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close this bookDimensions of Human Development - Research Report on Basic Human Needs Lists (Individual Contributor S. Alkire)
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View the documentMethods for arbitrating disputes
View the documentCriteria for dimensions of human development (85)
View the documentOther lists: the four arguments demonstrated
View the documentConclusion


The second part of this paper will address itself to the remaining task, which is furthering the ongoing discussion of the content of the dimensions of development. It will do so very simply, by considering a pool of possible candidates drawn from lists which have arisen in recent literature, and assessing where they fit.

We shall consider the lists of: John Finnis (1987), Johan Galtung (1994) Manfred Max-Neef (1989), Martha Nussbaum (1995), Mozaffar Qizilbash (1996), and Frances Stewart (1985). Afterwards, we shall briefly then consider a spreadsheet of 20 other lists.

This paper stated in the outset that, although there is no dearth of 'lists' of well-being/ values/ human needs, it is certainly the case that the authors have developed their lists in response to different questions, and that the items on the lists represent different philosophical kinds of things. It would not be adequate simply to sort the lexical word-items into categories, then, because such an exercise, apart from being impossible because the same words are differently defined in different lists, would misrepresent the underlying project of each author. Thus I begin by introducing briefly each author whose list is to be considered, and sketching, with unfortunate brevity, how the list has arisen in their own work. The relationship between their work and the dimensions set forward in Part I of this paper is elaborated individually for each author.

Martha Nussbaum, has developed an eloquent, forceful, broadly aristotelian account of a 'normative human life' and the political obligations which arise from it. (53) Her work began with the express intention of specifying the 'basic' functionings and capabilities of Amartya Sen's capabilities approach. She suggests that such a list of basic capabilities (meaning basic in the way we described) could generate an 'open-ended, tentative' international working consensus on 'what it means to be human and live well,' (54) which would thus provide the foundation of a global ethic. (55) Her project is philosophical and practical. In particular, her global ethic is geared to the political nation-state, in that she is looking to specify a list of capabilities with reference to which political constitutions could be drafted or amended enforced and improved, and a list which may facilitate increased awareness and discussion within other societies of issues such as women's capabilities.

Nussbaum's list differs from the dimensions of human development in being much more specific. For Finnis or for Griffin, a one-word or one-phrase description of the elements is actually sufficient - because persons 'supply the rest' from their own experience and discussion. In contrast, to understand Nussbaum's categories one must really read her definitions of them, and understand not only the goods themselves but also the nature of the state which would protect these goods. In the discussion which follows I have referred to Nussbaum's list by the 'titles' she uses, but also discussed the fact that under each title there are lists of descriptive which include political liberties (which are institutional or legal means to facilitating the concerned element), instrumental or operational interpretations (basic education, the right to sexual preference) as well as 'values' of the wider kind which are susceptible to diverse local interpretations (see below).

Nussbaum: 'Central Human Capabilities' (56) 1. Life. Being able to live to the end of a human life of normal length; not dying prematurely, or before one's life is so reduced as to be not worth living. 2. Bodily Health and Integrity. Being able to have good health; to be adequately nourished; to have shelter; having opportunities for sexual satisfaction and for choice in matters of reproduction; being able to move from place to place; being secure against violent assault, including sexual assault, marital rape and domestic violence. 3. Pleasure and Pain. Being able to avoid unnecessary and nonbeneficial pain, so far as possible, and to have pleasurable experiences. 4. Senses, Imagination, Thought. Being able to use the senses; being able to imagine, to think, and to reason-and to do these things in a way informed and cultivated by an adequate education, including, but by no means limited to, literacy and basic mathematical and scientific training. Being able to use imagination and thought in connection with experiencing and producing spiritually enriching materials and events of one's own choice (religious, literary, musical and so forth). Being able to use one's mind in ways protected by guarantees of freedom of expression with respect to both political and artistic speech, and freedom of religious exercise. 5. Emotions. Being able to have attachments to things and persons outside ourselves; to love those who love and care for us, to grieve at their absence; in general, to love, to grieve, to experience longing and gratitude, and justified anger. Supporting this capability means supporting forms of human association that can be shown to be crucial in their development 6. Practical Reason. Being able to form a conception of the good and to engage in critical reflection about the planning of one's own life. This includes, today, being able to seek employment outside the home (in a regime protecting the free choice of occupation) and to participate in political life. 7. Affiliation. Being able to live for and to others, to recognize and show concern for other human beings, to engage in various forms of social interaction; to be able to imagine the situation of another and to have compassion for that situation; to have the capability for both justice and friendship. Protecting this capability means, once again, protecting institutions that constitute such forms of affiliation, and also protecting the freedoms of assembly and political speech. 8. Other Species. Being able to live with concern for and in relation to animals, plants, and the world of nature. 9. Play. Being able to laugh, to play, to enjoy recreational activities. 10. Separateness. Being able to live one's own life and nobody else's. This means having certain guarantees of noninterference with certain choices that are especially personal and definitive of selfhood, such as choices regarding marriage, childbearing, sexual expression, speech, and employment.

