Gross National Happiness, Law and Transformation: Comparative Aspects of Local Alternative Development Paradigms

Wolfram Schaffar

Since the 1970s, Gross National Happiness (GNH) is the leading development paradigm of Bhutan, which defines an alternative path to development – in opposition to Western GDP-based development thinking. With the constitution of 2008, institution-building and policy-making, including all aspects of social, economic and cultural development policy, has been based on a legal foundation, while upholding the principles of GNH.

GNH is not an isolated phenomenon. Against the backdrop of the dissatisfaction with mainstream Western development concepts and outcomes, and as a response to the ongoing global multiple crises, in many party of the Global South, locally rooted, indigenous – or indigenized – cultural conceptualizations have become key denominators for alternative development. The most prominent example is the indigenous concept of buen vivir / vivir bien in Ecuador and Bolivia. But also in Asia, we find concepts like swaraj in India, sufficiency economy in Thailand or nomadic pastoralism in Mongolia.

Many alternative development concepts not only reject specific neo-liberal economic development policies, but articulate a fundamental criticism at the notion of development as such, including existing state structures and the dominant global economic system (post-development). Some of these concepts have become key principles of state politics and policy-making processes and – as in Bhutan – were enshrined in the constitutions of their countries, with the aim to lay the foundation for a fundamental transition process: The Mongolian constitution of 1992 enshrines a specific commitment to nomadic pastoralism, the Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitution formulate the ambition to re-found the state on the basis of indigenous principles such as buen vivir / vivir bien.

The aim of the paper is to provide a comparative analysis of how constitutions envision and encode the transition process towards a new development paradigm (or post-development future). What legal processes or strategies are employed to facilitate the transition? It will be argued that law as a tool for transition and for alternative development plays a very different role in the Mongolian, Bolivian and Ecuadorian constitution. On the basis of these examples, three types of constitutions will be distinguished: 1) programmatic constitutions, which only define a commitment to alternatives, but no transition process as such, 2) constitutions, which introduce specific legal instruments in order to facilitate an transition, and 3) constitutions, which include the legal system as such (with all its institutions and colonial or Western implications) into an open-ended transformation process. Against this backdrop, I will discuss the Bhutanese constitution and its provisions, which are gradually unfolding in the political process.

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