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Fundamental human needs

The taxonomy of fundamental human needs is a theory developed by Manfred Max-Neef in collaboration with the Chilean sociologist Antonio Elizalde and the Chilean philosopher Martín Hopenhayn [es], described in the 1991 book Human Scale Development.



In this theory, the fundamental human needs are seen as ontological (stemming from the condition of being human), few, finite, and classifiable (as distinct from the conventional notion of conventional economic "wants" that are infinite and insatiable).[1] They are also constant through all human cultures and across historical time periods – what changes over time and between cultures are not these needs but the strategies by which these needs (and created desires) are satisfied. Human needs can be understood as a taxonomic 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 Maslow; rather, simultaneity, complementarity and trade-offs are features of the process of needs satisfaction.

The theory provides a concept of "Human Scale Development", 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."[2] It also gives a process by which communities can identify their "wealths" and "poverties" according to how their fundamental human needs are satisfied.


Max-Neef classifies the fundamental human needs as:

  • Subsistence
  • Protection
  • Affection
  • Understanding
  • Participation
  • Leisure
  • Creation
  • Identity
  • Freedom

Needs are also defined according to the existential categories of being, having, doing and interacting, and from these dimensions, a 9×4-cell matrix is developed [3]

Need Being (qualities) Having (things) Doing (actions) Interacting (settings)
Subsistence physical and mental health food, shelter, work feed, clothe, rest, work living environment, social setting
Protection care, adaptability, autonomy social security, health systems, work co-operate, plan, take care of, help social environment, dwelling
Affection respect, sense of humour, generosity, sensuality friendships, family, relationships with nature share, take care of, express emotions privacy, intimate spaces of togetherness
Understanding critical capacity, curiosity, intuition literature, teachers, policies, educational analyse, study, meditate, investigate, schools, families, universities, communities
Participation receptiveness, dedication, sense of humour responsibilities, duties, work, rights cooperate, dissent, express opinions associations, parties, churches, neighbourhoods
Leisure imagination, tranquility, spontaneity games, parties, peace of mind day-dream, remember, relax, have fun landscapes, intimate spaces, places to be alone
Creation imagination, boldness, inventiveness, curiosity abilities, skills, work, techniques invent, build, design, work, compose, interpret spaces for expression, workshops, audiences
Identity sense of belonging, self-esteem, consistency language, religions, work, customs, values, norms get to know oneself, grow, commit oneself places one belongs to, everyday settings
Freedom autonomy, passion, self-esteem, open-mindedness equal rights dissent, choose, run risks, develop awareness anywhere

The Being column registers attributes, personal or collective, that are expressed as nouns. The Having column registers institutions, norms, mechanisms, tools (not in a material sense), laws, etc. that can be expressed in one or more words. The Doing column registers actions, personal or collective, that can be expressed as verbs. The Interacting column registers locations and milieus (as times and spaces).[1]


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

A violators claims to be satisfying a need, 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.
Pseudo satisfiers
A pseudo satisfier claims to be satisfying a need, yet in fact has 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.
Inhibiting satisfiers
An inhibiting satisfier over-satisfies a given need, which in turn seriously inhibits the possibility of satisfaction of other needs. They mostly originate in deep-rooted customs, habits and rituals. For example, an overprotective family stifles identity, freedom, understanding, and affection.
Singular satisfiers
a singular satisfier satisfies one particular need only. These are neutral in regard to the satisfaction of other needs. For those who do not have the means to find singular satisfiers under their presiding socioeconomic conditions, singular satisfiers are often institutionalized by voluntary, private sector, or government programs. For example, food/housing volunteer programs aid in satisfying subsistence for less fortunate people.
Synergistic satisfiers
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.

Human scale developmentEdit

Human scale development was created in response to neoliberalist and structuralist traditional hierarchical development systems in which decisions start at the top and flow down instead of in a democratic manner.[4] It focuses on development by the people and for the people and is founded upon three pillars: fundamental human needs, increasing self-reliance, and balanced interdependence of people with their surroundings.[5] This system of development gives people a platform for community organizing and democratic decision making to empower people to take part in the planning process to ensure it meets their needs. Max-Neef's fundamental human needs forms the basis for the creation of his alternative development and, as opposed to Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, which focuses on a ranking of psychological needs, Max-Neef includes needs that are complementary, each one necessary for achieved satisfaction.[3] This proposal for an improved development system is useful on a small scale and gives insight into achieving fundamental needs through societal institutions.


Recent research appears to validate the existence of universal human needs.[6][7]


One of the applications of the theory is within the field of Strategic Sustainable Development, where the individual fundamental human needs (not the marketed or created desires and needs) are used to refine the Brundtland definition. Together with other aspects of The Natural Step framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, summarized as backcasting from sustainability principles, it enables planning and designing for sustainability.


  1. ^ a b Manfred Max-Neef (1991). Human Scale Development: Conception, application and further reflections. New York: The Apex Press. ISBN 094525735X. Archived copy.
  2. ^ In Spanish: Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde y Martín Hopenhayn (1986), "Desarrollo a Escala Humana - una opción para el futuro" ("Human Scale Development: An Option for the Future"), Development Dialogue, número especial (CEPAUR y Fundación Dag Hammarskjold). p. 12. In English: Manfred Max-Neef, Antonio Elizalde, & Martín Hopenhayn. with the cooperation of. Felipe Herrera, Hugo Zemelman, Jorge Jatobá, Luis Weinstein (1989). "Human Scale Development: An Option for the Future." Development Dialogue: A Journal of International Development Cooperation. 1989, 1, 7-80.
  3. ^ a b Kath Fisher. "Max-Neef on Human Needs and Human-scale Development". Rainforest Information Centre.
  4. ^ Guillen-Royo, Mònica (2015-10-05). Sustainability and Wellbeing: Human-Scale Development in Practice. Routledge. ISBN 9781317647263.
  5. ^ Cruz Barreiro, Ivonne (October 2006). "Human Development assessment through the Human-Scale Development approach: integrating different perspectives in the contribution to a Sustainable Human Development Theory" (PDF).
  6. ^ The Atlantic, Maslow 2.0: A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness
  7. ^ Tay, Louis; Diener, Ed (2011). "Needs and Subjective Well-Being Around the World" (PDF). Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 101 (2): 354–365. doi:10.1037/a0023779. Retrieved Sep 20, 2011.