Fundamental Human Needs

Human Needs and Human-scale Development, conceived by Manfred Max-Neef and others, are seen as ontological (stemming from the condition of being human), are few, finite and classifiable (as distinct from the conventional notion of economic “wants” that are infinite and insatiable).

They are also constant through all human cultures and across historical time periods. What changes over time and between cultures is the strategies by which these needs are satisfied. Human needs can be understood as a system – i.e. they are interrelated and interactive. In this system, there is no hierarchy of needs (apart from the basic need for subsistence or survival) as postulated by Western psychologists such as Maslow, rather, simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs are features of the process of needs satisfaction.

Manfred Max-Neef and his colleagues developed a taxonomy of human needs and a process by which communities can identify their “wealths” and “poverties” according to how their fundamental human needs are satisfied.

This school of Human Scale Development is described as “focused and based on the satisfaction of fundamental human needs, on the generation of growing levels of self-reliance, and on the construction of organic articulations of people with nature and technology, of global processes with local activity, of the personal with the social, of planning with autonomy, and of civil society with the state.”

One of the applications is within the field of Strategic Sustainable Development where the individual Fundamental Human Needs (not the marketed needs) and the mechanics of the collective social system need satisfying in a sustainable society. Together with other aspects of the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, including the (socio-ecological) sustainability principles it helps to plan and design for sustainability.

Max-Neef classifies the fundamental human needs as:


Needs are also defined according to the existential categories of being, having, doing and interacting, and from these dimensions, a 36 cell matrix is developed.


Types of satisfiers

Max-Neef further classifies Satisfiers (ways of meeting needs) as follows.

  1. Violators: claim to be satisfying needs, yet in fact make it more difficult to satisfy a need. E.g. drinking a soda advertised to quench your thirst, but the ingredients (such as caffeine or sodium salts) cause you to urinate more, leaving you less hydrated on net.
  2. Pseudo Satisfiers: claim to be satisfying a need, yet in fact have little to no effect on really meeting such a need. For example, status symbols may help identify one’s self initially, but there is always the potential to get absorbed in them and forget who you are without them.
  3. Inhibiting Satisfiers: those which over-satisfy a given need, which in turn seriously inhibits the possibility of satisfaction of other needs. Mostly originating in deep-rooted customs, habits and rituals. For example, an overprotective family stifles identity, freedom, understanding, and affection.
  4. Singular Satisfiers: satisfy one particular need only. These are neutral in regard to the satisfaction of other needs. They are usually institutionalized by voluntary, private sector, or government programs. For example, food/housing volunteer programs aid in satisfying subsistence for less fortunate people.
  5. Synergistic Satisfiers: satisfy a given need, while simultaneously contributing to the satisfaction of other needs. These are anti-authoritarian and represent a reversal of predominant values of competition and greed. For example, breast feeding gives a child subsistence, and aids in the development in protection, affection, and identity.

Content courtesy of Wikipedia