August 22, 2011

Over Coffee with Kinley, the Proprietor of Cafe Klein, Thimphu

Today I had a fascinating conversation with foodie and Klein Café owner Kinley. He’s another of Thimphu’s Gross National Happiness critics, but by no means uninformed or apathetic.
Although not in opposition to Bhutan’s low volume, high value tourism policy, he disapproves of the way it is conducted because the centrally set itineraries tend to concentrate profits in a few hands, benefitting certain individuals in the service rather than many providers. He believes that this disadvantages small food and beverage businesses like his own that are well equipped and undoubtedly qualified to cater to tourist clientele. Kinley himself is a perfectionist, trained in the Netherlands, and he offers his customers a varied and delectable selection of food from all over the world. He points out that in allowing for tourism monopolies, be they select hotels, restaurants or handicraft stores, the government, although more efficiently controlling the influx and quality of tourism, is doing Gross National Happiness a great disservice by favoring the few over the many, not only creating baseless socio-economic disparities but also discouraging other entrepreneurs and making for a loss of domestic profits as richer people are likelier to use their money to purchase goods produced in other economies and send their children abroad, making for a deficit in the current account in Bhutan.
Kinley believes that policies, although well-intentioned, are badly carried out and believes that there should be better deliberation procedures in parliament rather than appealing to notions of the good and nationalism, focusing more on analysis of the means rather than the ends. He believes that the way policies like the anti-tobacco laws are enforced are wrong, making for a police state enforcement, although he does admit this is hyperbolic and more for metaphorical effect.
Kinley highlights the failure of GNH on the ground to address unemployment among youth and outlines two main reasons: 1) highly skilled unemployment whereby most youth study until their master’s level and find less jobs that can accommodate them 2) the lack of perceived dignity of labor whereby Bhutanese do not seek manual laboring jobs, choosing instead to import low-skilled labor from places like India. He believes that the government should try and be less revolutionary in commiting resources to bring about value-based outcomes and address the reasons for macroeconomic difficulties.
Kinley believes the Bhutanese economy is inflated as the three main sectors are tourism, construction and electricity, outside which little significant industry remains. He believes that domestic production should be encouraged but is still heartened at the same time that Bhutan doesn’t focus on purely economic indicators like the number of cars someone has being descriptive of their success. He does not believe that Bhutan should subsidize electricity to India through their dams and still have to buy the same power back during lean seasons at a premium.
He believes that the government should not super-specialize in its concentration on certain sectors to the detriment of others as it leaves the country dependent on imports, as seen in grocery stores selling primarily Indian and Thai products and less Bhutanese-produced goods. We spoke of the infant industries argument and he insisted that Bhutanese productive capacity needs to be built. Even books in bookstores are very expensive here, demand and supply both being not very robust.
Kinley is concerned about statistics on Bhutan’s successes and calls for a more probing analysis beyond the heartening claim that 80% of foreign aid makes it to those concerned. He believes that government officials must teach by example and live within the means of their country by foregoing the import of Prados and Landcruisers themselves too instead of charging laymen 50% of the value of these vehicles to price out demand in the interest of reducing imports in relation to Bhutan’s meager exports.
Kinley likes the fact that there are seminars in order to train young entrepreneurs but does not like how they are only once a year and under-subscribed. He also believes that government officials should travel less for seminars and spend more of their budget on fulfilling the aspirations of their constituents, i.e. prioritizing their needs as opposed to furthering their own skills and interacting with their international counterparts.
Kinley laments the loss of traditional values and the shift from joint families to nuclear families as this puts the elderly in difficult positions as they no longer have a traditional support system to fall back on. He believes that Bhutanese people have too many children and that this is because they are making up for the loss of living with their kin in extended families.
Kinley hopes that his country will slow down, solve newly emerging urban problems like gang violence and take stock of and develop the country’s productive capacity.
I was fascinated by my conversation with Kinley and it made me want to look more carefully into the running of Bhutan’s economy to ascertain whether it can sustain its undoubtedly powerful worldview.

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