Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs and the aid industry
Big news! Huge news! Well, huge news in the normally quiet halls of psychology departments in universities around the world. (And when you consider that the students have not yet returned from summer break, this news is really echoing around those halls.) The very basis of modern psychology has been changed. A team of academics has updated and modernized Abraham Maslows’s Pyramid of Needs!
Now, the new diagram makes no bloody sense to me. There seems to be a much higher focus on the whole “find a wife, keep a wife, get her pregnant” need. This seems very 1950s to me, not something that you would naturally expect to see in an “update”. Perhaps it is another example of how the hit retro TV show Mad Men has influenced our culture. Or perhaps, as author Andrew Potter would argue in his new book The Authenticity Hoax, this is just some desperate attempt for us to comfort ourselves by recreating an imagined past that never was.
But let’s go back to the old diagram for a second. I’ve always been a huge fan. And here’s why. I was once standing on the tarmac of the Dili airport waiting for a helicopter to come pick me up. This was 1999, right after the Indonesian military and their goons had literally leveled the country, destroying 90% of all buildings and pushing half the population into Indonesian West Timor*. There were parts of the country still smouldering, Dili was a post-apocalyptic ghost town, and my clothes actually still smelled like smoke. As the helicopter began to thump its way down from the hills, I was tapped on the shoulder by a very earnest looking missionary type who asked if I was with the Canadian government. Even before I had finished nodding, he spewed out his elevator pitch for a “relief” project that would organize native American healing circles to help provide psychological support to the witnesses (not the victims, the witnesses) of human rights abuses. The helicopter was by then so close it drowned out my indignant shouts which emphasized the fact that “most Timorese didn’t have a roof or food and that was my bloody priority so go away!”, or word to that effect.
Smash cut to about a month later, I am in the office and my colleague from the aid side of the Embassy asks me if I’d ever heard of these guys and their healing circle project. As I cleared my throat to unleash an expletive decorated rant, he added “Great idea. We just funded it.”
That is when it hit me. Every aid worker, ever donor, every UN manager needs to have a copy of Maslow’s pyramid taped to his desk (or tattooed to their hands in the more stubborn cases.) Again and again I’ve seen missions prioritize projects that focuses on the top of the pyramid, at the expense of the far more pressing, are more important, and sadly far less interesting needs at the bottom. Let’s face it, to my unimaginative colleague at the Embassy the healing circle was way cooler than latrines. And, in his defense, his agency had a funding “priority” for human rights, and this healing circle could be shoe-horned into this category. Health and Sanitation was not something that got past the Minister’s desk (it doesn’t resonate with voters, you see).
This is not just an issue of more efficient use and sequencing of aid funding. This is about lives. In the aftermath of the Indonesian destruction of Timor, there were thousands of IDPs who never made it into the well run UNHCR camps. They squatted in makeshift shelters, and there they got sick. Kids died from easily preventable conditions. The hard fact is that instead of giving money to this hair-brained psychic-healing project, we could have funded a few more latrines, a few more mosquito nets, a few more tarps and saved a few more lives. But instead, some wanker with his dream catcher got to fly back after three months in Timor with a self-satisfied smile on his face because “he made a difference” and helped the witnesses of human rights abuses cope. He did make a difference, just not the one he thinks.
So, here’s what we’re going to do: Print off a dozen copies of the old pyramid, then after everyone leaves the office this afternoon sneak back and tape it onto everyone’s desk. This little act of guerrilla warfare may actually save lives.
*Fun Fact: The new Indonesian Ambassador to Washington was the chief government spokesman during their rampage of murder and destruction. Neat, huh?