Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 20, 2012

Alum leads Bhutan sustainability effort

Expectations for the reunion were as high as the Himalayas.

two men at dinner table

Bhutan's minister of works and human settlement, Yeshey Zimba, left, and public affairs professor Dennis Dresang attend a dinner in Zimba's honor. He graduated from what is now the La Follette School in 1976.

When La Follette School professor emeritus Dennis Dresang welcomed former student Yeshey Zimba to a dinner in downtown Madison, they completed a circle begun in the 1970s when Dresang taught the young scholar from Bhutan.

Zimba, now addressed with honorific title of "Lyonpo," is minister of works and human settlement of Bhutan, a tiny kingdom nestled high in the mountains between China and India. He was in Madison in April to discuss Bhutan's "gross national happiness" index at the sixth annual Earth Day celebration conference of the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

After completing his bachelor's degree in political science Zimba earned a master's degree in public policy and administration in 1976 through the Center for Development, which later became part of the La Follette School's Master of International Public Affairs degree program.

"It was great seeing Zimba back in Madison," Dresang says. "We enjoyed sharing memories of his time here as a student in the Center for Development program. He joked that he barely got by in the comparative public administration course that he took from me—but he in fact earned an 'A' and distinguished himself as a highly respected leader among the students."

Dresang says Zimba expressed gratitude for learning approaches to public management and financing and to economic development that "he has applied in his extraordinarily successful public service career in Bhutan. He also had very fond memories of the informal learning from other students—international and American—that were facilitated by the environment on campus and in Madison generally," says Dresang.

Dresang says Zimba shared the role of a former king of Bhutan in adopting a democratic form of government, despite the desire of the people to have him continue to rule. And he also credited the king for his country's pioneering use of happiness rather than wealth as a focus for growth.

Bhutan's king created the concept "gross national happiness" to demonstrate the government's commitment to building an economy that would serve the country's culture based on Buddhist spiritual values. Under gross national happiness, beneficial development of human society takes place when material and spiritual development occur side by side. The four pillars of gross national happiness are sustainable development, preservation and promotion of cultural values, conservation of the natural environment and establishment of good governance.

Zimba shared his ideas about sustainable development and cultural values with others who attended the Madison dinner in April, including Karl Gutknecht of Culture Ventures International and George Simeon, head of Organic Valley in La Farge, Wisconsin, who hosted the dinner.

Dresang says much of the evening's discussion focused on organic farming, since that ties sustainability and conservation together for Bhutan, which relies on India for much of its food.

"Minister Zimba noted that Bhutan's constitution requires that at least 60 percent of the country remain forested (about 80 percent is currently forested), and thus it was all the more essential that the soil available for farming remain healthy and productive," Dresang says. "The advantages of organic farming for the people as well as the soil are critical for Bhutan."

Gutknecht says the type of eco-tourism that Bhutan allows also preserves the country's flavor and traditions. He said he looks forward to helping lead a return delegation to Bhutan by government, education and business officials to follow up on Zimba's interests.

Zimba's trip to Madison followed a stop in New York where Bhutan convened a high-level meeting on "Happiness and Well Being: Defining A New Economic Paradigm" as a step toward a sustainable, holistic, inclusive, and equitable new economic development paradigm for the global community.

The New York gathering was attended by about 700 political and government leaders, scholars, economists, philosophers, scientists, media, civil society, UN officials, entrepreneurs, and spiritual leaders from the world's major faiths.

In his prepared remarks, Zimba said the old model of growth "compels boundless growth on a planet with limited resources and no longer makes economic sense." Rather, he says, "the purpose of development must be to create enabling conditions through public policy for the pursuit of the ultimate goal of happiness by all citizens."

Dresang says he congratulated Zimba and his country for initiating this important debate on the link among happiness, well-being and prosperity. He said Zimba clearly learned many lessons in governance while at La Follette and "really deserved that 'A'."

A shorter version of this article appears in the fall 2012 La Follette Notes newsletter for alumni and friends.