World Clock

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Poverty and Bhutan

I always thought Development is a positive change just opposite to Poverty. Not anymore. The reading on Poverty and Development into the 21st century by Allen and Thomas opened my eyes. I would comment on a plan of the government of Bhutan, a least developed country with a development philosophy called Gross National Happiness.

The Bhutanese Government is working tooth and nail to eradicate poverty in the society. According to Kuensel (26 January, 2010) more than 20 percent of Bhutan’s estimated 630,000 citizens live on less than US$ 1 a day, the threshold considered necessary to maintain an adequate standard of living. The government plans to reduce this poverty rate to less than 15 percent by 2013.
This is also the figure mentioned by World Bank for developing countries.

The real issue is, how we define poverty in a traditional Bhutanese society? A lot of things are never bought and sold at market rates. Many villages still function with exchange of labors, goods and simple social obligations/exchanges as members of the community. For instance during a house construction, a person might not be paid anything for the day’s work, while he would be fed and the labor returned sometime in future. We also take a lot of food and other items to our friends and families during birth, promotions, death, sickness and social occasions unlike many other societies. We might not be taking them into account at all, especially as income, but the senders feel it.

Another question about Poverty is the balance between different countries and regions. Poor in USA is not same as the poor in Bhutan, 1$ in Bhutan is way different from 1$ in California. At the same time, is 1$ equally worthy in Thimphu as in Ozorong?

The United Nations has its Human Development Index (HDI) and Human Poverty Index (HPI) which takes into consideration of Health, Education and social services. Bhutan in our own way has the Gross National Happiness (GNH) and its indicators. GNH has awesome indicators which go beyond the HDI/HPI of the UN taking into account of environment, tradition and culture as well. Why is the Bhutanese government still going with the concept of poverty line drawn by $ per day income?

Poverty eradication sounds like an excellent goal to pursue and dream about, a society in which all Bhutanese can afford proper housing, health and education. But then, do we simply go by the current global concept of dollars per day income as used by the rest of the world or define poverty in our own ways? We cannot define a family in a remote village, totally self-reliant, with free local resources and traditional lives without anything to sale as poor since their source of income is low, while we sort out someone in Thimphu with a 100$ per month salary as above poverty line, since the family in Thimphu has to pay a huge rent and buy everything.

Let me make it clear, I do not mean that we should plan on keeping the rural folks away from modern amenities and services so that we have living a museum to visit on occasions. However, are we asking them to start selling and putting price tags on everything they have been giving and receiving for free? Are we saying that if they do not have adequate source of income and only have peace and happiness that they are poor? Are we looking to employ our monks, old men and women and Tshampas/hermits to come start working in the fields or drives taxes to generate income and eradicate poverty? I am sure the matter deserves a way more attention and study than a mere comment by someone like me. But this is a food for thought for all of us.