Book review: Sustainability and wellbeing. Human-scale development in practice. By Mònica Guillen-Royo.

By James Copestake

Sustainability and wellbeing. Human-scale development in practiceBy Mònica Guillen-Royo. 2016. Abingdon and New York: Routledge. xiii+187 pages.

Addis, New York, Paris – 2015 may best be remembered for efforts to build an integrated global vision of sustainable development. But what next? One answer is to revisit approaches that start with small, participatory and practical local steps. What role do they have, and what prospects for synergy in a world that is more inter-connected than ever, but also experiencing renewed fragmentation?

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Chilean economist Manfred Max-Neef and his collaborators have been promoting what they call human scale development (HSD) for more than twenty-five years. In contrast to most recent research into well-being and development, they refreshingly emphasise the importance of social needs, relationships and norms over individual income, choice and happiness. Guillen-Royo takes up the story of HSD and asks whether it can contribute to development pathways capable of moderating rampant individualism and over-consumption.

Part 1 of the book describes HSD and locates it within wider thinking about sustainability and development. In brief HSD offers a methodology for integrated and balanced pursuit of a set of universal human needs rooted in community action: a central premise being that progress of any group is only possible if it emerges out of ideas and convictions thrashed out among its members. To achieve this, it advocates starting with a participatory analysis of priority actions and obstacles to need satisfaction, initiated by a diagnostic process based on at least three group meetings. These utilise a 9×4 matrix, with rows for each of nine universal needs (for subsistence, protection, affection, understanding, idleness, participation, creation, identity and freedom) and columns representing four ways of expressing them: through ways or states of being (adjectives); through things we have (nouns – referring to tangible things, but also intangibles institutions, norms and rules); through ways of doing (verbs); and through sites of social interaction (names of places or environments).


Universal needs








Enter in cells important enablers of (or obstacles to) need satisfaction for a particular group of people and context


At the first meeting, participants identify important positive need satisfiers and locate them within this matrix. These are ways of being, doing, having and interacting that achieve one of the nine universal needs. A second community meetings uses the same 9×4 matrix to identify obstacles to achieving the universal needs. At a third and subsequent meetings representatives of the community draw on the utopian and dystopian versions of the matrix to identify synergistic bridging satisfiers capable of simultaneously mitigating negative drivers of need satisfaction, and having positive and cumulative effects across more than one universal need domain. Women might join an income generating group, for example, primarily in pursuit of subsistence needs, but membership may also contribute to understanding, participation, creativity, identity and freedom. Spillover effects may also include enhanced capacity to confront obstacles to need satisfaction like patriarchy and domestic violence.

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Warm up exercises at the start of an HSD meeting in Acostambo

The precise meaning and mutual coherence of the needs, need satisfiers and obstacles matters less than the extent to which the process of identifying them succeeds in generating energy for positive change within the selected community, including motivating it to mobilise outside or exogenous resources. In moving from need identification to priorities for action, HSD invites joint reflection on which need satisfiers are singular (i.e. satisfy one need, while neutral to others), synergistic (satisfy more than one need now and or in the future), present trade-offs (meeting one need at the expense of others), or are even self-destructive over time. The core purpose of HSD is to promote a process of social learning, starting with joint understanding of such synergies, trade-offs and time inconsistencies, leading to identification of priority actions, mobilising peer-pressure and building energy to co-generate the synergistic bridging satisfiers while confronting violators, destroyers and pseudo-need satisfiers. Examples cited in Part 2 of the book come from Guillen-Royo’s own facilitation of HSD meetings as part of participatory action research projects in Peru, Catalonia and Oslo. For example, in the Andean district of Acostambo, her introduction of HSD led to establishment of an adult school and an organic vegetable garden. In Lleida, it engaged with campaigns to promote more flexible working hours. Unemployed participants in Spain were encouraged to mobilise against elite politics, and students in Oslo debated how to address indifference and individualism.

Lack of visibility and weak ‘scalability’ may be inherent to HSD, and the evidence cited in Part 2 suggests it has not progressed greatly from isolated initiatives towards becoming a coherent movement or a sustained influence on public policies and practices above the local level. More positively, Guillen-Royo suggests that HSD is combining with other traditions (she refers to the “Natural Steps Framework” and “Theory U”) to strengthen the social dimension underpinning rapidly expanding ecovillage, eco-municipality and transition town movements, thereby broadening their appeal beyond their traditional focus on ecology and environmental goals.

Adding environmental goals to the HSD list of nine human needs adds to the complexity of its methodology by opening up additional trade-offs and potential synergies. It also suggests the need to be more explicit in expressing the needs of future generations alongside representatives of different interests within the current generation. But Guillen-Royo hints at the possibility that combining sustainability thinking with HSD can also accelerate agreement on a more universal set of “necessary” synergic satisfiers, on more communitarian institutions, as well as ways of being, doing and interacting. Building on the commentary on the UK transition town movement by Inez Aponte, she confronts sharper trade-offs between material consumption and low-carbon lifestyle by advocating “THANCS” strategies: “aiming for thriving through awareness for non-conflicting strategies. This also leads her to contrast group convergence with respect to inner values with a more superficial and transactional approach to HSD.

Part 3 of the book goes more deeply into the limitations of HSD, including its relationship to power, including reflections on the constraints arising from utilising HSD through time-bound and externally grant funded participatory action research, for example. Guillen-Royo acknowledges the weakness of participatory approaches to development if not also informed by a hard-headed analysis of entrenched structures and interests, including those of external researchers and facilitators. Her main riposte is to reassert the primacy of local voices to HSD philosophy, including the importance of participants’ own analysis of their political room for manoeuvre. While founded more on faith in deliberative politics and consensus building, this does not preclude (she argues) HSD inspired processes from contributing to community mobilisation in more explicit power struggles. However, the book could have devoted more space to the political economy of how meetings based on HSD principles and methods can best be framed: what defines ‘community’, who participates in meetings (and persists after them), how and why. In the absence of analysis of context-specific power struggles it is easy to make unrealistic assumptions about the potency of rationality and methodology over vested interests and power.

This criticism also applies to discussion of how HSD can contribute to values, social norms, political movements and public policies capable of challenging those behind income polarising economic growth, profligate conspicuous consumption, wasteful energy use and unwarranted environmental damage. HSD can help in challenging simplistic free-market ideology behind such practices by focusing attention on human needs not wants, by deconstructing the effects of dodgy need satisfiers, and by uncovering synergistic bridging satisfiers that often rely on hard-to-price human relationships and spaces for social interaction. But this struggle against deeply entrenched ideas and interests will continue to be played out not so much in set-piece community discussions, but through a more agile and flexible approach to identification and analysis of specific arenas of ideological conflict, and to the political struggles that go with them.[1] Guillen-Royo’s book provides a useful introduction to HSD practice and how it aspires to contribute to more equitable, holistic and sustainable achievement of human needs. But there is huge scope for further analysis of how it can be adapted and applied to a wider range of arenas and issues.

[1] For further elaboration of this point see the discussion of “tension points” in the final chapter of Flyvbjerg, B., Landman, T., Schram, S., editors (2014:288) Real social science: applied phronesis. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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