Lessons From Poverty

You can only attempt to understand that
of which you become a part.

— Manfred Max-Neef

Amy Goodman from Democracy Now! interviews Chilean economist and Right Lifelihood Laureate Manfred Max-Neef on Barefoot Economics, poverty, principles of sustainable economics, the difference between growth and development. 

The show was broadcasted on November 26, 2010, and can be watched in its entirety here.

The segment on Manfred Max-Neef is avaliable in two parts on youtube:


I find it so impressive that I transcribed some parts and post them here.


On Poverty

When you belong you understand. When you’re separated you can accumulate knowledge, and that has been the function of science. Science is divided into parts, but understanding is holistic. And that happens with poverty. I understood poverty because I was there. I lived with them, I ate with them, I slept with them, you know, etc. And then you begin to learn that in that environment there are different values, different principles from … compared to those from where you’re coming, and that you can learn an enormous amount of fantastic things among poverty. What I have learnt from the poor is much more than what I’ve learnt when I was in your cities. But very few people have that experience, you see, they look it from the outside, instead us living it from the inside. And you learn extraordinary things. The first thing, you know, that people who run to work in order to overcome poverty and don’t know is that in poverty there is an enormous creativity. You cannot be an idiot if you want to survive. Every minute you have to be thinking „What next?“, „What do I now?“, „What trick can I do here?“, „What is … that that that“. So your creativity is constant. In addition, I mean, that is combined, you know, with networks of cooperation, mutual aid, you know, and all sorts of extraordinary things which you no longer find in our dominant society which is individualistic, greedy, egoistical, etc. It’s just the opposite of that you find there. And it’s sometimes so shocking that you may find people much happier in poverty than what you would find, you know, in your own envionment. Which also means, you know, that poverty is not just a question of money. It’s a much more complex thing.

How do you travel between the worlds? And when you’re living in the communities where you’ve learnt so much, what do those communities people, those communities ask you, want to know from you?

It may surprise you but they are not that interested in us here. We overestimate ourselves. And we believe, you know, that they want to be like us, and even more when we go there, you know, we believe that they must … they will overcome their problems when they look as much as possible as we look. They must be like us. And that’s nonsense, see.


On economics and economy 

What do you think needs to change? You’re saying it’s obvious. But what do you think needs to happen that they [politicians and economists] are avoiding?

Well, to begin with, a completely new concept of economics. This economy is crazy and poisonous. I am an economist and I’ve been fighting against the economy that is taught, the way it is being taught and being practised, I have been fighting it for almost 40 years of my life. Because it is an absurd economy that has nothing to do with the real life. It’s all fabrications. If the model doesn’t work it’s not because the model is wrong but because reality plays foul tricks. And reality is there to be domesticated, you know, and become the model. That is the attitude and a systematic. In addition: What is the economy that is being taught in the universities today, everywhere? Neo-classical economics. Neo-Liberalism is an offspring of neo-classical economics. And neo-classical economics is 19th century. So, we’re supposed to solve problems of the 21st century that have no precedent with theories of the 19th century. We no longer have a physics of the 19th century, nor a biology, nor an engineering, nor nothing. The only thing in which we stopped in its 19th century is in the concept of economics. I mean … and that is elementally absurd.

So to avoid another catastrophe collision, if you were in charge, what would you say has to happen?

First of all, well, I would dramatically change … For me the problem begins in the university. The university is for me the main responsible place. The university of today has become an accomplice of maintaining a world which we don’t want. Because, if you don’t teach something different to the economists, well, how the hell are you going to change it when they’re profesionals, you know, working? It’s impossible. […]

So, first of all, we need cultured economists again, who know the history, where they come from, how their ideas originated, who did what and so on.

Second, an economics now that understands itself very clearly as a sub-system of a larger system that is finite, the biosphere, hence economic growth as an impossibility.

And third, a system that understands that it cannot function without the services of the eco-systems. And economists know nothing about ecosystems. […]

And in addition: Bring consumption closer to production.



On Hope and Development

What have you learnt that gives you hope in the poor communities you’ve worked in and lived in?

Solidarity of people, you know. Respect for the others. Mutual aid. No greed! I mean that is a value that is absent in poverty. And you would be inclined [?] to … that it should be more there than elsewhere, you know, that greed should be of people who have nothing. No, quite the contrary. The more you have the more greedy you become, you know. And all this crisis is the product of greed. Greed is the dominant value today in the world. And as long as that persists, well, we’re done.

And if you’re teaching young economists the principles you would teach them …?

The principles, you know, of an economics how it should be are based in five postulates and one fundamental value principle.

One :  The economy is to serve the people and not the people to serve the economy.

Two :  Development is about people and not about objects.

Three :  Growth is not the same as development and development does not necessarily require growth.

Four :  No economy is possible in the absence of ecosystem services.

Five :  The economy is a sub-system of a larger finite system, the bioshere. Hence permanent growth is impossible.

And the fundamental value to sustain a new economy should be that no economic interest, under no circumstance, can be above the reverence of life.

Explain that further.

Nothing can be more important than life! And I say “life”, not “human beings“. Because, for me, the center is the miracle of life, in all its manifestations. But, if there is an economic interest, I mean, you forget about life. Not only of other living being but even of human beings. Ant then … hmm.

If you go through that list, one after the other, what we have today is exactly the opposite.

Go back to three, growth and development. Explain that further.

Growth is a quantitative accumulation. Development is the liberation of creative possibilities. Every living system in Nature grows up to a certain point and stops growing. You [pointing to Amy Goodman] are not growing anymore, nor he [pointing to one of the camera men], nor me. But we are continue developing ourselves, otherwise we wouldn’t be dialoguing here now. So development has no limits, growth has limits. And that is a very big thing, you know, that economists and politicians don’t understand. They are obsessed with the fetish of growth, economic growth. And I even worked … several decades many studies have been done … I am the author of famous hypthesis, the threshold hypothesis, which says that in every society there is a period in which economic growth, conventionally understood, brings about an improvement of a quality of life. But only up to a point, the threshold point, beyond which if there is more growth quality of life begins to decline. And that is the situation in which we are now. I mean your country is the most dramatic example that you can find. […] [T]he United States, an underdeveloping nation, which is a new category. We had „developed“, „underdeveloped“, „undeveloping“, now you have „underdeveloping“, and your country is an example, in which the 1 % of the Americans, you know, are doing better and better and better and the 99 % is going down – in all sorts of manifestations.


It is interesting how the working- and living conditions he describes poverty to permeate differ from those we often face in the workplaces of our societies. Just compare his remarks with some of the experiences I summarized a good while ago when I wrote about working conditions on my job (here and a postscript here). You have to be resilient and creative on the job too but you don’t experience this kind of community and network Max-Neef is talking about (or not to that extent). Accordingly, the de-humanizing is different, and it takes very conscious efforts to prevent it. As Max-Neef put it: Poverty is a much more complex thing than just a question of money. Development of the West seems the most urgent thing.


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