Global Agenda Council, World Economic Forum, April.
  2. Sumner, A., & Tiwari, M. (2010) ‘Global Poverty Reduction to 2015 and Beyond: What has been the Impact of the MDGs and what are the Options for a Post‐2015 Global Framework?’ IDS Working Papers, 2010(348), pp. 01-31.
  3. Sumner, A., & Tiwari, M. (2011) ‘Global poverty reduction to 2015 and beyond. Global Policy’, 2(2), pp. 138-151.
  4. Thinley, J. Y. (2004) ‘Values and Development:“Gross National Happiness” ’. Indigeneity and Universality in Social Science: A South Asian Response, pp. 203-211.
  5. Thinley, J. Y. (2005) ‘What Does Gross National Happiness (GNH) Mean?. In Keynote: The Second International Conference on Gross National Happiness RETHINKING DEVELOPMENT Local Pathways to Global Wellbeing. St. Francis Xavier University, Antigonish, Nova Scotia, Canada.
  6. Ungurean, C. (2005) ‘Millennium Development Goals’. In Scîntee, S. G. and Galan, A.  (eds.), Public Health Strategies: A Tool for Regional Development – A Handbook for Teachers, Researchers, Health Professionals and Decision Makers, Helweg: Hans Jacobs Publishing Company, pp. 142.
  7. United Nations (2000) United Nations Millennium Declaration: Resolution. UN.
  8. United Nations (2012) The Millennium Development Goals Report 2012, Available at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/reports.shtml
  9. United Nations (2013a) Millenium Development Goals. Available at http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/
  10. United Nations (2013b) Development Agenda Beyond 2015, Department of Social and Economic Affairs, Available at http://www.un.org/en/development/desa/area-of-work/post2015.shtml
  11. Ura, K., Alkire, S., Zangmo, T. & Wangdi, K. (2012) A Short Guide to Gross National Happiness Index, Centre for Bhutan Studies, Thimphu.
  12. Urban, F. (2010) ‘The MDGs and Beyond: Can Low Carbon Development be Pro‐poor?’, IDS bulletin, 41(1), pp. 92-99.
  13. Wangchuk, S. (2013), GNHising, Kuensel, 11 February. Available at http://www.kuenselonline.com/gnhising/


This essay be referenced as:

Dorji, Tshering C. (2013), ‘Why GNH should have an integral role in the post-2015 global development agenda’, an essay submitted to the University of Canberra for the module ‘Gross National Happiness’ of the Master of Management Program.