The project of this paper keeps to one side (for the time being) the elements of Nussbaum's proposed political/legal project (which may or may not be the uniquely best possible institutional mechanism for facilitating the functionings of interest). It also does not include the directly operational interpretations of probably necessary means (such as universal basic education, or universal access to sanitation facilities) to achieve the valued ends.

The reason, again, for separating the consensus on values from the discussions of programmatic and political responses, is that there are likely to be two kinds of arguments:
1) what the ends a community is to pursue are and
2) what are the best institutional mechanisms or processes for sequencing and implementing measures to pursue the selected goals.
There seems to be a value in each community discussing these two things separately.

Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean professor and activist, has, together with his associates, used a matrix of human needs in participatory exercises. The exercises involve groups of 10 individuals, who gather for one intense day, to sit together and discuss the needs and 'satisfiers' that have constructive or destructive effects on their 'being, having, doing and interacting.' Their discussion is provoked by the task of reflecting on the following classification of human needs (or, we might say, dimensions of human development): subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, participation, leisure, creation, identity, and freedom (for a sheet of each author's 'list' see further).

Max-Neef describes five criteria he has used in constructing this classification of human needs such that it would be of use to a community which wishes to reflect on and interpret its own situation holistically. They are as follows 1. The classification must be understandable; the needs listed must be readily recognizable and identifiable as one's own 2. The classification must combine scope with specificity; it must arrive at a limited number of needs which can be clearly yet simply labelled but, at the same time, be comprehensive enough to incorporate any fundamental felt need 3. The classification must be operational; for every existing or conceivable satisfier57 one or more of the needs stated must appear as a target-need of the satisfier [in other words, any action or organisation can be understood by reference to the needs as 'reasons for action.'] 4. The classification must be critical; it is not sufficient for the categorization to relate satisfiers to needs. It is essential to detect needs for which no desirable satisfier exists. Also, it is crucial to identify and restrain those satisfiers which inhibit the actualization of needs. 5. The classfication must be propositional; to the extent that it is critical and capable of detecting inadequacies in the relation between the existing satisfiers and the fulfilment of needs, this classification should serve as a trigger mechanism to work out an alternative order capable of generating and encouraging satisfiers for the needs of every man and woman as integral beings. (58)

Frances Stewart, one of the founders of the basic human needs approach to development, clearly distinguished the wider categories of human ends which pertain to a 'full life' from those prerequisites of a minimally decent life which comprise 'basic needs,' and suggested that the commodities which meet basic needs be related to the 'full life' through a meta-production function.

The philosophical approach which is implicit in her writing is that

a) both the 'basic needs' and some aspects of a 'full life' for humans are shared across cultures and classes
b) all of these would need to be specified according to the local or national context (different 'bundles' of goods will facilitate the same broad objective in different situations (59)
c) the 'basic needs' are dependent upon material resources hence they will require 'operationalisation' though political and economic action in order to be met
d) the meeting of 'basic needs' is one goal amongst others; the weighting of this set of goals versus other goals which relate to other aspects of the full life has to be done by a political process (60)
e) the practical establishment of relationships between projects and ends is messy. (61)

