The Refugee Rethink Part 4: What If Maslow Was Wrong?

Daniel Wordsworth
Becoming Alight
Published in
9 min readApr 27, 2017


Refugees come to us not as a sequence of needs, but as a whole person. Humanitarian programming needs to reflect the refugee’s reality.

A young girl in Nakivale refugee settlement holding a ball she created for play.

“Have you noticed that while corporations sell you junk drinks, artisans sell you cheese and wine?”Nassim Nicholas Taleb

“What is at stake, especially for those whose bodies have been spared the destruction of death, is a death of a way of being-in-the-world, the death of that which constitutes their identity, honor, and dignity.” — E. V. Daniel

Before I became CEO of the American Refugee Committee, I worked for an organization focused on child development. Foundational to our work was a research study we did with Oxford University’s Queen Elizabeth House, which sought to better understand how children experience poverty, and how they make sense of it within their lives. The key part of this study was field research, in which we went out and spoke with children in five countries across three continents — Bolivia, Belarus, Kenya, India and Sierra Leone. This was unprecedented: never had an NGO or academic institution gone out and listened to the voices of the children themselves on such a broad scale.

One morning, the lead researcher called and asked a question that caught me off guard: did I really want to hear the results of the study? She warned me that the children’s responses were dramatically different from what we expected to hear.

That field study fundamentally challenged how I understood our work. When we started that project, my team was sure that we would hear about hunger, ill health, poor schooling, and a lack of livelihood opportunities. But we didn’t. In fact, when we first engaged with the children, none of these concerns were broached. It wasn’t that the children weren’t encountering these challenges — most, if not all, of them certainly were. But these temporal concerns weren’t at the heart of their experience of poverty, or even at the top of their minds. Across all the countries we studied — from relatively stable Belarus to Sierra Leone, which at that time was still dealing with the RUF — things like hunger and inadequate healthcare weren’t enough to explain the experience of poverty for children.

So, what did being poor really mean for these children? They described it like this: poverty was to sit in a classroom, and when the teacher asks for the answer to be told to put your hand down, that you were one of the “stupid” ones, and to let the “smart” ones speak. It was to then go to the playground, and to run up excitedly to a group of peers that were playing with a real football, only to be spurned and told to go play with the “poor” ones, who were at the edge of the field playing with a ball made of plastic bags. It was to be walking home through the market place, and to see that the stall owners are watching you, regarding you with suspicion as a potential thief. It was to finally be at home, having completed your homework and chores and knowing that you can’t go out and join the laughter on the street because not everyone wants to play with you and some have been warned by their parents to stay away, as if poverty was a disease that could be caught.

What did I take away from this? That the children’s experience of poverty was very concretely mediated through relationships. Poverty wasn’t just about not having basic, individual needs met; it was about being deprived of the human connections that are so central to our happiness and our sense of self. Children interpreted poverty in a deeply personal and intimate way, in a manner that fluidly crossed the full spectrum of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. And we hadn’t understood it.

My industry has long acted according to Maslow’s pyramid: meet refugee’s basic, physical needs, and then (fingers crossed) move on to social and psychological requirements. But over the past fifteen years, I’ve come to think that Maslow was wrong.

Maslow, Re-Interpreted

To be fair to Maslow — he is smarter than me — maybe it’s our interpretation of Maslow that is in question. Here’s how I summarize the essence of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs:

Highest level: Self-actualization or Meaning — This is all about dignity, purpose, identity, legacy, and faith. It’s about being seen as an individual of great wonder and worth.

Middle Level: Socio-psychological or Connection — This is about belonging to a place, and a community. It’s about personal agency, and the ability to join with others in creating a home and community. It’s about seeing oneself, one’s values, and one’s role in the services that are offered. It’s also about having a say, and listening to what others have to say.

Lower level: Physiological or Satisfaction — This is about having access to the basic physiological needs for both survival, and a daily sense of satisfaction. It’s immediate, food, and long term, education. And it’s the feeling that these exist with some degree of control and reliability.

That a strict adherence to Maslow limits the humanitarian community’s ability to help refugees is ironic, in a sense. When Maslow prepared his hierarchy of needs, he aimed to expand our concept of human need, to make our understanding more nuanced and inclusive of the whole person. Maslow thought of his pyramid as leading up to the top layers and emphasizing concepts like connection, esteem and meaning.

However, bound in our thinking by “scarcity”, the humanitarian assistance community has done exactly the opposite. When helping refugees, we start in the lower layers and don’t prioritize the higher ones until the basic physiological needs have been met (often meaning never). And we assume that refugees think in this sequential way, too.

