Can a poor nation like Bhutan achieve limited modernization, adopting only the media, the particular technologies, and the developmental policies that fit into its odd concept of GNH? Will Bhutan keep its forests off-limits to loggers? Will it continue to put a cap on the number of tourists who visit the country? Can it afford to invest more than a third of its budget in health and education?
So long as Bhutan declines foreign investment that goes against its environmental policies or infringes upon its sovereignty, it can do all of these things. Whether it should is something the Bhutanese themselves must decide.
One can easily imagine an economic liberal arguing that once they are no longer ruled by the king’s whims, the Bhutanese may prefer a more conventional kind of development to their picturesque poverty. The Bhutanese might want more affluence and economic choice for themselves and their families. The economic liberal would insist that it is Westerners who are most bewitched by the idea of Bhutan as an untouched paradise.
The country tends to evoke strong sentiments in visitors. It bewitched me. And I am not alone. Long-time Time essayist and travel writer Pico Iyer has seen more of the world than most. He calls Bhutan the last Shangri-la. In a picture book about Bhutan commissioned by the Amankora hotel, Iyer writes, “We aspire, many of us, to step out of the accelerated rush of our wired planet, and into somewhere pristine; and we find more and more, that it’s nearly impossible….In Bhutan…the King has outlined a notion of gross national happiness to stand for a different kind of wealth and shelter.”
Maybe the Bhutanese think that Shangri-la is worth preserving. During my visit to Bhutan, I felt that most Bhutanese share the king’s aspirations. Iyer saw what I did: “The whole kingdom has made a sustained and conscious effort to hold on to what is precious in its past while trying to bring its people into the comfort and safety of the future.”
Stephan Herrera is a contributing editor to Technology Review.