Barefoot Economics and Motivation


This post was first published on my business blog, which I’m closing down now that I’ve retired, so I’m archiving some of the better posts to this blog.

I’ve been thinking a lot about frameworks for motivation recently, starting with Maslow’s unsatisfactory Hierarchy of Needs; then Dan Pinks, Autonomy, Purpose and Mastery; followed by Susan Fowler’s similar, but also flawed, Autonomy, Competence and Relatedness.  I summed up my thoughts on all of these in a recent blog post coming up with my own list; Autonomy, Mastery, Purpose, Relatedness and Sustainable challenge.

Mine is longer of course, I’m rarely satisfied with other peoples work, so I was pretty interested when I came an alternative to Maslow’s approach, called Human Scale Development:

In the 1970s, after many years of researching poverty in Latin America, Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef came to the conclusion that conventional economics, in practising chrematistics, did not have the tools to adequately address the experience of poverty and could not serve to alleviate it. What was needed was a language that allowed poverty and wealth to be understood in much broader terms. Together with his colleagues he developed what is now commonly known as Human Scale Development (HSD) or ‘barefoot economics’.

I particularly liked the way that they described how these needs worked:

In this model of economics, you are wealthy when your needs are satisfied and if one or more of your needs are not met you are poor. Whereas our current model has conventionally defined wealth as how much money you possess and poverty as a lack of money – expressed as a poverty of subsistence – in HSD you may suffer from any number of poverties if one or more of your needs are not adequately satisfied. So you may have a full belly and suffer from poverties of affection, understanding or identity. Or you may feel safe and protected by having a secure well-paid job, but work so much you suffer from poverties of creation, participation and idleness. When enough members of a community suffer a particular poverty for prolonged periods it develops into a pathology. It becomes a sickness that is often hard to recognise because it has been normalised

This model seems to be incredibly useful in a work environment and explains a lot about behaviour, but also about the dysfunctional cultures (pathologies) that develop in a work environment that are often difficult to explain given that the individuals all seem well educated and motivated.  I often borrow the phrase learned helplessness from Marty Seligman to explain this dysfunction.

Taking a look at the list of human needs is even more interesting:

Subsistence, Protection, Identity, Understanding, Participation, Creation, Freedom, Affection and Idleness

They map pretty well to my previous model of motivation, but they add some interesting aspects:

  1. Autonomy maps to Identify and freedom
  2. Mastery maps to creation
  3. Purpose maps to Understanding, Participation, Creation
  4. Relatedness maps to Understanding, Participation and Affection
  5. Sustainable challenge maps to idleness

This mapping leaves something to be desired, because some key needs are hidden away behind more conceptual ones, in particular I mourn the loss of Understanding, Participation and Affection, but relatedness is ok as a single word summary.  I particularly like the need for ‘idleness’ which in a work context I think is nicely covered by sustainable challenge. That still leaves Subsistence and Protection; people are clearly motivated to earn enough money to meet their needs, including subsistence.  The missing needs in my earlier framework though is that they also need to feel protected, for example not intimidated, bullied, out of their depth, blamed for taking risks that the job demands, threatened by redundancy etc.

In conclusion I think I’m adding yet another category to my motivation framework, protection, resulting in:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose
  4. Relatedness
  5. Sustainable challenge
  6. Protection

The inspiration and quotes for this post came from the article Inez Aponte: From dismal science to language of beauty – Towards a new story of economics by Rob Hopkins

Steve Richards

I'm retired from work as a business and IT strategist. now I'm travelling, hiking, cycling, swimming, reading, gardening, learning, writing this blog and generally enjoying good times with friends and family

1 Response

  1. August 28, 2015

    […] I have an update to this post that’s worth […]

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