How happy are we?

For some years now, there has been, pretty much on a daily basis, an unrelenting litany of bad news in the local media. Accounts of horrific murders, domestic savagery and public uncouthness, crimes of all kinds and general lawlessness tend to dominate the headlines. Equally, the politics of polarisation and divisiveness, allegations of corruption and misfeasance in public office, accusations of incompetence and counter-accusations of sabotage and subversive behaviour, all jostle for space and airtime in the print and broadcast media. In addition, tragic and often avoidable road accidents, fatal fires, rotting rubbish and unsanitary conditions posing an increasing threat to public health, unreliable water and electricity supplies, the seemingly larger numbers of vagrants and the mentally ill, all this and more would appear to paint a picture of a society in terminal decline.

In key international development tables, Guyana can be found somewhere in the bottom half of the rankings. According to the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), our GDP per capita placed us, respectively, at 126th out of 190 countries in 2010 and 115th out of 185 in 2011, notwithstanding the reasonable average annual growth experienced over the past few years. In terms of public debt as a percentage of GDP, we checked in at 120th out of 168 countries assessed by the IMF in 2011.

Expanding the view a little, the World Economic Forum’s 2011-2012 Global Competitiveness Index ranks Guyana 109th out of 142. But perhaps worst of all is Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index which, in monitoring 183 countries on how corrupt their public sector is perceived to be, has Guyana embarrassingly at number 134. And, of course, we have one of the highest rates of emigration of people with a tertiary education in the world.

These dismal results make rather depressing reading, especially when we consider that lying behind these rankings is the grim reality of underdevelopment, poverty, lack of opportunity and soul-destroying frustration, all reflected in the sheer awfulness of the daily news reports.

Some of us are inclined to reject the above indices as either too dependent on cold economic data that do not tell the whole story or on subjective perceptions that distort the real picture. But even if, in casting about for other yardsticks of national wellbeing, we turn to the United Nations Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Index (HDI), generally regarded as a more reliable indicator of how a country is doing, as a composite statistic of life expectancy, education and income rather than relying on mere income accounting, we find that Guyana, although in the middle of those countries categorised as enjoying medium human development, comes 117th out of 187. Indeed, we are the lowest placed Caricom state apart from Haiti.

The HDI is sometimes called the ‘happiness index‘ but it is difficult to measure something as subjective as human happiness. Even the concept of ‘gross national happiness (GNH),‘ as promulgated in Bhutan and which underpins an ethos of sustainable development grounded in Buddhist spiritual principles, has no precise quantifiable framework, based as it is on mainly psychological and social indicators.

Perhaps more encouragingly, the Happy Planet Index (HPI), developed by the New Economics Foundation to determine how countries offer their people long, happy and sustainable lives, ranks Guyana 31st out of 151 countries based on three factors – life expectancy, wellbeing and our ecological footprint. The HPI claims to reflect the ecological efficiency with which human wellbeing is created. It is not a measure of happiness per se but rather an indication of how a country converts its natural resources into long and happy lives for its citizens. Obviously, our large land mass and low population would result in low consumption patterns in absolute terms and relative to more developed and more populous countries. This should therefore be no reason for complacency.

But aren’t we a fun-loving people who enjoy a good time, no matter how bleak things might seem? Is the general tone of gloom and doom in the media entirely justified? Aren’t visitors to these shores almost always surprised that things are not as bad as they have been led to believe? Is it that our sense of humour, joie de vivre and famed resilience keep us on the path of optimism, thinking that surely things must get better? Or are we simply like those who danced to the band on the Titanic? How happy are we really with the state of our country?

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