Building an International Bank for Right Livelihood

The Bhutanese Prime Minister shakes hands with the Norwegian minister of international development.

What would it be like if global financial institutions followed Bhutan’s lead in prioritizing Gross National Happiness? Here, Bhutan’s prime minister meets with Norway’s minister of international development to discuss efforts to increase happiness throughout Bhutan. Credit: Trond Viken/Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Governments across the globe have piled up mountains of debt to keep their economies from crumbling on themselves. Each holds steadfast to an assumption that debt problems can always be solved with more economic growth. This idea that all national economies can and should continue to grow indefinitely is a delusion perpetuated by powerful global economic institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

In this age of economic recessions and impending ecological catastrophe, we urgently need to create new economic models and institutions that stand outside this growth delusion. One of the more radical visions that was proposed to the United Nations’ Bhutan Commission is the idea of an International Bank for Right Livelihood. The idea emerged at a series of brainstorming sessions at the UN Headquarters in which I was privileged to participate.

A New Vision for Debt

The International Bank for Right Livelihood would not be a single monolithic institution. Rather, it would take shape as an evolving network of financial institutions that stand outside the domain and ideology of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

This network would be structured to function at both an international level and within local communities. As an international institution it would serve as a correspondence bank, or an intermediary, that would aggregate source funds from a broad spectrum of institutions and individuals who share a commitment to common foundational principles. The funds could be drawn from deposits, donations, or from issuing bonds.

At the local level, the International Bank for Right Livelihood would assist in the process of chartering small-scale financial cooperatives or credit unions that also serve their communities. These smaller banks would channel source funds as finance capital for projects such as renewable energy development, public transportation and infrastructure, appropriate technologies, cooperative investment in stewardship and payment for ecosystem services, and supporting place-based cooperatives that pursue economic activity in the spirit of the resolution.

Each financial institution would be required to have certain rules and guidelines for governance built directly into their charters such that the boards of directors would be bound to uphold these  rules. Chief among them would be the directive that financial services are produced in accordance with clearly stated principles of ecological and human well-being to ensure that as personnel come and go the principles of governance remain intact. Each charter would contain guidelines for financial discretion and the assurances of equitable access to credit. The charters would also have a clearly defined democratic orientation in which voting rights and decision-making powers are broadly and democratically extended.

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