Lifestyle Business

In search of GNH (Gross National Happiness) from Bhutan to Cotabato and Maguindanao

Curtis S. Chin - The Philippine Star

MANILA, Philippines - The destinations could not be more different  Thimpu, the peaceful capital of the small Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan; and Cotabato City and the conflict-affected areas in Mindanao. Yet last month, I had the unique opportunity to travel from one to the other — first to Bhutan for a family trek with Dhamey Norgay, the son of Tenzing Norgay, who was the first man along with Sir Edmund Hillary to summit Everest — and then back to the Philippines where I once served as US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank.

And in these very different places, I was struck by how often the exact same word came up — one that is perhaps more often associated with Bhutan than with Mindanao, a region whose future has been shaped for far too long by conflict and clan wars, and a legacy of colonialism and conquest.  

That word is a simple one: “Happiness.”

Back in the early 1970s, as martial law descended on the Philippines, something very different was taking place in Bhutan. There, in 1972, the fourth king of Bhutan made clear that more important than the pursuit of Gross National Product and material wealth alone was “GNH,” or Gross National Happiness. The essence of the philosophy of GNH, according to the government of Bhutan some four decades later, remains “the peace and happiness of our people and the security and sovereignty of the nation.”  In those words, too, there may be a message for the rest of us.

While the path ahead remains uncertain and likely fraught with twists and turns, there is now some hope — and perhaps a little more peace and happiness — at least as shown in the communities I traveled to recently in Mindanao. With the signing of a framework peace agreement just a few days before my arrival in Cotabato, the signs proclaiming “Long live Bangsamoro” and seeking support and cooperation still lined many streets.

My journey there and on to Maguindanao was with fellow board members of CFSI Community & Family Services International, a Manila-based international humanitarian organization that for 30 years has helped rebuild the lives of people displaced by conflict or natural disaster in places across Asia, including Mindanao.

“Happy” was the word used by the young mother named Fatima when asked how she felt about the prospects for a brighter future for her family. “One would cry,” she said through a translator, “if you had seen our lives in the displacement camps” where tens of thousands lived for months, if not years, during some of the worst times of strife and “all-out war.”  “All our hopes for our children ended,” she said, in describing uprooted lives and livelihoods.  

Now sitting in a newly built one-room “Harmony Play Center” — one of two small neighborhood daycare and parents’ education centers that she and other mothers from the community are helping maintain after initial funding by CFSI and the Consuelo Foundation in the United States — the proud mom, surrounded by other mothers and their children, sported an infectious smile.

“Happy” was also the word of the day for students gathered under sun-drenched skies and traditional parasols and colorful banners for the graduation ceremonies of a unique Social Work Education Project (SWEP) master’s degree program that has just come to a close. Done in cooperation with Catholic University of America and several Mindanao universities — Cotabato City State Polytechnic College, Mindanao State University and Western Mindanao State University — as well as with the Bangsamoro Development Agency and CFSI, the program has provided graduate education to social workers from as far away as Sulu in western Mindanao, Misasmis Occidental in the north, and Davao Oriental in the east, as well as Central Mindanao, Palawan and even Manila.  

Some 30 students received diplomas that sunny Saturday morning with a beaming Secretary of Social Welfare and Development Corazon “Dinky” Soliman looking on, bringing the total to 100 graduates over the length of the multi-year program. Of these 100 SWEP graduates, almost 80 percent are women and 70 percent are Muslim. Forty percent serve in government social welfare at the regional, provincial and local levels. Forty-five percent serve with NGOs and other civil society groups, and the remaining 15 percent teach social work at the bachelor’s degree level.  

“Happy” was certainly written on the faces of the parents and sisters of the graduating class’s president, as they made their first trip to Mindanao from Manila to join the commencement ceremonies. Should peace take hold, perhaps others from Manila and elsewhere will come for themselves also to see the beauty and promise of Mindanao.

“Happy” also came to mind as I joined several hundred students, parents and others to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the founding of Inug-ug Elementary School in Pagalungan, Maguindanao. Built by the community in part through help from CFSI supporters, including the late Maria Mabilangan Haley — a pioneering Fil-Am who served with Bill Clinton for many years in Arkansas and then the White House — among others, the elementary school has stood witness to happy and not-so-happy times during a decade of floods and conflict.

“Happy” or even “hopeful” certainly would not have been the words that came to mind whenever Mindanao was mentioned during my time at the ADB as I pushed for more effective support for those most in need. Philippine government priorities for its borrowings from the ADB then did not regularly extend beyond Luzon and the Visayas. There were, and are, of course, exceptions — such as support for an energy conservation program, or for airport and other infrastructure developments around Davao — but assistance from the multilateral lender typically focused elsewhere in the country.  

Perhaps that, too, will change in time. Further economic development will be critical to the future of Mindanao, and that region’s development will also be critical to a more peaceful and prosperous nation overall.  


Having arrived in Cotabato only a few days after leaving Bhutan, I was struck by the disparities between traveling the small kingdom and the checkpoints and barbed wire that still characterize travel in parts of Mindanao.  Bhutan remains one of the poorest nations in Asia, and unlike the Philippines, has only slowing opened up to the outside world. Landlocked between two powerful neighbors, China and India, the tiny nation is also understandably cautious in its diplomacy and outreach. That is not to say, though, that learning and teaching can only travel one way when it comes to development.

As Bhutan continues its pursuit of greater Gross National Happiness, an approach that seeks to reflect both spiritual and material aspects of development, the search to help define and measure GNH continue. The latest criteria include nine factors ranging from “psychological well-being” and “community vitality” to “cultural diversity,” “ecological resilience” and “good governance.”

Perhaps that search to define and measure happiness will never end. Bhutan’s tourism slogan also proudly proclaims “Happiness is a place.”  

Even with conflict still not yet at an end, jobs uncertain and the ever-present challenges of maintaining schools and roads, the people whom I met with in Mindanao might note, however, that happiness can occur no matter where. Frameworks can be filled in; foundations built. Happiness is not just a physical place, but also a state of mind.  

What might be needed most now, though, is a continued commitment to peace and to shared prosperity — and likely, the long discussions and compromises that will lie ahead — to ensuring that happiness is not fleeting, whether in Bhutan or the Philippines.

As Bhutan’s first elected prime minister is said to have once stated, happiness is much more than the fleeting, pleasurable feel-good moments so often associated with the term. “We know that time-abiding happiness,” he said, “cannot exist while others suffer.”

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Curtis S. Chin served as the US ambassador to the Asian Development Bank under Presidents Barack Obama and George W. Bush (2007-2010). He is now senior fellow and executive-in-residence at the Asian Institute of Technology, and a managing director with RiverPeak Group, LLC.










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