Don’t believe me? Recently I was sitting in a room with several “MENA specialists” from a large bilateral donor, talking about the findings we had from a research study we did with refugees. I mentioned a particular conversation I had had with a refugee in Germany who had fled the city of Aleppo with his family in early 2016. I was talking about why they left Aleppo at that time, when one of the Specialists raised his hand.

“Let me stop you…umm…maybe it was because they were being bombed?” and then eyed one of his colleagues with that can-you-believe-this-guy look.
I then said, “Well, it was 2016; they had been bombed for at least the last five years, so why now?”

He paused for a second and said (with noticeably less confidence) “oh, maybe the Russians.” As if the bomber was as important as the bombing.

The reason why the refugee left Aleppo? In 2015, both the high school and university he wanted his children to go to had been destroyed. The light in the tunnel of hope for his children’s future finally had been snuffed out. They left not because of the bombings and the danger to personal safety (low order in Maslow hierarchy), but because of the removal of the potential of esteem and self-actualization for his children (higher order in hierarchy).

So, What Do Refugees Need?

What happens when refugees tell us — directly and repeatedly — that finding meaning in life is equally or more important than finding food that day (hunger strikes in Greece anyone)? That creating a future for their child prompts them to start a perilous journey and give up the certainty of shelter and food? Humanitarian organizations need to address all of these needs simultaneously, rather than sequentially as the “hierarchy” term suggests. Why, well because at a minimum refugees are making decisions on a daily basis that are drawn from each layer (such as leaving our camps and going to Europe).

After more than twenty years doing humanitarian work in places of profound need, I believe very strongly that people do not experience “need” in any kind of sequential way. The experience of displacement involves a complex mix of physical and psychological factors that are intimate, profoundly personal and heavily mediated by the life experiences of the individuals involved. Refugees come to us and respond to us not as a sequence of needs, but as a whole person.

Therefore, the starting point of our programming work needs to be the lived experience of the refugee themselves. Our value proposition must be that our work is transformative in the life of a refugee because it actually responds to what is fundamentally meaningful to them. This should be done in a way that is “enabling” — this starts by listening, by understanding, by allowing space to shape the outcomes, by recognizing that people have resources to contribute and by realizing at the most basic level that we are involved in their lives, their communities, and their future. It’s about them. It’s realizing that people don’t think in terms of “rights” or order their lives in terms of “sectors” but instead they think in terms of their children and they order their lives based on relationships, and much more.

I realize that both shifting a mindset and building effective programs that simultaneously cross this spectrum will be challenging. It often seems hard enough — between the size of displaced populations, budget constraints, lack of infrastructure, chronic insecurity, failed governance, forgotten crises, and so on — to simply meet basic needs.

But that is why we have our jobs.

Imagine a room of aircraft engineers all trying to explain to their passengers that the force of gravity was the problem stopping them from doing their work effectively. Aircraft engineers have their jobs because of the force of gravity. It is our job to respond to the varied and rich needs of human beings in the toughest and most forgotten places on earth, with too little money. That is what we signed up for — to design an aircraft that overcomes these “forces of gravity” and takes people where they both need, and want to go.

No One Saw Me

Recently, I visited a college campus in the United States to speak with ten young Somali students, all of whom were refugees. At the end of the visit, one of the students — a young man who had been quiet throughout the meeting — approached me.

He said, “I lived in the Dadaab camp in Kenya from when I was six years old to when I turned sixteen. I’ve never been able to talk to the CEO of a humanitarian organization, so I want to tell you two things.

“First, I know that ARC doesn’t work in Dadaab, but I want to say thank you. If it weren’t for organizations like yours, I wouldn’t have gone to school, seen a doctor, or had food or a roof over my head. So you kept me alive, and I thank you.

“But here’s the second point,” he paused and looked at me with some intensity. “My name is Mohammed.” He gave me his hand to shake, I took it, and he held it, gently, but without letting go.

Sensing my uncertainty, he said, “You’re not getting it. My name is Mohammed.

“For all that time I was in Dadaab, I felt as though you were doing those things — giving me food, shelter, and healthcare — to me. But no one saw me. No one looked at me, and saw me for me.

“So I want to introduce myself: My name is Mohammed.”

Mohammed’s story has stuck with me. As we try and shape ourselves into an organization fit for the 21st century, I think about Mohammed on a regular basis. So I thought I would introduce him to you, and also everything that he so gently said to me. We are trying to become an organization that sees. More on that soon.

To read the other parts of the Refugee Rethink Series:

Part 1: The Disruption is Here
Part 2: Losing Our Religion
Part 3: The Abundance of Everyday People

Part 5: A New Way (building a 21st century organization)