Is a focus on happiness enough to help a country achieve the SDGs?

24 May 2019
SERIES Think tanks contributing towards the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) 8 items

Bhutan, a tiny landlocked country in South Asia, is one of the first countries to embrace the principles that underline the SDGs into its development agenda, which – as a departure from the norm – focuses on happiness.

First coined in 1978 and eventually integrated into the country’s Constitution in 2008, the country’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) policy aims to maximize collective happiness. And since 2015, striking similarities between the SDGs and the GNH have helped Bhutan witness a seamless integration of these goals into its national plans.

SDGs and Bhutan’s five-year plan for Gross National Happiness

In practice, the Gross National Happiness Commission (GNHC), as the central agency responsible for implementation of the GNH, integrates the SDGs into national priorities through Bhutan’s five-year planning framework which shapes its principal development agenda.

To fulfil the SDGs, Bhutan boasts of a relatively strong institutional setup at national and sub-national levels, with ten ministries and more than 60 government agencies, civil society organizations (CSO), and private organizations involved in implementation, monitoring and evaluation. In 2016, when Bhutan was already half-way through its 11th five-year plan, 134 targets out of the 143 relevant SDGs targets were successfully incorporated into it. Since, some 100 targets and indicators have been included into the National Key Result Areas (NKRA) and Key Performance Indicators (KPI) for the 12th five-year plan, which is slated to commence any time soon.

At the local level, the country’s decentralized developmental framework means that government sub-branches are present to ensure the SDGs are integrated into existing plans. Bhutan also follows a multi-sectoral approach to fulfill the SDGs, wherein several relevant ministries and organizations collectively strive to achieve these goals.  For instance, to combat climate change and its impact (SDG 13), while the Ministry of Health (MoH) strengthens response to the health impacts caused by climate change, the Ministry of Agriculture & Forest has introduced climate resilient crop varieties and the Ministry of Works & Human Settlement is focused on building disaster resistant infrastructures. At the same time, the National Environment Commission (NEC) focuses on environmental monitoring, information management and communication.

When it comes to health, the MoH is responsible for implementing and monitoring all health-related SDGs. The MoH is also involved in the development of Bhutan’s five-year plans, and as such has been able to ensure that health-related SDGs are included and reflected in the NKRAs. At a sub-national level, district health offices frame District Key Result Areas (DKRAs) based on national targets, and therefore through hospitals, basic health units and village health workers ensure that the SDGs are implemented, even in the most remote regions of the country. To facilitate this implementation and monitor progress, the MoH can rely on approximately 3,110 health professionals and 882 public health facilities.

Challenges in achieving the SDGs

Even in the land of happiness, all is not bright. In fact, despite this robust institutional setup, the achievement of the SDGs in Bhutan is confronted with numerous challenges. Chief among these is a shortage of sufficient funds to translate policies into action and the paucity of a trained workforce to carry out needed research, a situation which has created a huge void that inhibits the achievement of SDGs.

Bhutan falls under the ‘least developed countries’ category  and is highly dependent on Official Development Assistances. Although there are development partners making substantial donations to the country, these funds are often more closely tied to donor priorities than to priority areas of national interests.

Another challenge facing Bhutan is the lack of reliable and timely data that can be used to track progress being made on SDGs. However, evidence-based decision making is slowly gaining strength in the country and more attention is now being accorded to research. Of recent, the National Statistics Bureau as the country’s data custodian has shifted its attention to providing data that can serve as evidence for policymakers. Building the capacity of researchers is another major step undertaken to generate a more refined database.

Focusing efforts to meet the SDGs

Against this background, it becomes imperative for Bhutan to optimize the management of existing resources and prioritize interventions based on available evidence. This could be achieved, for example, through establishment of Policy Research Institutes (PRIs) that would carry out rigorous studies, providing real-time evidence needed to inform the work of various SDGs-related programmes. A recent exploratory study funded by the International Development Research Center to understand Bhutan’s SDGs situation emphasizes that there is a clear role to be played by PRIs in acting as brokers between researchers, policymakers and communities to ensure that research leads to policy and action. Yet, Bhutan currently lacks such institutions.

Therefore, when reflecting on Bhutan’s achievements to date, it is evident that additional investments in policy research and capacity building will be essential to achievement of the SDGs, and particularly health for all.

Given the parallels between the SDGs and the nation’s GNH development paradigm, Bhutan’s efforts towards achieving the 2030 agenda can hopefully serve as an example to others. But for that to happen, Bhutan needs to ensure the country has the resources it needs to take action on its plans and policies.