Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and… Supremacy, Neo-Colonialism, and International Development
Amidst the branches, we – volunteer harvesters – chatted through the silver-green leaves, our conversation punctuated by the rain of olives hitting the tarp below. Perched on ladders on the same Jerusalem hillside made famous by Jesus, we were under the direction of the cheerful Italian Friar who oversees the ancient grove on the Mount of Olives. Our group represented Jerusalem, Greece, Sweden, Holland, the US, Bulgaria, Lithuania, and Japan.
We talked of work and children, online learning, families separated by the pandemic, and who among us liked olives. We admired the Dome of the Rock just across the Kidron valley peering over the massive stone wall of the Old City, shining gold against blue sky.
A fellow picker confessed to feeling restless with her life, and then guilty about that, considering all of her “Maslow’s Needs” were well met. She was at the top of the fabled pyramid–why the unease? That got me thinking…
What is Maslow’s Pyramid? And how it promotes supremacy thinking.
Like many Westerners, I first encountered Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in high school science class. I hear it referred to regularly as an explanatory model for so much–just yesterday on the radio as a psychologist discussed the pandemic. Last week on a Crash Course video about the history of games. Sociologists say it describes “how to be human.”  A Google search yields 2.5 million results, including 126,000 videos. It’s baked into the Western psyche.
Here’s how the internet summarizes it, which is how I remember learning it, and how I hear people using it today: “physiological needs are vital for survival and that they must be sated before one can move up towards actualization and fulfillment.” A few may then ascend further, achieving “self-transcendence” which enables “peak experiences in which they transcend their own personal concerns and see from a higher perspective. These experiences often bring strong positive emotions like joy, peace, and a well-developed sense of awareness.” 
To quote Maslow directly: “It is quite true that man lives by bread alone — when there is no bread. But what happens to man’s desires when there is plenty of bread and when his belly is chronically filled? At once other (and “higher”) needs emerge and these, rather than physiological hungers, dominate the organism. And when these in turn are satisfied, again new (and still “higher”) needs emerge and so on.”  In fact, Maslow surmised that if enough people transcended, a utopia called Eupsychia would result. 
How very linear. (Not to mention, a bit fantastical.) With the stunning implication: until a person has proper food, water, warmth, rest, safety, and security, they can’t experience what is higher up the pyramid: intimate relationships, friends, self esteem, even curiosity and appreciation of beauty. Once mastered, then one may reach the top of humanity’s Mount Everest: transcendence. Then one may pursue science or religious faith, and develop an “unusual sense of humor,” a need for privacy, or “concern for the welfare of humanity” to name a few.*
It’s not only simplistic and linear, but it’s also not correct. Anyone who has ever been in a place marked by poverty–a slum, a poor village, a dying town–or even in the midst of a humanitarian crisis, can tell you: that is where you will meet some of the most actualized, transcendent, humorous, curious, and contemplative people ever.
Another thing to unlearn: Wealth buys conditions that make you wiser.
Maslow’s hierarchy is one expression of a deep narrative that many of us who grew up in well-off settings have been raised on: we are not better than “the poor” because we are rich (that would be shallow and elitist)….we are better because our basic needs have been met and that has enabled us to level up as humans. In a capitalist form of noblesse oblige, many of us hope to make that ascent possible for “them” as well, by offering a “hand up, not a hand out.” As transcendent people, we genuinely care about those stuck below us. We fret. We give. We invent “solutions” we believe will fix poverty.
Perhaps this narrative sheds light on why international aid mostly focuses on meeting the bodily needs of “the poor,” through programs that are primarily designed and overseen by Westerners. Colonial religious missionaries saved souls in the name of what was a substantive payoff: eternity in heaven. Modern development “missionaries” save bodies toward a payoff that is similar: movement up the pyramid, potentially enabling Maslow’s “transcendence.” In this way, the narrative goes: Once the poor have moved up the pyramid, they too will be able to think and act for themselves. Until then, we need to do it for them.
Ironically, most of the world’s religions preach that over-attachment to worldly goods actually distracts from the quest to be a good or wise person. But that concept doesn’t get much airplay in today’s capitalist world, as we keep trying to buy our own personal stairways (pyramids) to heaven. Donating to charities today is often framed as a shopping experience, but this time it’s a trip to the mall of human life. Buy a well, a goat, a meal, a pair of shoes, a tree. Or even give cash directly. These items will enable others to ascend the pyramid. Don’t get me wrong–those real things help real people in need, especially in emergencies. But the framing and the processes – the top-down nature of it all – has gone so far off track.
On the receiving end, imagine how the random appearance of pre-selected goods, services, or even cash might appear to the receivers. Shared in the wrong way, over many years, they foster a kind of Waiting for Godot feeling, even causing the psychological condition known as “learned helplessness.” This dynamic casts “the poor” as supporting actors in the show we – as the Global North – direct and star in. In development we refer to recipients as “grantees,” “audiences,” “beneficiaries,” and “targets.” We are “donors,” “CEOs,” “directors,” “senior advisors,” and “technical experts” and “changemakers.”
