Manfred Max-Neef’s model of human needs understood as a practical toolkit for supporting societal transitions

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Manfred Max-Neef’s model of human needs, articulated in the 1980s, became and continues to be quite frequently used across many contexts and around the world. The model contains: first, a matrix of fundamental needs and diverse satisfiers (ways of actualizing/fulfilling needs); second, a theorization of satisfiers; third, a methodology for satisfier specification, for use in diagnosing current systems, sketching preferred alternative systems, and considering how to move from one towards the other. This paper aims to give a fuller understanding of the model, based on attention to its purposes, context of emergence and contexts of application, and to its theorization of satisfiers and the system for satisfier specification, not only to its famous matrix. Part One outlines how the model emerged as an instrument to pursue an agenda of ‘Human Scale Development’ and ‘Barefoot Economics’ (titles of two of Max-Neef’s early books) in Latin America and more widely. It continues in use 35 years later, now in a range of settings. Part Two notes that Max-Neef did not introduce the conception of fundamental needs, nor the distinction between needs and satisfiers, and instead drew on earlier authors. His distinctive contribution was to enrich thinking about satisfiers by considering multiple existential modes and the impacts of satisfiers on multiple needs. Further, he handled his concepts as practical tools to consider (alternative) patterns of living, that could be viewed as systems of needs, satisfiers and goods. Part Three looks at functions of the model and its components, conscious that it was intended for use in practical development work not in academic philosophy or psychology. It notes some of the range of applications, for diverse levels and topics; by Max-Neef himself and close collaborators, especially for local sustainable development; and by various recent authors not connected to Max-Neef or ecological economics, in situation assessments of the lives of poor and marginalized groups, and in creative policy design and planning.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationDen Haag
PublisherInternational Institute of Social Studies (ISS)
Number of pages26
Publication statusPublished - Jul 2022

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SeriesISS working papers. General series


  • ISS Working Paper-General Series


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