How does a country like Bhutan, known for their Gross National Happiness (GNH), make changes to government structure and societal efficiencies without changing the very simple ingredients that lead to high rates of happiness and life satisfaction?

Successful exchange programs create a balance of showing visitors what is often new, fast and flashy about life in the United States, while also seeking to educate participants on the incredible strengths and offerings of their existing structures at home. Our professional programs do not only teach other cultures about what we are doing right. More frequently and just as important; it’s the chance for our leaders to hear directly from their international counterparts about other ways of thinking.

Bhutan is a tiny country with less than a million residents, located between China and India. Nestled in the Himalayas, Bhutan has only been open to outsiders since the 1970’s. While they have tried to let in some aspects of the outside world, they fiercely guard their ancient traditions. Radio broadcast first began in the country in 1973 and television did not arrive until 1999. More than half of the country still works in agriculture and three-fourths of Bhutan’s population follows Buddhism.

While the Wangchuck monarchy has been in power since 1907, it was just in March of 2008 that national elections led to the establishment of a two-party parliamentary democracy. For administrative purposes, Bhutan consists of 20 Districts, some of which are divided further into sub districts. Each district encompasses a number of ‘gewogs’, or groups of villages.

Outside of refugee populations, (which is a completely different story, but one worth looking into the next time you are looking for something new to research) you aren’t apt to meet many tourists from Bhutan. Which is part of what made one of our International Visitor Leadership Programs last year so special. Over the summer, we hosted a cohort of Administrative, District Planning, and Human Resource Officers from across Bhutan. The group spent five days in Kansas City. In addition to volunteering at Harvesters Food Bank and eating dinners in the homes of local families, the group met with government organizations across Kansas City and Topeka.

Cheku, a primary school teacher, said he “could have stayed at the KCMO Public School Board all day asking questions.”

The meeting with Rick Usher, Assistant City Manager for KCMO led to conversations concerning Bhutanese Gross National Happiness (GNH) and cultural preservation. They agreed that affordable housing was equally challenging for Bhutan and Kansas City. Later, Phuntsho said these types of exchanges were very valuable for providing new information that might have applications at home.


In the Hall of Justice in the Kansas Supreme Court, the Chief Justice Nuss and Justice Luckert taught the delegates the structure and authority of the Kansas Court System.  They provided a great understanding of Federalism to the delegates seeing where the authority and jurisdiction lies in criminal and civil cases.

“They have lots of questions as they compare their judicial offices to our branch of government,” Chief Justice Nuss said of the visitors. “I think they leave with a true appreciation of the rights Kansans enjoy and a better understanding of how our judicial branch strives to maintain fair and impartial courts for all.”

Like most of our programs, the real synergy and long-term impact often comes not from the structured elements of the program, but from the casual conversations that take place between the formal activities. From John Raux, who served as a home hospitality dinner guest at one of their evening meals, “I was taken aback by what they were impressed by and wanted to implement following their days in the United States. They talked about efficiencies, systems and structures as ideal to be implemented in Bhutan. Much of those things that are ‘impressive’ are also directly connected to the stresses and difficulties of life in the States. We spend much more time working to make ends meet then the average person in Bhutan does, which means that they have more time to preserve the qualitative relational aspects of their culture—things that most Americans relegate to night and weekends.”

It is through shared experiences and challenges that people begin to understand one another. Through frank and direct conversations during face-to-face (or where needed – virtual) programs, we seek to provide both Americans and our friends around the world with new ways of thinking. Maybe we can work together to find the balance and where each of us belong.

With Love,