by Aderoju Quadri Ayodeji
(iseyin, oyo state, nigeria.)
Visitor Question: What are five advantages and five disadvantages of the felt need approach?
Editors' Reply: We don't know whether we can give you five of each, but we will describe the primary advantages and disadvantages.
For our readers who may not understand, the felt need approach is a theory of community development that says that basic needs (a term that proponents of felt needs theory also use), as experienced emotionally and as expressed by the population, need to be addressed and relieved as quickly as possible. The emphasis is on immediate alleviation of problems.
This theory contrasts with an approach that says that what people really need is longer-run improvements in their physical, economic, and social conditions, and further, that people are not necessarily aware of all the measures that they might consider to be good for them if only they had more information.
We wrote about this a bit more on our answer to a previous question on felt needs theory.
This concept always seem to us to be related to the idea of a hierarchy of needs, advanced by an American psychologist named Abraham Maslow. He wrote that at the lowest level of a psychological needs pyramid lies physiological needs, and that at the top of his five-level hierarchy he places the need for self-actualization. An important part of his theory is that humans will focus on the lowest level of their unmet need. A starving man or woman is not worried about the legacy he or she will leave; the focus is on food.
We conclude that a felt needs approach is incredibly important in a community where people cannot meet their basic physiological needs for food, warmth, freedom from disease, and safety. If you need food and have access only to bananas, you will not be so impressed with my argument that actually oranges will produce more health in the long run. However, if your food supply is more than adequate in quantity and quality, you might be more receptive to my saying that you need to eat fewer bananas and more mangoes, papayas, and oranges.
At the community level, if your community regularly is battered by violence from a nearby civil war, you will not be as worried about how you can meet the challenge of rising sea level that might threaten your current location in fifty years. But when the civil war is resolved, you have more physical and emotional energy to think about rising sea level.
Let's look at the advantages and disadvantages of felt needs theory then.
The chief advantage is that you have a chance to relate to people and get them involved in problem solving immediately, because you are starting with what they believe the problem to be. As community development practitioners, we work hard to engage people with their own community’s situation, and felt needs theory is a clear winner in that respect.
The second advantage is that often people have pretty good intuition about what the problem really is. They are the experts on their own lives after all. Their emotional expression may be quite clear, even if they could not articulate their position in a rational way.
A third advantage is that felt needs tends to aim its community development efforts at the lowest level of the Maslow hierarchy that is unfulfilled for most people in your community, introducing realism into community development practice. If physiological needs are unmet in a large proportion of the population, other more long-range and more abstract needs may need to remain unmet until the emergency concludes or until basic living conditions improve dramatically in that part of the globe.
Fourth, meeting immediate needs that people feel deeply and express builds loyalty to whoever and whatever helped to meet those needs and also to the process of working together as a community. These pro-community emotions can be quite useful further along in community development when there is less universal agreement.
Lastly, we should state emphatically that felt needs theory seems to us to be a critical correction to totalitarian governments, colonialism, or other systems that consider only the wishes of elites. We must uphold and advocate for the rights of the governed and of ordinary community members to express their perspectives, their wants, and their perceived needs, and to have those communications treated respectfully.
To the extent that the felt need approach developed in response to flagrant abuses of human rights, of course we think that is a major advantage.
We already have hinted at some possible disadvantages. When a society arrives at a certain amount of freedom, dignity for the individual, and ability to meet physiological needs, felt needs theory tends to encourage people to ignore the real root causes of their community problems. When this happens, time, effort, and resources are spent on attacking problems that perhaps cannot be solved at the local level. Or perhaps the problems that people see and therefore feel are only symptoms of a deeper problem that the average person does not understand and therefore cannot name or express as a felt need.
We often think that addressing only the problems that people can name helps them to postpone change, even when it would be positive. All humans become accustomed to their circumstances to some extent, so we have seen many instances when someone’s community was suffering from very obvious problems and defects, but people ignored those to focus on something else less painful. In our own community, one neighborhood wanted to talk about young people throwing trash on the ground all of the time, but didn’t want to even mention the obvious terrible poverty and gun violence that was surrounding them.
So at its worst, the felt needs approach could mean that people are focusing their attention on trivial matters that they subconsciously feel they can control, rather than thinking about and planning for long-range solutions to big systemic issues such as poverty, poor education, and lack of positive regard for their communities.
Felt needs theory can take on a tone of being somewhat anti-expert too. It places less emphasis on objective information and data than other community development theories, so another disadvantage is that it tends to be culture-bound. People are not imagining situations and conditions that are outside of their cultural experience, even when presented with evidence from other communities. While it is certainly important and healthy to respect one's own culture, it also is important to borrow from other cultures and other times in history when those other places and times have something to teach us.
We think that too much emphasis on felt needs, beyond the obviously very important felt needs for food, shelter, health, and safety, will lead to solutions that are too conservative and that oppose beneficial change. Felt need approaches, when used exclusively, seem to be oriented toward the past in a way that allows citizens to ignore the perils and opportunities of the future.
In our practice of community development in America, we try to strike a balance between felt needs and what we as educated and experienced community development practitioners see as more important needs in the long run. If the felt needs are urgent, in the sense of universal human needs for food and safety, we think those things deserve priority. But when basic and universal human needs are met, we are much less hasty about assuming that what people feel is a sound guide to what will be good for them in the long run. Our approach is to invite people to learn more about causes of some of the problems they are experiencing, and then ask them to help make intelligent decisions about how to balance the needs of today with the needs of tomorrow and future generations.
Another way to say this is that felt needs can and should be an important part of the policy and program environment, but helping local populations develop a more sophisticated understanding of cause and effect in communities is part of our responsibility as community developers.
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