Dealing with Our Poverties


One of my classes at Marlboro College Graduate Center had to read an article by Manfred Max-Neef , titled “Development and Human Needs.” Max-Neef is a Chilean economist who has focused on the needs of developing and underdeveloped countries. He has developed a taxonomy of human needs that I have integrated into my own work. I want to focus on one of his key points in this post. Max-Neef argues that the tradition model for improving the human conditions by eliminating poverty within the standard economic development framework is fundamentally flawed.

The proposed perspective allows for a reinterpretation of the concept of poverty. The traditional concept of poverty is limited and restricted, since it refers exclusively to the predicaments of people who may be classified below a certain income threshold. This concept is strictly economistic. It is suggested here that we should speak not of poverty, but of poverties. In fact, any fundamental human need that is not adequately satisfied, reveals a human poverty. Some examples are: poverty of subsistence (due to insufficient income, food, shelter, etc.), of protection (due to bad health systems, violence, arms race, etc.), of affection (due to authoritarianism, oppression, exploitative relations with the natural environment, etc.), of understanding (due to poor quality of education), of participation (due to marginalization of and discrimination against women, children and minorities), of identity (due to imposition of alien values upon local and regional cultures, forced migration, political exile, etc.). But poverties are not only poverties. Much more than that, each poverty generates pathologies. This is the crux of our discourse.

I believe that his thesis here applies to our affluent, developed economy as well. Human flourishing cannot be reduced to a single metric, in spite of all the economic theory that does exactly this. Max-Neef accompanies this idea with a taxonomy of human needs, every one of which must be satisfied to produce a whole, healthy, flourishing human being. His matrix of needs, which I will not reproduce here, is very similar to the set of basic human concerns I have developed in my book. You can find his system by clicking on the link above.

On re-reading his work again, I can see why our affluence relative to much of the world has not produced flourishing or happiness or whatever quality you choose to characterize the core of human Being. The key is in his use of poverties (plural) rather than some (singular) aggregated measure. His system, like mine, is nonhierarchical. All the factors need to be taken care of for [the whole of] Being to emerge. Reliance on wealth alone, as we do in the United States, is bound to produce the poverties and pathologies he speaks about. Further, the wealthier may be better off than the poor, but even they find empty areas in their lives. We know that more wealth does not bring happiness. Money simply cannot take care of all the needs that must be satisfied. Max-Neef argues further that many of the means we use for satisfaction produce perverse outcomes. Status goods do not create authentic identity. Gifts, conversely, can satisfy the need of affection.

Max-Neef goes on to argue that top-down policies cannot eliminate these poverties. The distribution of need-based pathologies will always be more diverse than any technocratic policy can serve. The means to reduce and eliminate each factor requires involvement by those affected. His model is similar to that developed by Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum. Sen speaks about the essential capabilities of well-being, but insists that those in need have a role in illuminating what the missing capabilities are. Again, it is important to recognize the plural form. Top-down policies come from too far a distance and cannot deal with the diversity of cases.

Other lessons fall out of this model. The importance of local provisioning leaps right our. The distribution of poverties is always going to have a strong geographic component and demographic dependence. The issues in Detroit will be very different from those in Atlanta. The blunt instrument of economic growth cannot address the fine structure of poverties. Indeed, many of these needs are non-economic. It is not coincidental that Max-Neef titled the booklet on which this article is based, Human Scale Development. It deserves a place on any bookshelf right next to another seminal text calling for a humane form of economics: Fritz Schumacher’s Small is Beautiful.