It is possible to interpret Stewart's work as substantively similar to the conception of dimensions of development sketched above. Actual preferences definitely play a role in Stewart's identification of elements of 'the full life' (62) but this does not mean that her list is founded upon the desire account alone - 'participation' and commitment are required in the choice, weighting and ranking of the elements. It would certainly be consonant with her approach to understand it as a list of intrinsically vague but valued 'ends' (63) which cannot be collapsed into each other thus are in this sense incommensurable. This interpretation, taken together with the emphasis Stewart places on participation and political discussion to weight and rank the different elements of 'full life' relative to each other64 and her studied omission of rigid definitions of each element, suggests that her list is a set of 'vague' ends which are to be specified locally, hence represents broadly the same kind of list as the 'dimensions' described earlier.

Qizilbash has introduced the recent work of James Griffin on prudential values into development ethics, to propose a list of prudential values, comprising 'everything that makes a person's life go better.' (65) There are two kinds of prudential values: 'core' values which are recognised by everyone, and non-core values which 'may play a part in some people's lives but not in others' but which are 'generally recognised as prudentially valuable.' (66) Qizilbash argues that this approach nets a 'consensual' 'culturally non-relative' account of human development which is open to different cultural specifications. It is consensual because each value "is a candidate for prudential value...for any human being, in any culture, with any personal conception of the good or any plan of life.' (67) It is culturally non-relative, being applicable for rich as well as poor countries, and applicable to countries with different moral values. Qizilbash's particular list of 9 values contains instrumental and intrinsically valuable goods and development involves 'having more of the elements of prudential value.'

The distinction between Qizilbash's and Griffin's prudential values - what the elements on their lists are supposed to capture - and the dimensions of human development sketched above is marginal. The distinction rests mostly on the identified elements of prudential value, rather than the substantive significance of these elements. One distinction which is slightly more foundational is that the 'list' of Qizilbash (rather than Griffin, whose approach he develops) includes allegedly 'instrumental' elements such as hygiene, which are not and need not be, in his account, 'reasons for action' as described above. Still, they could be re-configured with respect to the 'prudential values' or 'dimensions of human development' which are pursued in the pursuit of hygiene by considering again the answer to the question, 'why do I pursue hygiene' (if this is a most basic reason - it is good to be clean - then indeed hygiene is an intrinsically rather than instrumentally valuable element of well-being).

Doyal and Gough, in A Theory of Need have proposed to develop a concept of need which is grounded both philosophically (68) and with respect to the indicator debates and other debates in the social sciences. Their theory defines universal needs as "preconditions for social participation which apply to everyone in the same way" (69). and concludes "that universal needs exist, that sets of basic and intermediate needs can be identified and that degrees of need satisfaction can be charted..." (70) In particular, they identify exactly two universal 'basic needs' - physical health and autonomy. Physical Health is conceived "as [physical survival and] the absence of specific diseases, where disease is defined according to the biomedical model". Autonomy of agency is defined as "the capacity to initiate an action through the formulation of aims and beliefs" and requires "mental health, cognitive skills and opportunities to engage in social participation." Each of these three sub-components is further defined.

These needs are distinct from the definitions of 'dimensions' given earlier in this paper in two interesting ways. First Doyal and Gough are deliberately limiting their scope to preconditions of well-being, not well-being itself. Their project, then, is being fundamentally different than the current one, never has had any intention of identifying the full range of relevant areas of well-being. Their approach is nonetheless included in this paper as a representative of the kinds of 'basic' concerns which many others similarly put forward.(71)

A second difference of this approach is that basic needs are defined such that their fulfilment is normative. While Doyal and Gough would say that the 'satisfiers' of these needs may vary widely, these needs themselves can be specified once and for all (a need to be without cholera), without consultation of the related population. Furthermore, because these needs are established as 'pre-conditions' of a fulfilled life, there is a normative duty, they argue, always to fulfil them. This approach differs from the approach of 'dimensions' specified earlier, which simply does not specify needs (although this process of identifying and specifying basic urgent needs would be a necessary intermediate stage in the operationalisation of the dimensions account although this could be done at the most local level possible - not necessarily because the 'answers' would differ vastly - even if they did not there would be some value in this because, on all accounts, it is the satisfiers which cause all of the disillusionment).

