When studying for my MBA a few years ago, I came across Maslow’s hierarchy of needs model of personal development. It was an eye-opener to use this model in the context of the ‘developing world’. Clare’s blog on personal development triggered me to table it here as it helps to understand the myriad of complexities that has surfaced in the first 400 articles TH!NK3 has yielded so far. Here it is.
Although a theory proposed in the field of psychology by Abraham Maslow as long ago as 1943 it is still used widely today in management training.
Stuck at the bottom
The bottom part of the pyramid is obvious to all of us. It covers our physiological needs like eating and drinking, breathing, sex, and so on. But maybe it isn’t so obvious. In fact, masses of people are stuck in the bottom of the pyramid, not being able to cover even the bear essentials of life. Luan told us that in Brazil a child dies of hunger every 5 minutes, whilst 70 tonnes of food go to waste every day. You will recall Giedre’s 181$ soup. Pierre-Anthony wrote about GMO crops and the frantic search to feed the bottom billion of the planet. Iris Cecilia wrote a gripping story about Jona, desperate for a little cash to avoid falling off the bottom of the pyramid and being able to feed her three children. Marianne wrote about hunger in Venezuela. Johan’s story about poaching is classical: people will do everything and take high risks to at least stay alive. Jodi's blog about 'Zimbabwe's forgotten children'.
That’s just food. Maria mentioned that a billion people on earth don’t have access to clean drinking water. Marianne’s blog ‘Tap water doesn’t mean drinking water’ says it all. Hermant's story about the water crisis.
All stories about people dangling at the bottom of the pyramid, desperately trying to hold on and survive. So no, the physiological needs of most people around the world are not at all obvious. They breathe and have sex, and that’s where it more or less stops. Air and sex don’t cost anything. The rest becomes an instant ‘luxury’, even when it is as basic as food and water.
Maslow’s theory depicts that if needs are not met at a certain level, any aspiration towards reaching a higher level vanishes. People remain stuck in the layer of the pyramid where they are. Once they have attained the essentials in that level, they can move up. First you feed your children, then you can send them to school. No food no school.
Moving up the pyramid
Let’s look at the second level: safety. Shelter, a roof over our heads, would fall in this category as well. You read Jana’s story about Kibera, the biggest slum in Africa. The basics of the pyramid aren’t covered there. On top it is the lack of safety due to appalling housing conditions that prevents people from climbing up in the pyramid. There is no safety, rape, gangs, and so on. Why? Because the Kibera people are stuck at a level in the pyramid where love and belonging, friendship and family, and sexual intimacy don’t exist. Morality is absent, and you tolerate your daughter becoming a sex worker to bring in some coins to feed hungry mouths. Johan's story about sex tourism. People try to cover their unmet needs before moving up in the pyramid.
Health is also an issue within the second layer. If you’re safe and fed, you can start caring about health. If you’re at the bottom of the pyramid, craving for food and water, you don’t care about hygiene. Hygiene is a luxury. You don’t care about malaria if your children are starving.
One level up comes the social needs: love and belonging. As humans, we have the urge to belong to and being accepted and respected. That’s why churches thrive in impoverished settings. It’s that one moment in the week, on Sunday morning, that people escape the two bottom layers of the pyramid and spend a few hours in the layer that the rest of us in the developed world seem to have forgotten about. Having lived in Kenya for five years, I was always amazed to see the intense joy and pleasure that communities experience by going to church. Dressed in their best possible outfits. That they would only wear for two hours on Sunday. After that it was back to misery for the rest of the week. At the time it escaped me why, now I know better.
The two layers at the apex of the pyramid, esteem and self-actualisation are ‘normal’ for developed world citizens. My children (7 and 9 years of age) expect being valued and accepted by their environment as if it can’t exist otherwise. They know that my wife and I will do everything for them to become what they are capable of becoming. It’s because they have a roof over their heads, are fed and clothed, have friends and sports clubs they’re in, a supporting family, and a good school they attend. From day 1 in their lives they had the chance to jump to the top of the pyramid…
But miracles happen. Sometimes people jump layers – an incredible achievement full of challenges and difficulties. When stuck at the bottom of the pyramid they still maintain a high level of esteem and reach self-actualisation. Think of Ghandi. Nelson Mandela. Individuals that sacrificed all they had to bring lasting change in society.
International aid is mostly concerned with issues that relate to the bottom part of the pyramid. Food, basic health care, fighting disease. That seems logical.
But it remains the will, determination and drive that got a person like Jared in Jana’s article out of misery. Rather than dumping aid dollars in the developing world, it might be worthwhile spending some time on identifying the Ghandis of the future and the Jareds of today, and provide them with the means to self-actualise. The world will look different, no doubt.