Unmet Human Needs

What Human Needs Are

Humans need a number of essentials to survive. According to the renowned psychologist Abraham Maslow and the conflict scholar John Burton, these essentials go beyond just food, water, and shelter. They include both physical and non-physical elements needed for human growth and development, as well as all those things humans are innately driven to attain.

For Maslow, needs are hierarchical in nature. That is, each need has a specific ranking or order of obtainment. Maslow’s needs pyramid starts with the basic items of food, water, and shelter. These are followed by the need for safety and security, then belonging or love, self-esteem, and finally, personal fulfillment.[1] Burton and other needs theorists who have adopted Maslow’s ideas to conflict theory, however, perceive human needs in a different way — as an emergent collection of human development essentials.[2] Furthermore, they contend needs do not have a hierarchical order. Rather, needs are sought simultaneously in an intense and relentless manner.[3] Needs theorists’ list of human essentials include:

  • Safety/Security — the need for structure, predictability, stability, and freedom from fear and anxiety.
  • Belongingness/Love — the need to be accepted by others and to have strong personal ties with one’s family, friends, and identity groups.
  • Self-esteem — the need to be recognized by oneself and others as strong, competent, and capable. It also includes the need to know that one has some effect on her/his environment.
  • Personal fulfillment — the need to reach one’s potential in all areas of life.
  • Identity — goes beyond a psychological “sense of self.” Burton and other human needs theorists define identity as a sense of self in relation to the outside world. Identity becomes a problem when one’s identity is not recognized aslegitimate, or when it is considered inferior or is threatened by others with different identifications.
  • Cultural security — is related to identity, the need for recognition of one’s language, traditions, religion, cultural values, ideas, and concepts.
  • Freedom — is the condition of having no physical, political, or civil restraints; having the capacity to exercise choice in all aspects of one’s life.
  • Distributive justice — is the need for the fair allocation of resources among all members of a community.
  • Participation — is the need to be able to actively partake in and influence civil society.

Why the Concept of Human Needs Matters

Additional insights into unmet human needs are offered by Beyond Intractability project participants.

Human needs theorists argue that one of the primary causes of protracted or intractable conflict is people’s unyielding drive to meet their unmet needs on the individual, group, and societal level.[4] For example, the Palestinian conflict involves the unmet needs of identity and security. Countless Palestinians feel that their legitimate identity is being denied them, both personally and nationally. Numerous Israelis feel they have no security individually because of suicide bombings, nationally because their state is not recognized by many of their close neighbors, and culturally because anti-Semitism is growing worldwide. Israeli and Palestinian unmet needs directly and deeply affect all the other issues associated with this conflict. Consequently, if a resolution is to be found, the needs of Palestinian identity and Israeli security must be addressed and satisfied on all levels.

Arguments For the Human Needs Approach

Human needs theorists offer a new dimension to conflict theory. Their approach provides an important conceptual tool that not only connects and addresses human needs on all levels. Furthermore, it recognizes the existence of negotiable and nonnegotiable issues.[5] That is, needs theorists understand that needs, unlike interests, cannot be traded, suppressed, or bargained for.[6] Thus, the human needs approach makes a case for turning away from traditional negotiation models that do not take into account nonnegotiable issues. These include interest-based negotiation models that view conflict in terms of win-win or other consensus-based solutions, and conventional power models (primarily used in the field of negotiation and international relations) that construct conflict and conflict management in terms of factual and zero-sum game perspectives.[7]

The human needs approach, on the other hand, supports collaborative and multifaceted problem-solving models and related techniques, such as problem-solving workshops or an analytical problem-solving process. These models take into account the complexity of human life and the insistent nature of human needs.[8] Problem-solving approaches also analyze the fundamental sources of conflict, while maintaining a focus on fulfilling peoples’ unmet needs. In addition, they involve the interested parties in finding and developing acceptable ways to meet the needs of all concerned.

Human needs theorists further understand that although needs cannot be compromised, they can be addressed in a generally win-win or positive-sum way.[9] An example of this win-win or positive sum process can be gleaned from the Kosovo conflict. When the Albanians obtained protective security, the Serbs also gained this protection, so both sides gained.[10]

Arguments Against the Human Needs Approach

However, many questions and uncertainties surround the human needs approach to solving conflicts. For instance, how can one define human needs? How can one know what needs are involved in conflict situations? How can one know what human needs are being met and unmet? Are human needs cultural or universal in nature? If they are cultural, is the analysis of human needs beneficial beyond a specific conflict? Are some needs inherently more important than others? If some needs are more important, should these be pursued first?

Other critics of the human needs approach assert that many conflicts involve both needs and interests. So, conflict resolution cannot come about by just meeting human needs. For example, when looking at the Palestinian/Israeli conflict, it is understood that both needs (identity, security, freedom) and interests (i.e., resource allocation, international boundaries) are involved. Consequently, even if the needs of both parties get met, the conflict will probably not be resolved. Resolution can only come about when both needs and interests are dealt with.[11]

Nevertheless, most scholars and practitioners agree that issues of identitysecurity, and recognition, are critical in many or even most intractable conflicts. They may not be the only issue, but they are one of the important issues that must be dealt with if an intractable conflict is to be transformed. Ignoring the underlying needs and just negotiating the interests may at times lead to a short-term settlement, but it rarely will lead to long-term resolution.

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By Sandra Marker


[1] Jay Rothman, Resolving Identity-Based Conflict in Nations, Organizations, and Communities (San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1997)

[2] John Burton, Conflict Resolution and Prevention (New York: St. Martins Press, 1990)

[3] Jay Rothman, 1997

[4] Terrell A. Northrup, “The Dynamic of Identity in Personal and Social Conflict,” in Intractable Conflicts and their Transformation, ed. Louis Kriesberg, Terrell A. Northrup and Stuart J. Thorson (Syracuse, New York: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 55-82.

[5] Roger A. Coate and Jerel A. Rosati, “Human Needs in World Society,” in The Power of Human Needs in World Society, ed. Roger A. Coate and Jerel A. Rosati (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1988), 1-20.

[6] David J. Carroll, Jerel A. Rosati, and Roger A. Coate, “Human Needs Realism: A Critical Assessment of the Power of Human Needs in World Society,” in The Power of Human Needs in World Society, ed. Roger A. Coate and Jerel A. Rosati (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1988), 257-274.

[7] ibid

[8] ibid

[9] Jay Rothman, 1997.

[10] “Kosovo Leaders Agree to Pact Against Violence,” in PeaceWatch 6, no. 5. (August 2000): 1-3. Article also available on-line athttp://www.usip.org/peacewatch/pdf/pw0800.pdf (accessed 11 February 2003); Internet.

[11] David J. Carroll, Jerel A. Rosati, and Roger A. Coate, 1988.


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