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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!

Print, cut, tape to your desk.

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.

Indonesian Army at Work & Play: Dili Burns 1999

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.”

The latest in disaster relief: Air-Dropped Dream Catchers

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).

Latrines: Maslow would have found these very sexy

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?

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  1. Helen Hill says:

    While I agree with you about the new version not being really much of an advance, you should look at another theory which is less culturally determined by western values, it is Manfred Max-Neef’s theory of needs and satisfiers, as it happens his whole book is now available on the web at
    Helen Hill
    Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia

  2. Mike says:

    One of the reasons we’ve had so many years of trouble in E Timor since 1999 has been because of the reconstruction-first-and-only response. The rapid returns without sufficient focus on social and local conflict reinforced regional tensions, led to intractable land conflicts in urban areas and rural areas, overcrowded Dili, created aid dependency and generally positioned the country poorly for subsequent shocks.

    While social projects are not tangible, rarely save lives immediately, and are only tangentially related to the base needs in the short term, they are an important part of any reconstruction operation, particularly where there has been displacement. As people return, there needs to be consensus on a ton of inescapable issues: land tenure, intergroup relations (in mixed areas), how water is shared, who is in in charge, etc. And that process needs to happen at the same time as houses and latrines and so forth are being built.

    Surely native american healing rituals seem like a bad project — but it doesn’t work to focus one at a time — people needs food, shelter, security, to get along with their neighbors, money all at the same time during a return operation for it to work.

  3. Scott Gilmore says:

    Mike: You can walk 30 minutes out of Dili to villages that do not have a school, power, or running water; yet they had all of these things in 1998. One of the biggest reasons that you have overcrowding in Dili now is because we’ve so completely failed on the reconstruction outside of Dili. The issues you raise, land tenure, intergroup relations, etc, are all fascinating, but are entirely moot if no one returns in the first place because there are no houses, schools, or jobs in their home village.

    As for focusing one at a time, I agree. But in the very early days of the recovery, nonsense projects like that and others had no place on the table. And even now, 10 years later, it may still be questionable when you consider how little “concrete” reconstruction we’ve seen outside of the main population centers.

  4. […] focuses on data instead, and uses it to challenge the theories and conventional wisdom of aid.  Recently I was ranting about the desperate need for aid workers to refer to Maslow’s Pyramid of Needs.  In this […]

  5. […] I’ve now come over to his way of thinking.  As with the aid industry’s insistence on inverting Maslow’s pyramid of needs, we have sought to overextend ourselves in thinking that good governance projects can cure […]

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