Last week I spent three days in a room full of very smart people talking about the UN Sustainable Development Goals.
Being a former economist and, having spent much of my career working on policies and programmes to solve poverty, I joined the ‘prosperity’ track to see what new things I could bring to the conversation. I say ‘new’ because it feels like this is a conversation people around me have been having for at least thirty years (the span of my working career), and so I listened with the intention of seeing something different about potential solutions.
Here’s what I noticed in that room:
1. Maslow has a lot to answer for
There’s a perception that seems to me to be more prevalent when we talk about international development, that getting people out of extreme poverty is the route to allowing them to focus on belonging, community and (eventually) self-actualisation.
If you’re familiar with Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, you’ll know what I’m talking about. If not, the premise is that there are ‘basic needs’ — food, shelter, water, etc that are fundamental foundations we must fulfil before we can go on to meet our psychological and self-fulfilment needs.
I don’t know about you but I know plenty of people who have their basic needs more than met and are still living lives of quiet desperation.
Yet, in that room, there was an unstated, underpinning belief that there is an order in which we need to solve the problems of the poor, starting with what Maslow termed ‘basic needs’.
I guess it’s the economic version of triage — treat the life-threatening blood loss first and then wellbeing comes as a second tier priority. And, yes, in a refugee camp, the first thing we do is hand out water, food and blankets.
What we don’t see in the economic scenario, though, is that (mostly) the challenge of poverty isn’t the same as arterial blood loss. We wouldn’t think to apply a tourniquet to diabetes or the flu, so why do we adopt this ‘triage’ mentality to solving economic problems? Could it be the solution is causing the patient more harm than good?
In the diabetes ‘epidemic’, for example, we’ve been misled to believe that fat is the enemy and, hence, we’ve (innocently) become addicted to sugar. The greater our understanding of what’s actually true, the more easily we will be able to change our lifestyles to prevent and reverse diabetes.
In the poverty parallel, if we had a greater understanding of how the mind works, and what it means to be truly free, then we might find less need for the modern medicine of ‘experts’ with their economic equivalent of metformin.
It’s very different to look at people as essentially ‘healthy’ and a little off-track, than it is to look at them as essentially ‘broken’ and needing to be ‘fixed’. This different perspective generates very different solutions and one turns out to be way more effective than the other.
It turns out that what is true for diabetes — increasing our understanding of the direction of causality — has a higher chance of lasting success and fewer unintended consequences. Just as with the ‘fat is the enemy’ lie, what Maslow described as a hierarchy of needs is one of the things that is keeping us stuck in what seems like an ever-deepening outbreak of economic inequality.
2. The way humans actually work
What’s missing from the Maslow framework (and many, many others) is what Viktor Frankl experienced in a Nazi concentration camp in World War II.
Despite the harshest conditions most of us can possibly imagine, he felt a moment of sheer and utter bliss. Here’s how he wrote about it in Man’s Search for Meaning,
A thought transfixed me: for the first time in my life I saw the truth as it is set into song by so many poets, proclaimed as the final wisdom by so many thinkers. The truth — that love is the ultimate and the highest goal to which Man can aspire. Then I grasped the meaning of the greatest secret that human poetry and human thought and belief have to impart: The salvation of Man is through love and in love…For the first time in my life I was able to understand the meaning of the words, “The angels are lost in perpetual contemplation of an infinite glory.”
Frankl saw a fundamental truth of human existence: that the very nature of being alive is that we are, in every moment, bathed in love. It’s that deeper level of consciousness we are looking for when we meditate, when we do mindfulness, when we ‘think’ we need to escape the world to find ourselves.
It can exist even in the bleakest of circumstances, and we can feel it when the instant we step out of our personal thinking.
In Frankl’s moment of enlightenment on that walk to the camp, he was able, despite the conditions — the beatings, the humiliation and the cruelty, to see something whole and perfect about the nature of life.
