Rethinking Aid: Why the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs matters for smallholder farmers

by | Mar 23, 2023 | Personal Insights, Sustainability | 0 comments

Numerous aid projects are being introduced in developing countries to support smallholder farmers and improve their income. While these efforts are needed and well-intentioned, they often overlook the farmers’ actual needs and priorities. While visiting African countries and discussing the challenges with colleagues, I realised that we must consider the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs and tailor our initiatives accordingly. We need to think from their perspective, not ours.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs: A Quick Overview

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is a psychological theory that explains human motivation and behaviour. The hierarchy consists of five levels of needs, starting from basic physiological needs and progressing to self-actualisation (Maslow, 1943).  The levels are as follows:

  1. Physiological Needs: Basic requirements for survival, such as food, water, and shelter.
  2. Safety Needs: The need for security, stability, and protection from harm.
  3. Social Needs: The desire for love, friendship, and a sense of belonging.
  4. Esteem Needs: The need for self-esteem, recognition, and respect from others.
  5. Self-Actualisation: The pursuit of personal growth, creativity, and the realisation of one’s potential.

The most fundamental four layers of the pyramid contain what Maslow called “deficiency needs” or “d-needs”: esteem, friendship and love, security, and physical needs. If these “deficiency needs” are not met – except for the most fundamental (physiological) need – there may not be a physical indication, but the individual will feel anxious and tense. Deprivation is what causes deficiency, so when one has unmet needs, this motivates them to fulfill what they are being denied (McLeod 2021). Maslow’s idea suggests that the most basic level of needs must be met before the individual will strongly desire (or focus motivation upon) the secondary or higher-level needs.

Understanding Smallholder Farmers’ Needs

Many aid projects for smallholder farmers focus on introducing advanced technologies or sophisticated farming techniques. The people introducing them are probably already at the top of the Maslow’s Pyramid. While these efforts can be helpful, they may not address the farmers’ most urgent needs, which often lie at the lower levels of Maslow’s hierarchy.

To create lasting impact, we need to first ensure that their physiological and safety needs are met. This includes:

  1. Access to basic resources: Ensuring that smallholder farmers have access to clean water, nutritious food, and adequate shelter should be the starting point of any intervention.
  2. Land rights and security: Land ownership and tenure security are crucial for the well-being of smallholder farmers, as they provide a sense of stability and protection.
  3. Access to healthcare: Providing access to healthcare services and education on disease prevention can significantly improve farmers’ lives.
  4. Community-building: Encouraging the development of strong, supportive communities can help address the social needs of smallholder farmers.

A New Approach to Aid

Taking the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs into account, we must reevaluate our approach to aid projects:

  1. Prioritize basic needs: Aid efforts should prioritize addressing the physiological and safety needs of smallholder farmers before introducing advanced technologies or techniques.
  2. Collaborate with local communities: Engaging with and learning from local communities will help us better understand their unique needs and priorities.
  3. Sustainable solutions: Focus on interventions that are economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable to ensure long-term benefits.
  4. Holistic development: Recognizing that smallholder farmers’ needs extend beyond agriculture, we should aim to develop initiatives that encompass education, healthcare, and community development.

In Conclusion

To truly make a difference in the lives of smallholder farmers, we must look beyond Western perspectives and consider their unique needs and priorities. By applying the insights of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, we can develop more effective, targeted aid initiatives that address the root causes of poverty and create lasting change. Please share your thoughts in this matter, because I am curious about your opinion!


  • Maslow, A.H. (1943). A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review, 50(4), 370-396.
  • McLeod, Saul (December 29, 2021) [2007]. “Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs”SimplyPsychology. Retrieved January 2, 2022.
  • Graphic source: By Androidmarsexpress – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts:

Share This

Share this post with your friends!