Monday, 31 December 2012

Beyond Bhutan - Reflections Mostly Mental

I am writing this from a beach-side restaurant in Koh Tao, a red snapper on its way, a Beer Chang on the table. It's hot here. My BCF friends have all left me for their various homes over the last few weeks – Salt Spring, Toronto, Nebraska, a few to India, a couple up to Chiang Mai, a few to Africa via New York. The group has scattered and they're all taking a piece of Bhutan with them to their relevant places. Some of them are going back there, me possibly included. So perhaps it's time to figure out what this lingering sense of Bhutan looks like, how it feels, what it means to us. But to be honest, it's still only half formed.

What was the leaving like? Difficult and emotional, but good. Why good? Because the last few weeks brought home how much I enjoyed my time there, how close my friendships became and how much I achieved there in such a short time. As the departure date drew new and conversations became dominated by the impending break, I found plenty of time to reflect on the differences between my previous life and the one I found in Pakshikha – Bhutan, a country seemingly in the full flush of its teenage years of development, and the UK (and I guess, Europe) that has seemingly gone beyond the peak on the cost-benefit development curve and now counts more costs than it does benefits from its race for growth at any cost. I can't shed this sense of the UK that was growing before I left, that it is struggling through the cynical years of an not-quite-old-yet man, intractable, stuck in self-destructive ways, disappointed with the achievements its ambitions wrought.

Sanjay Pradhan
I saw a lecture recently by Sanjay Pradhan, Vice President of the World Bank Institute in which he drew great hope from (among other things) the fact that a seachange was occurring in the development/aid communities. The post-war institutions – the UN, the World Bank, the EMF – they were all laudably conceived in a spirit of hope that a better world could be fashioned from the spiritual, financial and ethical debris of one of the most humanity shattering of wars. The aim was simple – to not let history repeat as it so often does. They realised that wealth disparities play an important role in the harmony of nations and they sought to address them. The whole infrastructure of this change was predicated not only on the wealth of the Northern Hemisphere, but also on its expertise and economic history. When we see Europe fragmenting and read newspaper reports about 'nutrition poverty' in Yorkshire, and when we hear the politicians steadfastly clinging to their growth rhetoric as an escape from the madness the same ethos created, it's hardly surprising that eyebrows raise in alarm.

Sow what is the seachange that Mr Pradhan referred to? It comes from a change in perspective of the Southern Nations. They're no longer looking to the West and North for salvation from poverty and corruption, but to each other. They don't care how London made itself so massive and tied itself up in dodgy derivatives. They're more interested in how China miraculously lifted so many people out of poverty (despite the terrible costs), how Costa Rica disbanded its army and channelled all the cash into sustainable small business ventures, how Mexico lifted it's citizens higher up the index of happiness with its version of the new deal, how Bhutan defines the role of its government in relation to the welfare of its people and environment.

I'm not 'down' on the UK. I take heart from my friends in Bristol, almost all of whom are involved in one way or another in building something better from the ground up, not in response to Cameron's 'Big Society' speeches, but with a hearty and cynical two fingers up to them. I'm thinking of the Bristol Pound, the non-profit micro energy projects, the redevelopment of derelict buildings as community spaces for creativity and small businesses, the festivals run carbon neutral and designed not just for hedonism but for education, the attempt to found new schools that might just work for the children. Inspirational people – citizens (one would hope) of a New Britain, people who appreciate the redundancy of the archaic 'Great' prefix of Britain and are prepared to do something about it. The government seems too clunky and rusting at the seams to contribute in any meaningful way. Perhaps Cameron realises this. I doubt it.

So to whom does Bhutan look for inspiration? Many of the people look to China with distrust and India with a hesitancy that is entirely understandable given the harsh conditions that people live under there. One only needs to cross the border for five minutes to see what a apparently complete absence of welfare does for grass roots humanity and 'the social contract'. Spend a few weeks there like one of my friends recently did, and you have to adopt a shell hard enough to ignore destitution well beyond anything we might term 'nutritional poverty'. Bhutan is definitely doing something right compared with its nearest neighbours.

I noticed the new science curricula have been written with assistance from Oxford dons, which is disappointing. I had a precious opportunity to provide feedback to the Minister of Education with the other teachers and shared my view that there exists here a chance to do something radically different with the textbooks that are being written for Class IX and X, to make them work for teachers and students alike. Forget what we've done over there in the West – make a textbook that works! With AfL and differentiation and '21st century education' techniques embedded and integrated. Let them guide the teachers instead of telling us what to do at workshops that inspire us with an energy that trickles away in weeks. Many other things were discussed and it was refreshing, regardless of what was said, to find people in government listening to classroom teachers, albeit aliens from another world.

A common grumble that arose from conversations with my Bhutanese friends was that the government was too intoxicated with the aura of GNH and the spreading of it around the world and might perhaps do well to flex its muscles more at home and make the ideal of GNH a tangible reality for every one of its citizens. I think this is both fair and harsh. Bhutan needs to keep speaking as loud as it can so that the GNH ideal stays current and noticeable – the value of this small exemplar voice at the big conference tables of the world is self-evident. However, if the Bhutanese become cynical, it will become a house of cards and crumble from within once the next generation of Bhutanese find their democratic voices and make use of the internet to express them.

This is all very heady and mental stuff. I haven't touched upon the emotion jolt of leaving behind a place and people that have become very close to my heart. I half expect to become one of those Bhutanical volunteer comets that circle the country and periodically fly through its skies during my lifetime. There are many of them, and with good reason. I'm hoping to go back in March to see my friends and have some more conversations about possible work there, but who knows what will happen? Koh Tao is distracting my mind, various adventurers are on the horizon and my priority for the next few months is with my writing. I guess I'll have to wait a little longer for the more emotional reactions to settle in. Grist for another posting, which will, I imagine be full of pictures of farewells and friends.

Sanjay Pradhan's Lecture...

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