November 20 2020

Altruism in Action in Bhutan

“One of the essential components of happiness can be summed up in three words: altruism, love and compassion. How can we find happiness for ourselves when those around us are constantly suffering? Moreover, whatever happens, our happiness is closely linked to that of others.” – Matthieu Ricard, Le Moine et le Philosophe (1999)

Present in India, Nepal and Tibet for 20 years now, Karuna-Shechen supports the Amis du Bhoutan, the only French-speaking association acting in the country, founded in 1987.

Bhutan has long been a mysterious and unknown country to the West. Today, with a population of 750,000, Bhutan shares its borders with India and Tibet. Nicknamed the “land of happiness” in the press, the country nevertheless faces endemic poverty. 

Happiness and Well-being, a Paradigm of Life in Bhutan

True happiness is not an endless sequence of pleasurable sensations, which sounds more like a recipe for exhaustion than a quest for happiness. True happiness is a way of being that goes hand in hand with altruistic love, inner strength, inner freedom, and serenity, and which day after day, month after month, can be cultivated as a skill,” explained Matthieu Ricard at a conference at the United Nations (2012). 

Bhutan was the first country in the world to erect happiness as a state policy. Hiding in the heart of the Himalayas, this small kingdom rejects “the dictatorship of Gross Domestic Product (GDP)” and economic growth at all costs, proposing a new indicator of wealth: Gross National Happiness (GNH). “At a time of global environmental devastation and cultural destruction, at a time of rising bankruptcy and the collapse of our world economic order, the world desperately needs an alternative to the materialistic and consumerist obsession that has caused such devastation.” said Bhutan’s Prime Minister Jigmi Thinley at a United Nations conference (2012). 

The Gross National Happiness (GNH) indicator has several dimensions: it is holistic, recognizing the spiritual, material, physical or social needs of the population. It emphasizes balanced and ecologically sustainable progress in the pursuit of well-being for this and the next generation. Thus Gross National Happiness is based on 4 pillars: good governance, sustainable economic development, environmental protection, and cultural preservation

During the Covid-19 Pandemic, Bhutan has organized itself to manage the health situation in the best possible way, recording the lowest number of cases in the Indian sub-continent. The government has taken many measures for the welfare of its people and for the economy. Although unemployment benefits are not available, the government has responded to the pandemic and the loss of jobs for many Bhutanese, particularly in the tourism sector. A minimum wage was introduced and rents for small traders were suspended by the banks. during the crisis, to allow businesses to survive.

The inhabitants have also mobilized and have shown their benevolence, says Françoise Pommaret, president of the association Amis du Bhoutan :  “Everything has been put in place so that this terrible crisis does not lead to misfortune for the society but also for the economy”. Some have donated their harvests to people in need, others have made hotel rooms available to place patients in quarantine. On a voluntary basis, young people were recruited to help the elderly or isolated people to bring them food and medicine. The management of the crisis highlights the spirit of solidarity that exists in Bhutan.

A need to act for disavantaged populations 

However, in this small Himalayan kingdom, the virtue of the BNB has its limits. The culture of happiness, benevolence and solidarity alone does not make it possible to fight against poverty. Inequalities remain, and the rural population is still very vulnerable. 10.2% of the population lives below the international poverty line and the infant mortality rate is 3.2% compared to 0.2% in France according to figures published by Unicef.

Although unemployment does not exceed 3% of the active population according to the World Bank, young people are still badly affected. 11.2% of the under 24s are unemployed. Most of them are, however, graduates of higher education, but encounter difficulties in finding employment outside the agricultural sector. 

Bhutan remains a poor country, where living conditions are made difficult by mountainous regions with little infrastructure. The limitations of a happiness indicator is that it overlooks the inequalities and endemic poverty that plague the country. 

Amis du Bhoutan, through various actions – such as sponsoring children or building homes – provides support to people in need. It also works alongside the Loden Foundation on an entrepreneurial scholarship project for young people in rural areas. 

Traditionally, economic activity in Bhutan has focused on agriculture and trade. In a rapidly changing world, these activities cannot provide sufficient added value and economic growth or provide jobs for the growing number of educated young people entering the labor market each year. 

The development of a dynamic culture of entrepreneurship, while respecting local culture, can be a solution to meet these needs, according to Françoise Pommaret. It is in this context that the Loden Foundation offers young entrepreneurs without guarantors interest-free loans to enable them to start their own business. Thanks to this program, more than 3 OOO jobs have been created in 20 years. 


Karuna-Shechen supports the Association of Friends of Bhutan in order to advance, each day a little more, towards a fairer and more altruistic world