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Ron Colman, who has traveled to Bhutan to study their measurements for rating Gross National Happiness, sits under a tree in Tantallon, NS, July 2, 2010. (Paul Darrow/ The Globe and Mail)
Ron Colman, who has traveled to Bhutan to study their measurements for rating Gross National Happiness, sits under a tree in Tantallon, NS, July 2, 2010. (Paul Darrow/ The Globe and Mail)

Canadian at centre of Bhutanese government's 'Gross National Happiness' movement Add to ...

It’s one of the most challenging international airports in the world, with a hairy approach that involves threading the plane through surrounding Himalayan peaks.

Fewer than 15 people are said to be allowed to pilot passenger planes into Paro airport, near the Bhutanese capital of Thimphu. But getting on the ground safely isn’t the only reason Ron Colman feels his nerves settle each time he sets foot in the country.

“You get out and it’s quiet,” the Nova Scotian said over a recent lunch near Halifax, a day before leaving for his latest stint as an adviser to Bhutan’s government. “I find it not that hard to live there. It’s a completely different culture and environment and everything, and yet in some way it also, to me, feels more human. It feels more what life is supposed to be about.”

Whether Bhutan can retain that uniqueness, though, is a question that looms large in the remote South Asian country. The modern world is beating at the door.

The Tiger's Nest monastery, one of the holiest spots in Bhutan, built where Guru Rimpoche was said to have flown on a tigress and meditated for three months.

Some of the changes have been seen as positive for the poor country, where agriculture dominates and per capita income was $1,832 last year, according to the World Bank. The 2007 commissioning of the Tala hydroelectric project, which generates nearly five billion kilowatts annually, all sold to India, helped the country boast the world’s second-fastest growing economy that year.

But there is concern about other developments. Western influences pouring into the country through television and the Internet, unknown only a decade ago, are impacting local culture. People who once walked to work, socializing as they went, want to drive because a car is the latest status symbol. There are traffic jams in the capital.

Leaders of the constitutional monarchy have become increasingly concerned about the possible effects of these rapid changes. They have been working fast to give real meaning to the country’s official attitude, first stated by the king in 1972, that “Gross National Happiness” is more important than traditional economic measurements.

“To be honest, we spent some years … simply taking refuge in the vision, concept, and the term itself,” Prime Minister Lyonchhen Jigmi Y. Thinley told an education conference last December that Mr. Colman helped organize. “I now know that this option no longer exists.”

The country's leaders want to entrench the concept as the guiding principle of their nation’s development. And in the thick of this push is Mr. Colman, director of the progressive Nova Scotia think tank GPI Atlantic. He first came to Bhutan seven years ago on a working visit, at the behest of that country’s government, and has been ramping up his time there. Returning this week, he was unsure when he will be back in Canada.

All decisions are being made by Bhutanese officials, Mr. Colman stressed, but his group has come to play a key role in the country’s efforts to manage development. They’re involved in projects that include incorporating the principles of GNH into the school curriculum, a push to get the country’s entire agricultural output certified organic, setting up a centre to demonstrate the principles of GNH and developing national accounts that incorporate natural, social and cultural capital along with the traditional measurements.

“Our role you might say is a bit of a match-making role, you just try to draw on the best people in the world,” explained Mr. Colman, who emigrated to Nova Scotia early in the 1990s but retains hints of an Australian accent. “These people, by the way, in our experience, are very enthusiastic about coming and helping. Because they’re frustrated that their ideas, just like we are in Nova Scotia, haven’t taken root in the fabric of the system.”

The lengthening list of people Mr. Colman’s group has helped bring to the table includes Vandana Shiva, the Indian champion of small-scale agriculture and winner of the “alternative Nobel prize,” and American academic Robert Costanza, a pioneer of ecological economics.

“Bhutan, which looks idealistic, is actually being realistic about what you need for a sustainable society,” Dr. Shiva said from New Delhi. “They have enlightened leadership that says we will not become a destination for mass tourism, we will not copycat development models.”

The stakes are high.

David Orr, professor of environmental studies at Ohio’s Oberlin College and participant in the December conference, argued there that the Bhutanese have to become “discerning consumers” of the Western model and its culture. And it needs to start in the schools.

“If the Bhutanese are to maintain their equilibrium, part of the curriculum has to be a really in-depth look at Western culture, what worked and what didn’t work,” he said from Ohio.

Bhutan is starting from a different place than many developing nations. Never colonized and effectively isolated by its remoteness, it begins with a fairly clean slate. The effects of modernity are still faint, and progressives think there is the potential to create something groundbreaking.

“If Bhutan can be successful in this more integrated development philosophy – this development approach that tries to integrate the economic, social, cultural and environment variables – then it could be a tremendously valuable model for other countries,” Mr. Colman said. “Both developing and developed countries. Because we have not succeeded in integrating those models very well.”

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