Relocalisation – is it meeting your needs?

Growth is a good thing, at least for economic re-localisation. Interest in re-localisation, as well as related notions of de-centralisation and community resilience, has gone viral with new initiatives popping up seemingly every day. With all this new enthusiasm, it’s easy to forget that the roots of these ideas go back several decades, and that this ‘movement’ is just one current of a much broader global movement seeking to manifest economic, environmental, and social justice at every scale of society. No matter, these ideas are beginning to infiltrate the mainstream, even finding their way into EU policy.

ttt_logo_webThere are inspiring success stories unfolding, such as in Totnes, Devon where I live. But many community-led initiatives trying to spark this kind of local economic change fail to reach their full potential, or simply fail, and for many reasons. Some because they jump straight to prescriptions without adequate diagnoses. Others simply fail on project design. Still others cannot reach beyond their core base of ‘usual suspects’ and stand accused of being non-inclusive. Some can’t rally adequate community support to sustain their work beyond a project or two.

It may be that many, perhaps most, rest their efforts on a fragmented set of theoretical assumptions and unhelpful notions of what drives human behaviour. I want to argue that what’s missing is a theoretical frame that provides a holistic foundation for integrating the economic, social, and political analyses, for contextualising positive, prescriptive local action, and for building support within the community. I suggest that at least part of the answer lies in the 1991 work of a Chilean development economist. But I’ll come back to that in a moment.

Let’s first consider the rise in this movement over the last ten or fifteen years, at least in ‘the West’. In the late 90s, the World Trade Organisation protests and peasants’ movements awakened many to the undemocratic processes at the heart of the ‘Washington Consensus‘, and to corporate political and economic hegemony. In the mid 2000s, mass media elevated into mainstream consciousness the issues of global warming and the enormous footprint of the consumption-based economy. The war in Iraq and the issue of ‘Peak Oil‘ combined to focus interest on the political economy of energy and the many consequences of petroleum dependence – diminished democracy, economic vulnerability, armed conflict, etc. Most recently, the financial crisis, collapse or near collapse of several ‘developed’ economies, and harsh austerity policies, launched the Indignados and Occupy and swelled the ranks of amateur macro economists.

Some of these newly ‘activated’ citizens are now fighting the system from the inside and out, many are plugging into local activities aimed at creating attractive alternatives and positive responses. Permaculture courses abound; sustainability and resilience oriented groups are mushrooming; the slow and local food movements are growing. Some people find their way into these streams of activist work because they’re fed up and want to be part of the solution. Others are attracted because these kinds of groups are often full of hip, fun-loving, friendly people who make change-making into a party. It is, as Paul Hawken has pointed out, a blessed unrest.

The Transition movement is emblematic of this pulse of activity. Starting from a small town in rural Britain, it has expanded to about 1,400 initiatives in over 40 countries in just a few years. To a large degree this is due to the artful way it has integrated a serious analysis of some of the dire problems we face with a convivial, neighbourly approach to community development. It’s become a home for both experienced activist and enthusiastic newbie.

Whether fighting the system or working to manifest more attractive alternatives, many activists share a basic analysis and prescription. If corporate dominated globalisation is the problem, at least part of the solution is re-localising and democratising the economic system. Bringing ownership and production closer to the community, as appropriate, reduces corporate control while increasing local accountability and decision making. It affords the opportunity to reduce the ecological footprint of both production and consumption, while increasing local wealth. A vibrant local economy can provide more meaningful livelihoods while contributing to social cohesion and resilience, all of which can lead to increased well being.

Given these arguments, it’s understandable why community groups want dive in and get to work making change. But what does that change really look like, who decides, who’s included, and how do you actually get there? “Let’s provide more of our needs locally,” is a common rallying cry. But what does that mean? If it’s ‘needs’ in terms of economic goods and services, does this rest on the reductionist model of rational, utility-maximising ‘economic man‘? If based on a theory of the whole person, what is it? But who has time for theory if there are newly motivated activists on the scene with the energy to do something? Volunteer energy has got to be channeled into doing something, anything, before the enthusiasm wanes. That’s the nature of the mostly volunteer-based world of economic activism and community development work.