If you live in the Global North, imagine people on the other side of the world discussing amongst themselves how they plan to save or rescue you. Seems absurd, right? Because it is.
Upending the pyramid: What does that look like?
Like much of the world, international development is having an existential crisis. Perhaps because it turns out that our Maslow-esque “let us do the thinking and acting for you” hasn’t produced the sustainable change we assumed would happen, and even makes us seem both naive and arrogant.
So am I arguing against support for clean water, food, and other basic needs? No. I am arguing that for this enterprise to really work, the support needs to come in the right way, as led by communities. My colleague Pascal Djohossou says, “You can’t get the tangibles in place until you have the intangibles in place.” By intangibles he is talking about things like: dignity, voice, agency, vision, commitment, mindset, and collective planning and action. As these concepts gain recognition, the hope is that these beautiful values and principles don’t get co-opted by the development industrial complex, turning them into “measurable outputs,” animated by today’s supremacy-based practices rather than love or justice.
In communities, local people are reflecting, learning, imagining, taking personal risks, and working hard – as they always have. In the right kind of relationship, most communities welcome both solidarity and practical support. (They also increasingly reject patronizing donations.) There is already deep wisdom about respectful ways to engage, and to be helpful: many humble international and domestic civil society organizations partner meaningfully and effectively with everyday people and communities that face marginalization on a daily basis. Facilitation from external actors, when invited, can help communities come together, envision, prioritize and take action for better: health, education, food security, economic opportunities, safety, water and electricity, and more. Thus, those critical bottom-of-the-pyramid needs (i.e. food, water, shelter, etc.) do get met–appropriately, sustainably, inclusively–in a new sense of the term top-down–i.e. the local people working down from the tops of their own “pyramids.”
“People don’t want our pity. They want our respect.” – Jose Andres
As a person who grew up comfortably in a rich country, I realize that trying to really understand what it’s like to live in harder conditions (even within my country) is a lifelong process that offers the occasional flash of insight at best. Even after 30+ years in development, when I visit resource-poor settings, I am in fresh awe at how people are able to get by and even thrive in very difficult circumstances. And while people and communities famously do get by on so little, they could really use more: recognition for starters, as well as technical, financial, facilitation, and other kinds of support. With those, they can move mountains–including taking care of their own basic needs. And over the long run, we’ve seen how people and communities can transform their whole societies.
So should people donate to international development charities? Run international development programs? Yes. But not in the shallow, capitalist way of a “shopping experience”, rather, in the spirit of global solidarity. Let’s face it, many Western cultures are hurting–fraught with social unrest, polarization, despair. If Maslow was right, we should have seen a lot more transcendence by now. And COVID-19 has only exacerbated things – showing us that no country is exempt from a dire humanitarian crisis or infighting and division. As we examine our own troubled souls, maybe partnering with people in other settings–perhaps in spirit through a heartfelt donation, or in other ways, like volunteering, forming a giving circle, or even reaching out to make a new friend–can start us on the journey to a better place.
And then there’s the long haul…
From a social justice point of view, every person and community deserves dignity. Living in certain conditions–tangible and intangible–can undermine that. And of course there are places all around the world where people have an especially hard row to hoe. Recognition is a respectful starting point, and long-haul solidarity can take many forms.
To be part of truly meaningful personal and social justice efforts, we must recognize the smallness of our deep-seated “othering” mindsets, as perpetuated by Maslow’s ideas and in so many other ways. Let’s collectively imagine an “us,” altogether, regardless of birthplace, material possessions, physical environment, skin color, language, religion, gender…etc. etc. etc. And let’s figure out how to make “us” real, within and across our own: selves, families, communities, countries, planet.
 Sociology.org: How to Be Human
Photos: From top to bottom: 1) Ann harvesting olives and 2) Maslow’s Heirarchy Pyramid from mysoreyoga.org
About this article
This blog was written as part of the “From where I stand: Unpacking ‘local’ in aid” series. Through this series, CDA aims to listen to people most affected by aid as they explore and amplify their leadership experiences, stories, and lessons for the aid sector.
For recent blogs in this series check-out:
- “What if? by Marie-Rose Romain Murphy
- If you want support, vacate the space by Sudhanshu S. Singh
- The Global Standard: Going global, acting local by Bao Han Tran Le
- Why Do I Make the Case for Equitable Partnerships with Local Actors? by Koenraad Van Brabant]
- Sharing the keys to the localization house by Oheneba Boateng and Claudia Meier
And many more to come soon! If you are interested in contributing to the series please contact Grace Boone at [email protected]. We would love to hear from you and include your perspective.
About the author
Ann Hendrix-Jenkins has been working internationally since serving as a Peace Corps volunteer in Botswana decades ago. I am ever inspired by my grandparents, Drs. Elizabeth and Edgar Miller, missionary doctors in Nepal. They offered humble and respectful service where they felt they could be useful.