Meeting the basic needs of all

When the New Internationalist asked a class of schoolchildren what they understood by world development, one 12-year-old said ‘People should not be hungry. They should not be ill all the time. They should have houses and schools.’

Meeting basic needs is the only yardstick of real development

It has taken the experts 20 years and many billions of dollars to reach this same conclusion. The idea that development means meeting people’s basic needs is now beginning to roll around the ranks of the development professionals as if it were an insight as revolutionary as the theory of evolution.

It is not, of course, an insight at all. It is merely a peeping out from under the blindfold. And even this simple act has only been prompted by a rather hard collision with the furniture of facts.

The most prominent of these facts is that 20 years of rapid economic growth in many developing countries has left the poorest 40 per cent of their populations without adequate food, shelter, education, healthcare or employment.

This fact alone shows that the present strategy of development is bankrupt. A new strategy is needed – a strategy which sets the meeting of basic needs in the centre of its sights, rather than in the periphery of its vision.

The implications of the obvious are almost always revolutionary. And this is certainly true of the basic needs approach to world development. It demands the dismantling of a mighty edifice of conventional wisdom:

OUT must go the idea that economic growth is development – economic growth is an essential part of the scaffolding of development but it must no longer be confused with the building itself.

IN must come the idea of meeting basic needs, the progressive reduction and final elimination of malnutrition, preventable ill-health, homelessness, illiteracy, unemployment and poverty, as the only yardstick of real development.

OUT must go the idea that market forces should determine the production and distribution of essential goods. Under the rule of market forces, economic demand is effective and human demand is not – so the poor go without.

IN must come the idea that basic needs are human rights to be guaranteed for all, not commodities to be bought and sold in the market place to the minority who can afford them.

OUT must go the idea that any progress for the poor and the powerless on the periphery must be dependent upon the increasing prosperity of the rich and the powerful at the centre. The fickle generosity and precarious perception of enlightened self-interest on behalf of the rich is no compensation for the injustice suffered by the poor.

IN must come the idea that economic power is inseparable from political power and that the poor can only be guaranteed their basic needs by themselves participating in the ownership and control of the means by which those needs are met.

A great many development experts, politicians, planners, economists and international civil servants are now picking up the basic needs argument and stroking it as if it were a new and fashionable breed of pet cat. We hope that this month’s issue, and next month’s sequel to it, will help to show that taking such a strategy seriously is more akin to riding a tiger.