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About the Author

Bart Knols
Medical Entomologist (Dodewaard, Netherlands)

Bart G.J. Knols (1965) is the Managing Director of MalariaWorld, the world's first scientific and social network for malaria professionals. He is a malariologist with a Masters degree in Biology and a PhD in Medical Entomology from Wageningen University, the Netherlands. He also obtained an MBA degree from the Open University (UK) in 2006, for which he won the prestigious international ‘MBA Student of the Year 2007 Award’ as well as the Alumnus of the Year Award from the Open University. With 11 years of working experience in Africa he has managed large-scale research and vector control programmes on malaria for ministries, international or national research institutions. He has worked for the UN (IAEA) as a programme manager for three years, has served as a consultant for the World Health Organization, and is currently a Board Member of the UBS Optimus Foundation, the second largest charity in Switzerland. He has published over 130 peer-reviewed research articles, has written 16 book chapters, and has served as senior editor on a WHO/IAEA sponsored book on implementation research. In 2007 he co-edited a best-selling book titled 'Emerging Pests and Vector-Borne Diseases in Europe'. He received an Ig Nobel Prize (2006), an IAEA Special Service Award (2006), and in 2007 he became a laureate of the Eijkman medal (the highest award in the field of tropical medicine in the Netherlands). He has been a member of the Royal Dutch Academy of Arts and Sciences since 2004. Bart held an Assistant Professorship at Wageningen University until April '09 with projects across Africa. He currently directs K&S Consulting, a firm he founded in the beginning of 2007.


Stuck In A Pyramid of Needs

Published 30th April 2010 - 18 comments - 11609 views -

Maslow's model

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 goal

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.

Category: Crisis | Tags: poverty, maslow, needs, self actualisation,


  • Clare Herbert on 30th April 2010:

    Fantastic post, Bart. I wasn’t familiar with the pyramid but it’s certainly an interesting model. You’re dead right: self-actualizing is a crucial aspect of Development and one I have never heard discussed.

    Thanks for the support.

  • Giedre Steikunaite on 30th April 2010:

    This is great, Bart. Amazingly clear and thought-provoking. Great. Great.

  • Bart Knols on 30th April 2010:

    @Clare @ Giedre. Thanks for your kind words. Would it not have been for your and other TH!NK3 stories I would not have had such good examples to illustrate the model, so I am most grateful to our blogging community for this.

    One thing that struck me afterwards is that most of our stories actually relate to the bottom layers of the pyramid. Maybe it would be nice to find more examples of people, projects, initiatives, etc. where higher levels have resulted from the bottom ones being taken care of. Do you know of any?

  • Clare on 30th April 2010:

    Nothing springs to mind, Bart, but I’ll have a think about it!

  • Bart Knols on 30th April 2010:

    @Clare. Check out this site:
    There’s a whole list of people that have sacrificed their own safety and security for the benefit to the community at large. There will likely be more that we can find…

  • Edgars Skvariks on 30th April 2010:


    It is great to see that someone uses the Maslow’s model, although I am surprised that you have heard of it only when you were studying for MBA. In Baltics, Maslow’s pyramid is used in elementary and high schools to demonstrate the priorities of humankind.

    We have a lot of success stories here. And more are up to come.

  • Bart Knols on 30th April 2010:

    @Edgars. That’s a plus for schooling in the Baltics! No, I had not been exposed to it, not even at University (but hey, don’t expect this to be part of the curriculum of Biology…). It only dawned on me that I could use this model in the context of development during my MBA, and it was Clare that triggered my memories on it.

  • Luan Galani on 30th April 2010:

    Brilliant, Bart. You depicted it down to the last detail. Food for thought. Thank you fellow.

  • Bart Knols on 01st May 2010:

    @Luan. Thanks for your kind words. I also enjoy reading your contributions and will ask you some day for teh html code to enlarge pictures or maps that you embed in your blogs…

  • Aija Vanaga on 06th May 2010:

    Maslow pyramid is one of ways how to express and order need of people, but I still have not understood where culture, traditions in this pyramid states?

  • Bart Knols on 08th May 2010:

    @Aija. Good point. Culture and traditions (which are part of culture) do influence people’s needs. And the needs in culture A can be different from those in culture B. Nevertheless, Maslow’s model uses the needs from an over-arching perspective. Certainly the basic needs are the same for all of Homo sapiens, diseases affect us irrespective of culture, and I don’t know of any culture where social interaction, friendship and esteem are not part of ‘culture’. Culture as such is embedded in the model at all levels, right?

  • Radka Lankašová on 24th May 2010:

    Hi Bart, being an HR I use Maslow´s hierarchy of needs all the time at work. Thank you for inspiring me to use it in other contexts!

  • Bart Knols on 26th May 2010:

    @Radka. Thanks for commenting. Glad to see that other ways of looking at this model are useful. It would be nice to know in which contexts you use it.

  • Radka Lankašová on 26th May 2010:

    Hi Bart, Maslow´s hierarchy of needs is for example a very good “cookbook” for motivation and also retention of employees.

  • Bart Knols on 27th May 2010:

    @Radka. Yes, that’s the way I got to know about the pyramid, through motivational theory. Thanks.

  • Radka Lankašová on 27th May 2010:

    Bart, the pyramid is so good you can use it at home, with friends, anywhere really.

  • Bart Knols on 27th May 2010:

    @Radka. Let us not forget that Maslow has also been criticised about this model… so it is not all glory. Read about it here:’s_hierarchy_of_needs

  • Radka Lankašová on 27th May 2010:

    Bart, I agree that his model is certainly not an answer to everything however it can be useful. And critics? Whatever we do, there is always somebody who will criticize us….

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