Needs And Satisfiers

One of the most important elements of this emerging body of work is the crucial distinction between needs and satisfiers. Each culture attempts to satisfy collective and individual needs in its own way. The underlying needs may be universal. But the satisfiers vary from culture to culture and from time to time. In our own culture we have chosen a very specific development path characterised by the system of production and consumption in the industrial economy. The fact that this same development path is emulated on an increasingly global scale does not deny its cultural relativity. It only suggests that we should be even more careful to examine the appropriateness of the underlying paradigm.

The industrial economy arose from within an economic system designed primarily to provide for the material needs of subsistence and protection. Satisfying these vital needs involved the supply of certain material commodities: foodstuffs, clothing, construction materials. Industrialisation was based on the extension of this network of trade in vital material commodities to a wide range of other material products. Mass production of material goods had to be matched by a mass market for industrial products. The success of industrialisation was its ability to expand those markets, and create new ones for its material products. But what is the relationship between these new, mass-produced material products and fundamental human needs? Because the remaining needs are essentially non-material ones, it is no longer clear that the appropriate extension from the provision of physiological needs is the provision of more material products. Affection, creativity, idleness12 and participation are radically different kinds of 'commodities' from those which the market economy was designed to deliver.

The 'human-scale development' project (amongst others) made a critical distinction between the provision of economic goods and the satisfaction of needs.13 In the conventional orthodoxy, economic goods are supposed to provide what people want, as expressed by the transactions of the market. But what is the relationship between economic goods and human needs? Because we are rejecting the idea of a common currency of utility, expressed through financial transactions in the market, we have to accept the possibility of a much looser relationship between economic goods and the satisfaction of needs.

Some economic goods may actually satisfy wholly or partly a particular fundamental human need. Singular satisfiers both aim at and achieve the satisfaction of a single need without inhibiting the satisfaction of other needs. Synergic satisfiers simultaneously satisfy or contribute to the satisfaction of more than one need. Breast-feeding is a possible example of a synergic satisfier. It simultaneously satisfies the child's need for subsistence and its needs for protection, affection and identity.

Not all economic goods are satisfiers in the singular or synergistic sense. Some may only bring a false and temporary sense of satisfaction to a particular need. Examples of these pseudo-satisfiers may be junk food (subsistence), prostitution (affection) and fashion (identity and participation). Other kinds of economic goods (inhibiting satisfiers) satisfy one need only by impairing the satisfaction of other needs.

There is worse to come, however. The work of the Dag Hammarskjold project suggested that there may be some economic commodities which fail to satisfy any fundamental needs at all and in fact only destroy the possibility of satisfying them. An often quoted example of such a violator is nuclear weapons. Supposedly set in place to satisfy the need for protection, the arms race has impaired the satisfaction of subsistence, affection, participation and freedom. Ultimately, it even threatens the satisfaction of the protection need.14

Clearly, we are now in an area of investigation which is highly subjective in its nature. What satisfies one person (or set of people) may not satisfy another, even though the underlying need is the same. The satisfaction of needs is strongly determined by culture, class, social expectation, and individual choice. For these reasons, this new approach to development insists that the satisfaction of needs is something which requires negotiation in an appropriate interpersonal framework. It highlights the local identification of needs, and the local determination of appropriate satisfaction. This contrasts starkly, of course, with the centralisation of production and government which has accompanied industrial development. But it is reflected in some emerging political priorities: for instance, in the principle of subsidiarity on which the European Union rests; and in the 'Local Agenda 21' initiatives to implement sustainable development at the local level which emerged from the Rio Conference on Environment and Development in 1992.

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