In the scholarly literature, like in everyday language and public discourses, the notion of needs has been used in widely differing ways, with different ontological underpinnings. Gasper (1996) identifies 35 meanings given to ‘needs’ as a noun. Following a widespread classificatory practice, he proposes to distinguish between wants and needs. ‘Wants,’ understood as felt or conscious desires, should be separated from ‘needs,’ ‘whether in the sense of deeper drives or of requirements’ for meeting a given end, such as, for example, survival or well-being (ibd., p. 74). Drawing this distinction allows to prioritize among wants, denying that ‘every want of the same intensity is equally normatively important’ (ibd., p. 74). Psychological approaches (e.g., Ryan and Deci 2000) and Burton (1990, 1996) understand basic needs both as drives (‘fundamental human motivations’) and as requirements for well-being (cf. Vansteenkiste et al. 2008). However, not all human motivations are directed towards behavior that supports well-being, and people might even act in self-endangering ways. Therefore, normative reference points are needed in policy analysis.Footnote 3
Both ‘basic material’ and ‘basic human needs’ approaches serve for prioritization, i.e., focusing on what is ‘basic.’ But only the latter offer human-centered, context-sensitive perspectives on development and systematically seek to combine universality and particularity, or identity and variability. It is this combination that helps to deal with challenges arising from perspectivity in development analysis.
In a critique of cultural relativism, Doyal and Gough reveal that contemporary relativist approaches ‘all have attempted to denounce universal standards of evaluation with one hand only to employ them to endorse some favored view of the world with the other’ (Doyal and Gough 1991, p. 33; see also Nussbaum 2008, pp. 41ff.). In order to avoid such implicit evaluations, several ‘lists’ of universal human needs have been proposed.Footnote 4 Significant overlaps between these lists (as between lists of well-being more generally) indicate that we do have some knowledge on universal human needs, however uncertain and preliminary. The reports analysis below will focus on needs for food and physical security as well as identity social recognition. The latter needs some explication, as it does not figure very prominently in international development debates. The behavioral relevance of ‘a need for personal identity and recognition in the context of meaningful groups’ has been stressed by Burton (1996, p. 31). Recognition corresponds to what Nussbaum (2008) calls the ‘social bases of self-respect and non-humiliation.’ The distinction between ‘social bases’ (social relations) and ‘self-respect’ (a psychological state) incorporated in Nussbaum’s formulation resonates with other theoretical work. Maslow (2013) regarded esteem as a source of trust in oneself. Not every form of esteem, however, could deliver genuine self-trust, which was ultimately important because it enabled autonomous, self-directed agency. In line with this, Deci and Ryan’s self-determination theory, albeit not recognizing a basic need for esteem or recognition, highlights the role of good-quality feedbacks by others. Only these enable trust in oneself, which in turn is the psychological base of autonomous agency, considered by Deci and Ryan a basic human need. In light of these literatures, recognition and identity are highly relevant for agency, empowerment, participation, control, and ownership, which are now being centrally addressed in international development debates (cf. Schnyder von Wartensee et al. 2019). Agency-enabling self-respect and its social bases can be understood as need and satisfier.
Overall, taking universal human needs as reference points in policy analysis is important because it systematically orients the lens to those realities that are most central from the viewpoint of normative considerations. In order to be informational, however, needs analysis needs concreteness, and this is where variability comes in. The different manifestations of satisfier variability have been systematically addressed by Max-Neef (1991; cf. Guillen-Royo 2016). From his contribution, I draw three features of satisfiers that can help discover three potential fallacies arising from perspectivity.Footnote 5
Satisfiers for the Same Needs Vary across Groups and over Time
Often, interpretative frameworks narrow down the range of conceivable means for achieving a goal. When adapting conventional parenting practices from their own parents without reflecting them, people will not have an open mind to alternative practices of other parents that might better support their children. Similarly, if frameworks for policy analysis incorporate only one means for a given goal (e.g., a ‘Western’ instrument), other means that already exist in contexts will not become visible through their lens. Max-Neef (1991, p. 24) stresses the immense diversity of satisfiers. Satisfiers can be very different, ranging from forms of organizations and social practices to subjective conditions. The same need can be fulfilled by different satisfiers, and which satisfier fulfills a given need varies across contexts and between groups. Having this in mind can help analysts discover whether a given framework excludes or obscures existing opportunities for improving needs fulfillment.
A Candidate Satisfier Can Enable or Hamper the Fulfillment of a Need, Depending on Which Other Potential Satisfiers It Connects with
Perspectivity might also stimulate us to depict something as beneficial in itself, abstracting from the potential variability of its context-specific effects. An everyday example from some Northern countries would be practices of equaling ‘good weather’ with sunshine, which now become revisited through climate change. In the developing field, this fallacy can have damaging effects when Northern institutions are transferred to ‘developing’ countries without considering how they articulate with the different contextual conditions there. Max-Neef stresses the interdependency between needs and satisfiers: In each concrete context, the different needs of people are interlinked with multiple satisfiers in manifold and dynamic ways. Satisfiers, as well, are mutually interconnected. Whether they fulfill or hamper needs then depends on the type of satisfiers they connect with. If a satisfier is ‘transplanted’ from one context into another it might interlink with different ‘local’ satisfiers and might hamper instead of fulfilling needs as a result. Therefore, this second feature of satisfiers can be a tool for discerning whether a policy framework reifies strategies as inherently beneficial, thereby drawing attention to its potential negative effects.
A Satisfier Can Simultaneously Fulfill Some Needs and Fail to Fulfill Other Needs, and This Holds Both for the Needs of One Person and of Different Groups
A related fallacy is to see something in a rosy light only, while regarding something else as exclusively deficient in all respects. Anderson’s story of the Emperor’s New Clothes illustrates how idealizations can be blinding. Talking of the ‘developed North’ and ‘developing South’ can obscure problems of the former and achievements of the latter likewise. A key purpose of Max-Neef’s framework is to explore how existing arrangements can be transformed in the direction of creating synergic satisfiers—satisfiers that simultaneously fulfill different needs and do no harm. At the same time, in our highly interdependent world, many satisfiers impinge on the different needs of different people and groups in both positive and negative ways. A much-discussed example from the development field would be large-scale infrastructural projects. These will have different effects on the needs of different groups. A dam construction, for example, might undermine identity needs of local communities that are being moved to other places while providing life-preserving energy to many other people. Another example, status hierarchies in formal organizations hamper the physical and psychological well-being of subordinates (Marmot 2004). At the same time, these hierarchies provide a basis for the high performance of modern formal organizations, and thus for the large-scale production of beneficial goods from foods to clothes to medicine. Searching for such ambivalences can support balanced evaluations of proposed measures as compared to existing arrangements. It can help assess whether inducing change will be beneficial below the line and effectively be creating more synergic satisfiers.Footnote 6