The importance of transforming the complexion of local economies, coupled with the urgency to strike while the iron is hot, too often creates a project first, ‘ready, fire, aim’ attitude. Sometimes it’s for good reason – some projects are just screaming to be manifested because they can unlock the latent potential within a community to believe that change is even possible in the first place. But sometimes, it’s for the wrong reasons. The lure of sexy projects can simply be too great, regardless whether the groundwork has been laid or even if it’s needed. For some, whatever the problem, the solution is a colourful local currency plastered with the faces of local heroes or a community food forest. In the long run, this pattern is at best unsustainable and at worst can lead to community division and the demise of the group

Ironically, this same pattern dominates international development driven by the globalisation agenda of big corporations, bureaucrats, and politicians. In that paradigm, whatever the development problem, the solution is the world’s largest dam or shiniest new airport. Obviously, this kind of top-down development is the wrong kind of development. What’s needed is a development paradigm that puts people and ecosystems first, their real needs, and they should be the ones who decide. And if the economic re-localisation movement is focused on much the same thing, shouldn’t there be some deep thinking about what constitute local needs, or indeed, what this word ‘need’ even means? And if economic development for the ‘developing world’, or re-localising economic development for ‘de-developing’ regions in the ‘developed world’, should be about people first, shouldn’t the whole community be as engaged and included as possible?

Manfred Max-Neef
Manfred Max-Neef

These were some of the insights that led development economist Manfred Max-Neef in the 1980s to re-think the default approach to international economic development. Trained at a major US university and working in the field, he realised that the work he was doing had little measurable positive impact on the lives of the people who ‘needed’ the development. More importantly, his training provided no framework for understanding what was really required, nor indeed, for even being able to engage and communicate with the people his profession was ostensibly trying to help. This led him to write ‘From the Outside Looking in: Experiences in Barefoot Economics’, and later, ‘Human Scale Development‘ (HSD), where he presents a holistic, people-first approach to development with a theory of fundamental human needs at its foundation.

In HSD, Max-Neef and his co-authors, Elizalde and Hopenhayn, sketch out an approach for community-led development that “is 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.”

Community activists and organisers, today, will find much in that quote congruent with their own thinking. Indeed, HSD supports many of their intentions, activities, and projects. More importantly, it begins from a deeper starting point, creating a useful theoretical platform that can help make community activists and organisers more grounded and effective in their work. The approach is built around a theory of fundamental human needs, which provides a powerful frame for interpreting analyses of socio-politico-economic conditions, context for prescriptive action, and building empathy and support within the community.

In brief, the theory describes 9 fundamental human needs: subsistence, protection, identity, affection, freedom, participation, understanding, creation, and idleness. These are aspects of life that everyone seeks to fulfil, and have done in every culture throughout history. Together they form a holistic, dynamic, interactive, and interdependent system. It’s not a simple hierarchy, rather we always try to satisfy all these needs, with exceptions under extreme circumstances. When needs are abundantly satisfied there is well being. When fulfilment of these needs is deprived, there is impoverishment which can lead to ‘pathologies’ manifesting as psychological problems, addictions, crime, etc.

This complex of needs is the same for everyone, but what’s different is how we seek to satisfy those needs. That is an incredibly important distinction: there are needs and there are ‘satisfiers’ of those needs. We don’t need food, rather food is a satisfier of our need for subsistence, for example. The ways in which we may satisfy needs will vary between individuals, groups, and cultures. The cultural context, or the prevailing social, political, and economic conditions, helps to define what’s possible for the individual, as well as providing some satisfiers for the collective.

Like needs, satisfiers can be classified, too. First, satisfiers may be states of being or experience, things, activities or relationships. Satisfiers may or may not be economic goods and services. This, too, is an important distinction. Satisfiers also have positive and negative attributes. Some satisfiers may simply satisfy one need, while another may simultaneously satisfy many needs. For example, a sandwich purchased on the run during a busy workday may satisfy the need for subsistence and nothing else, but a relaxed lunch with friends, made with food plucked from the garden may meet the needs for subsistence, affection, participation, identity, creation, etc. We’re naturally attracted to such ‘synergistic’ satisfiers.

