UN debates putting happiness at centre of development

02 Apr 2012

image Children celebrating happiness, peace and learning. Primary school children in a poor area of Banjarmasin City, at Kalimantan Island, Indonesia (Photo: Philip West)

New York – More than 500 high level government officials and representatives from religious organizations, academia and civil society gathered at the United Nations headquarters today to discuss new ways to measure wellbeing and happiness, moving beyond a purely economic paradigm, in a meeting convened by the Government of Bhutan.

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stressed that sustainable development is intricately linked to happiness and wellbeing, and that this should  be reflected at the UN Sustainable Development Conference, also known as Rio+20, scheduled to take place this June in Brazil.

Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness (GNH) attempts to measure the value of the nation’s natural, human, social, and cultural wealth rather than only its manufactured and financial capital. In recent years, there has been growing interest in the GNH – with the General Assembly adopting a resolution in 2011, which noted that the GDP indicator “does not adequately reflect the happiness and well-being of people in a country.”

The term originated in the 1970s, when the Himalayan kingdom introduced the new measurement of national prosperity, focusing on people’s well-being rather than economic productivity.

“At UNDP, we have long promoted human development, based on an understanding that people are the real wealth of nations,” said UN Development (UNDP) Administrator Helen Clark who chaired the event.

“Our vision is for development which enables people to live longer, healthier lives, to be educated, to have access to a decent standard of living, and to have the freedom to choose to live lives which they value. Our approach, like Bhutan’s, balances the material and non-material aspects of wellbeing [and] the central challenges of the 21st century:  achieving sustainable human development.”

President of Costa Rica Laura Chinchilla, stressed that “wealth is very different from overall wellbeing and for this reason UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI), which broke ground 20 years ago, is still crucial today.”

Moving beyond traditional wealth measurements through Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the HDI has created a single statistic which serves as a frame of reference for both social and economic development, measuring wellbeing also through health and educational aspects.  Since 2010, the Inequality-adjusted HDI, the Gender Inequality Index and the Multidimensional Poverty Index have been assessing critical aspects of human development.

Panelists agreed that the Rio+20 Conference is a crucial platform to move beyond the economic front, to address social and environmental aspects of human development.

“We have reached the limit of doing things the old way,” said Jeffrey Sachs, Director of University of Columbia’s Earth Institute and one of the editors of the World Happiness Report. “We are undermining our own survival,” Sachs said, highlighting the famine in the Sahel and the Horn of Africa.

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