development poverty wealth

On the many ways to be poor

As I write about a just and sustainable economy, one of the enduring problems is our limited definition of wealth. We tend of think of it almost invariably in monetary terms, drawing up ‘Rich Lists*’ and calculating GDP, measuring the success of individuals and the progress of nations through the blunt instrument of financial increase. In reality, money is just one part of what makes life worth living, and that true wealth lies in relationships and belonging, satisfying work and leisure, and a host of other things.

We all know this of course, but somehow it doesn’t seem to filter through. Politicians can stand up and declare that growing the economy is their number one priority, and nobody questions the idea. If they were to say instead that the primary goal of government was going to increasing our collective wellbeing, I imagine they’d be dismissed as ‘wooly thinkers’.

The need to expand our definition of wealth provided me with the title of this blog, incidentally.  I had to shorten the title, since make(ourcurrentandinadequatedefinitionof) was already taken.

There’s another way to think about this though. If there are different ways to be rich, there are also different ways to be poor. The Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef advocated a ‘human scale development’ based around nine human needs. They are:

  • subsistence
  • protection
  • affection
  • understanding
  • participation
  • leisure
  • creation
  • identity
  • freedom

As Alastair McIntosh writes, “any human need that is not adequately satisfied reveals a human poverty.” The need for subsistence is the one most readily associated with poverty, but a lack in any of those categories represents a poverty, or rather poverties plural. A society that has solved the subsistence problems of food, clothing and shelter doesn’t need to push on with providing more food, bigger houses and more wardrobes full of clothes. Especially when we may experiencing a lack of identity, leisure, declining participation or affection.

Another of Max-Neef’s important insights was that while these needs are universal to human life, how we meet them is not. Each time and culture satisfies those needs in different ways, and it is worth paying attention to those ‘satisfiers’. Some things can satisfy one need, while undermining others – censorship may be motivated by the need to protect, but undermines freedom, identity and creativity. Other things are false satisfiers – owning a gun might make us feel more safe, but the statistics are pretty clear that members of gun owning households are more likely to be shot.

Other more positive satisfiers may target one need, but have wider benefits. The classic example is breast-feeding, which meets a subsistence need first and foremost, but also the need for affection, protection and identity.

The challenge for developed countries such as Britain is not to keep on raising production, whatever the cost. As Keynes wrote in 1930, perhaps its time to “devote our further energies to non-economic purposes” and take a look at that broader list of poverties. In particular, what synergistic satisfiers can we identify that will raise our ‘wealth’ across several needs? Because a society that is getting ever richer on paper, but lonelier, busier and more disconnected in the process, might not be so wealthy after all.

*See PGI’s (en)Rich List for a nice alternative


  1. I think it was Chief Seattle who commented on the zeal with which the incomers to his family’s land focussed on producing money rather than food as an asset – “you can’t eat money”

    1. Indeed, and that has remained the focus of IMF advice to poor countries for many years – export, and then use the foreign currency to buy the food you need.

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