John Finnis together with several colleagues has, over the past thirty years, developed and applied an Aristotelian approach (72) to the pursuit of human flourishing by people and institutions (the institution of law in particular) which is based on practical reason. His work is of particular relevance to development ethics because it is well-developed, operational, and plural, and it was his work which has greatly informed our description of 'dimensions' in Part I of this paper. (73) The list discussed below represents one of a series of proposed lists which he and his colleagues have generated, and its elements are of the nature described above as 'dimensions of human development.'

Johan Galtung, who writes on peace research and self-reliance, has produced and developed a list of human needs which are formulated "in rather a general manner." (74) The book from which this list is taken, Human Rights in Another Key, deliberately addresses the question of how western human rights appear to other cultures, and which human needs correspond to human rights. The book expresses concern about the unique formal institutionalisation of human rights, and of the duty to provide for basic needs in centralised authorities/assemblies, and advocates in addition to this, the discussion and enforcement of these needs and rights in civil-society (he calls these latter channels of human rights 'beta channels' which are decentralised, horizontal, female and relational). Galtung emphasises that the 'beta' channels are better at creating and maintaining 'identity' rather than alienation although they are also 'vulnerable to evil actors'. (75) This suggests that his arrangement shares with the dimensions described above the recognition that the ongoing articulation and specification of the dimensions and needs into a local setting is central to the creation of social character and identity.

He describes his particular list of human needs as "the result of much trial and error, confrontations with literature and dialogues with other researchers and, above all, with other people than researchers, etc." (76) The list has 30 elements, and is presented as a bulleted list with no further definitions of any item being present in the text. While recognising that needs usually 'require social arrangements for their satisfaction, he locates human needs 'in single individuals' alone. (77) He describes the list as "a working hypothesis" and adds the comment (which we would share) that "it is tested by being used." The criteria of a satisfactory list would be if it were fruitful, if it served "to identify problems already known to be important" and if it were able "to guide us further in understanding problems that may become important one day but have not yet crystallized sufficiently."

Galtung's list is at once rather broad and yet specific: items are needs certainly of some people - ie this is surely a list (though not exhaustive) of candidate needs - but not necessarily of equal breadth (ie the need 'for protection against diseases' vis a vis the need 'for understanding social forces' or 'for social transparency': the latter, to my ears, sound far narrower). At the same time by leaving them so brief, Galtung appeals to the reader to engage her own values and experiences to define or even understand the 'needs'. In other words, in Galtung's own understanding, his list is a tool rather than a theory: it is valid insofaras it is useful as a springboard for reflection.

Max-Neef, Nussbaum, Qizilbash (and Griffin (78), Finnis, and perhaps in a weaker way Galtung and Stewart share one characteristic of their lists. This is what I will call the claim to completeness: that anything which is basic to human flourishing should be able to be expressed (classified) vis a vis the values/elements of their list. I say 'should be able to' because these authors would not necessarily claim that their array 'certainly' has this status in its present form. However it is of greater interest to compare their lists and reflect on the differences knowing that each have been drafted with this common goal.

They share one further characteristic which is that each list is, to borrow Rawls' term, vague. To some extent (not necessarily completely) each bases his or her work (explicitly in the case of Qizilbash/Griffin, Nussbaum and Finnis; implicitly for Galtung, Stewart and Max-Neef) on the exercise of 'practical reason' by individuals and communities. A full definition of how a community or individual understands and appropriates the different dimensions of human flourishing requires the specification exercise to be completed at the local level. The authors' understanding of the extent to which this is necessary varies radically (Nussbaum seeming to need the least) but it is never non-present.

The list of 'basic needs' specified by Doyal and Gough represent the other kind of an approach: an approach in which each element is defined theoretically/scientifically and in which all elements taken together are intended to be only the preconditions of human flourishing.

The following discussion refers to Table 1.

It is immediately apparent (and hardly surprising) that all lists share some concern for physical life and for education; it is also apparent that other items come and go from different lists. The pertinent question at this point is whether or not there will be a reasoned way to consolidate these different suggestions about the 'dimensions of human development' into a simple array or whether they will seem to augur for different lists. (79)