The reason we don’t live in this permanent state of bliss is because we continually create an experience of the world around us as a projection of what we think. We see what we are thinking, not what is necessarily real.
In saying that, it doesn’t mean those circumstances are not real, of course they are! No-one would deny the reality of Frankl’s time in that camp, the pain he and so, so many others experienced. It’s unthinkable that we can act towards fellow humans in that way, but it happens. What Frankl glimpsed though, and what guided the remainder of his life, is that there is something he called love that surrounds us, and that we can access, even in our darkest moments.
This is what frameworks such as Maslow’s don’t capture — that there is a fundamental truth about the nature of life that has nothing to do with our circumstances. This is the great leveller; it’s what gives us the power to rise above and, ultimately, change our circumstances.
3. This applies to world poverty how exactly??
In that conference last week, we talked a lot about going ‘upstream’, about looking to policy interventions, about changing the way we do business, rather than putting 10% of profits into a corporate social responsibility programme. That’s all fine and good but the ultimate ‘upstream’ intervention is to understand to how we work as humans. Once we get clear about that, everything else follows.
It’s like raising a child. Any parent knows that when we come from love, the behaviour takes care of itself. Wondering why our child isn’t doing exactly the same as the child next door and then imposing some external structures to force a behaviour change is the wrong solution. When we increase our understanding of what works, the results, as if by magic, seem to get infinitely better.
Changing our circumstances in isolation from that upstream understanding is like putting a sticking plaster on the arterial bleed. We know it at some level it won’t work but we do it anyway because we’ve seen it applied elsewhere.
I can already sense some cogs whirring with the question,
“Yes, but, Cathy, are you saying we shouldn’t be doing anything about poverty?”
No, not at all.
I am saying we should continue to tackle the external because that’s what humans do — we have an infinite imagination and desire to create tangible and intangible results.
The more we see that our circumstances are an effect, not the cause of our internal well-being, the more freedom we have to design whatever we want on the outside. Coming from a more peaceful state of mind will lead us to make different decisions and take different actions. Change becomes easy when we don’t attach so much meaning to it.
4. Is this a hard sell?
I wondered, in that room of powerful people last week, whether this was going to be a hard message to sell. When we are deeply ingrained with a received wisdom which is 180 degrees wrong, what will it take to change hearts and minds?
It’s self-evident to me that what we are doing to solve world poverty and what we are calling ‘global challenges’ isn’t working. Yes, we can point to data that the world is getting richer, far fewer people are in extreme poverty than twenty years ago, more people have access to schooling (girls especially), water and health. There are so many exciting initiatives that will end malaria, bring economic change, clean energy and communications infrastructure to places that have none.
However inequality is at an all time high within and between countries, corruption is stifling national and local economies, violence is prevalent — a recent UNICEF report that surveyed children found this to the their top priority for change. Violence at home, violence in the street, violence from those who should be protecting us. In the room full of people talking about sustainable development, what I see is the opposite of sustainable; to me it looks like a tower of jenga bricks built on quicksand.
The fragility comes from what we build rather than who we are. Underneath everything, people are essentially good. Essentially positive. Millions of us live together in cities, we form institutions, we build communities, we are kind and generous. No-one sets out to do something ‘bad’.
Where we screw up is because — like eating sugar — we are guided by a misunderstanding of the way the world is. A misunderstanding that circumstances will create a good feeling in us (which they can’t) rather than seeing that the good feeling is all around us and, changing our circumstances then becomes the effect, rather than the cause.
Clearing up this misunderstanding creates transformational change in the inner and the outer experience of people who have seen it. This is where lasting change comes from and this is my mission for the rest of this year and the rest of my life: to create the change I want to see in the world.
Are you in?
About the author
Cathy Presland is an expert in transformative leadership. She has more than two decades of experience in government and international organisations and her focus now is to support passionate individuals and organisations who are making a positive impact with the work they do. Find out more at https://cathypresland.com