But some satisfiers can have negative effects. An oppressive police state may satisfy the need for protection, but at the cost of violating the fulfilment of a range of other needs. Or a textile factory may contribute to fulfilling the needs for identity for someone in a rich country by providing luxurious linens, but at the expense of the sweatshop worker’s ability to meet her own needs for participation, leisure, freedom, etc. And perhaps the factory’s pollution may prevent future generations from fulfilling their needs. Finally, there are pseudo-satisfiers that deliver the illusion of fulfilling a need. We will all be familiar with famous brands that promise to meet our need for identity, but don’t really, or political processes that pretend to meet our needs for participation.

In sum, there are a small number of fundamental needs but a wide range of possibility for these needs to be satisfied or deprived, all of which forms a dynamic, interrelated complex that helps to shape our choices and behaviour. And the strategies we use to try to satisfy our needs will in large measure be defined by the context of our socio-politico-economic circumstance.

Although brief and incomplete, this description should make clear the potential applications of this theory for activists and organisers engaged in economic re-localisation work. As a whole, the theory provides a framework with which to analyse how the needs of the community are being met, positively or negatively, by economic, social, and political conditions at all scales. Through this lens, it’s possible to look at how the dominant economic system has commercialised and monopolised much of the needs/satisfier dynamic, and with language that avoids ideological baggage. It’s also a more holistic model of the person providing a fuller and more nuanced understanding of behaviour and decision making, than simplistic models of utility-maximising rational actors or of Freudian consumers whose fears and desires are easily manipulated.

In particular, the distinction between needs and satisfiers, and that there can be multiple pathways for meeting needs, unlocks all sorts of possibilities for community activists and organisers. For the activist and her colleagues themselves, it provides clarity and a common set of assumptions. It can help to illuminate alternative pathways for meeting one’s own needs, as well as the needs of others in the group. This may lead to better group cohesion and sustainability. It may also lead to new ways of working that meet more needs synergistically, which can help to build participation and inclusiveness within the group.

In terms of the work on the ground, understanding these distinctions can lead to more effective community engagements, project design and delivery. Projects that satisfy multiple needs can attract more participation and be more successful. It can also open up a range of ‘teachable moments’, providing a judgement-free framework for discussing choices, impacts on others and self, and resistance to change. For example, understanding the needs shoppers are trying to satisfy at the supermarket can inform a more sophisticated approach to shifting spending to independent, locally-owned shops. This framework also creates space for empathy, especially with individuals and groups who stand in opposition to ‘common sense’ projects. For example, are the proposed wind turbines threatening their ability to satisfy their needs in some way? Are there alternative pathways for satisfying these needs that the project could include? (This is one reason this theory sits at the heart of Non-Violent Communication training and practice.) Finally, and maybe most importantly, the awareness that dependence on a flawed and unfair economic system is not inevitable and that real alternatives exist supports the belief that change is possible.

It should be clear that the theory of fundamental human needs is compatible with other theories informing re-localisation practice, and indeed, with the practices and projects themselves. Groups coming from a permaculture, Transition, or neighbourhood assembly orientation, may already be developing projects that satisfy multiple needs, or are operating inclusively and empathetically within their communities. For these groups, this theory can deepen their understanding and enhance their work. For other groups struggling to gain traction, it may provide a more solid platform on which to build.

Max-Neef and co-authors build on this theory and flesh out the HSD approach, reorienting ‘the local’ in terms of ecological systems, macroeconomic systems, and the state, as well as outlining a praxis that aims for improved local self-reliance, all of which will be consistent and reinforcing of contemporary notions of decentralisation and re-localisation. Some ideas may be particularly useful in this era of austerity and high chronic employment, such as the sections that deal with empowering social actors, ‘the invisible’, and the need to develop horizontal networks.

HSD does not provide a panacea or a one-stop shop for those advancing a re-localisation agenda. Permaculture, the Transition model, political science, ecology, new economics, network theory, values and frames, and other sources will contribute theories and practical methodologies that anyone working in this area will find valuable, useful, and in some cases, necessary for advancing positive change. What we have found in our experience is that the theory of fundamental human needs and other aspects of HSD provide useful foundational concepts and language that complement the other theories and methodologies in the community development toolbox. We’ve been working for the past year bringing these ideas into the work of Transition Town Totnes, as well as other groups through the Well & Good Project. What we’ve seen include both nuanced adjustments and dramatic light bulb moments. I’ve tried to make the case for the usefulness and, perhaps, a renewed relevance for HSD. I hope I have at least inspired interest in this important work.

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