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Happiness first

February 17, 2012

MONEY makes the world go round. But as the euro debt crisis grinds on and anti-austerity protests gain momentum across the continent, I’ve been thinking: could Europe’s embattled leaders learn a lesson or two from a tiny Himalayan kingdom where happiness, not taxes, are a top priority?

Bhutan where the former king, Jigme Singye Wangchuck, began talking about gross national happiness in the 1970s, was the first to decree happiness a national policy. It’s certainly no paradise, but Bhutan has declared happiness a public good and a collective goal. Look around and it becomes clear that not just in Europe but many governments across the globe have much to learn about making the happiness of their citizens a national priority.

Instead of focusing on joy, most leaders and national institutions — including in Pakistan — seem to go out of their way to make life more difficult and painful for people. Hospitals? Let them fall into ruin and let them rot. Schools? Provide the infrastructure but no teachers — or the other way around. Equality among citizens? No, let’s discriminate, persecute and send into exile.

For a long time, most European countries seemed to be home to some very happy people. After all, this was the continent which came up with social welfare, child care for working mothers, short working hours, long vacations and equal opportunities, including equal pay. No longer. Austerity means cutbacks in social benefits, job cuts and fiercer competition in the labour market.

Over the last few days, I have watched in particular dismay as the divide between Europeans — especially Germans and Greeks — has got wider. People across Europe are making clear that they no longer like or trust their leaders and that the concept of ‘solidarity’ between nations and people is no longer relevant in a crisis-stricken Europe. Anti-German sentiments are on the rise in Greece as Germany and other eurozone countries demand that Athens take even more stringent measures to nurse its ailing economy back to health.

It appears to be all about history. As the Financial Times pointed out recently, “To blame Germany draws on deep wells of national suffering endured during the 1941-1944 Nazi occupation of Greece”.

It is also about perception. This “Anti-German populism finds its mirror in the impression among the German public that Greeks are lazy, unreliable and responsible for their own woes,” the article says. There is no doubt that the current eurozone crisis has spotlighted what was always Europe’s unspoken truth: Germany’s pre-eminent position as the final arbiter of Europe’s economic future.

Increasingly, whether or not Athens secures a new bailout to avoid bankruptcy next month, relations between Greece and Germany look close to breaking point. Greek Finance Minister Evangelos Venizelos has complained that some “forces within Europe” may even want “Greece outside the euro zone”. This followed comments by German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble in which he described Greece as a “bottomless pit”.

Italian Prime Minister Mario Monti has criticised the north European approach in more measured tones, warning that the debt crisis was fuelling dangerous resentments. While southern countries were widely blamed for the crisis, France and Germany also bore major responsibility for having first breached and watered down the zone’s fiscal rules. “There are no goodies or baddies in the European Union,” Monti said.

“What is happening today with Greece is unprecedented,” said Greek Citizens’ Protection Minister Christos Papoutsis, who is a former European commissioner. “The sacrifices of the Greek people are unbearable.” And as these sacrifices become more unbearable, it is clear that European leaders too need to start paying attention to the voice of the people.

The Indignado and Occupy movements haven’t quite put it this way but the focus on fiscal consolidation and austerity needs to be balanced with an equally strong emphasis on growth and giving people the means to have some fun.

The concept of happiness as a common public good is gaining ground. A United Nations resolution says happiness is critical in advancing economic growth and social progress. The Paris-based Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) now has a ground- breaking ‘How’s Life’ initiative which ranks countries on a happiness index by asking questions like: Do you like your job? How’s your health? Are you spending enough time each day with your children? When you need them, are your friends there for you? Can you trust your neighbours? And how satisfied are you, overall, with your life?

The Human Development Index produced annually by the UNDP is a must-read for policymakers since it was published for the first time in 1990 by the brilliant Pakistani economist Mahbub ul Haq.

In Europe, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and Britain’s David Cameron have tinkered with the concept — but clearly not long enough to put it into practice. Thailand has an impressive wellbeing agenda which it is eager to promote worldwide. And Taiwan has just said it will issue an annual ‘gross happiness index’ which takes into account factors such as health, environment, education, living, culture, jobs, vacations and the child-raising environment.

No one expects GDP indicators to be replaced anytime soon. But the move away from GNP and GDP as the only measure of a country’s overall state is surely a good thing.

Europeans may not want to take a page out of tiny Bhutan’s book but those favouring a ‘beyond GDP’ agenda also include economists like Amartya Sen, Joseph Stiglitz and Jean-Paul Fitoussi. Perhaps when they huddle together the next time to ponder ways out of the current crisis and to chastise Greece, EU leaders should keep their eyes on growth indexes, fiscal deficits and exchange rates — but also show they are working to bring some happiness into peoples’ lives.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Brussels.