Why Can't We Aspire For Self Actualization


Imagine women and girls worldwide who walk 5 miles each way, per day in order to bring water for basic needs to their homes. Along comes a non-profit with the promise that women will transform their communities by taking out small loans for household water connections and toilets. (And voila, their lives and the lives of everyone in their community are improved which ripples out to the surrounding areas, countries, world, and finally the universe)

How do you make that leap you may ask? Literacy rates increase now that girls have more time to attend school. Health improves with access to water and sanitation facilities; reduction in child and maternal mortality, reduced stress for girls and women, reduced risk of rape and assault because women and girls don’t have to go to remote places to defecate and manage their menstruation. Finally, to complete the trifecta of human sustainability: socioeconomic opportunity. The loans and buy in of the community for access to water brings increased credibility and recognition of women as having knowledge and skills, they become negotiators of their own lives and needs, as well as new opportunities for employment.

Wow you might say, if that’s all it takes for what looks very much like gender equity why aren’t we spending all our money on access to water? Step back a minute and look at your own life somewhere in the developing world with your college education, in a comfy chair, in front of your computer beside your smart phone within arms reach of a cup of coffee or a glass of water. Is access to water all it took for you to be where you are right now? Whether you are on the spectrum of being a fully purposeful human being making a contribution to the betterment of humanity or a slacker taking advantage of your parents, still living at home and playing video games all day it took more than access to water to bring you there.

I believe all humans have the right to become fully self-actualized human beings. Clearly, this doesn’t happen for everyone but for those of us privileged enough it took a whole lot more than access to water to bring us to where we are now. Most of us were born into this world with our basic needs of food, shelter and healthcare met. Our communities had efficient and adaptable infrastructure, quality education, safe communities psychosocial and emotional support; all the legs needed for success.

What many of us in non profit and philanthropy are looking for is a silver bullet i.e. water, sanitation, access to capital, jobs etc. in order to create communities of people who are whole and fully integrated and this is especially true when it comes to empowering women and girls. The truth is that it takes a menu of multi layered, multi dimensional, nuanced interventions for the full possibility of this belief.

Let’s use the analogy of a table, ridiculous but simple. No one would use a table with only 1, 2, or 3 legs. Four is the number of legs a table needs to be most stable, efficient and purposeful. If we imagine the top of the table as a fully self actualized girl and the legs as all her needs to be met for self actualization you can see that only having one or two legs would leave her wobbling and unable to reach her full potential.

For arguments sake, let’s say a girl needs 6 legs for all her needs to be met and have the opportunity to become a fully integrated person. Leg one is her foundational needs such as food, clothing, and shelter. Leg two is access to quality education. Leg three is a stable environment meaning her home, her community and country. Leg four is physical and mental health with access to healthcare and psycho social services. Leg five is a culture where she is not oppressed by social norms, she is respected and allowed a fair chance at gaining equal rights. Leg six is access to career choices.

When we offer one intervention such as access to water as the gateway to having all of a girl’s needs met we are being impulsive saviors. Access to water has its place on the leg of foundational assets and without it the leg is shortened and the table will become unstable and the girl will have to overcome some odds but not impossible ones. Problems arise when a single intervention is offered as the one and only leg a girl needs to succeed and those problems lead to false hopes and failures. Water is absolutely necessary for survival however, we are not talking only about survival we are talking about living a full and purposeful life as a right and there are a host of needs to be met for that to happen.

We need to be more realistic and understand where the intervention falls in the larger eco-system of a life and proceed with the mission and vision of the work accordingly. That means listening to the girls, their families, community members and all stakeholders in their lives. Instead of identifying what we think is wrong in their lives we need to ask “what legs do you have and what legs do you need?” As silly as that sounds it assumes agency and competencies that are not addressed when one intervention is assumed to be the only leg needed for stability and purpose.

What has not been addressed is the why. Why do non-profit leaders believe that they have the silver bullet? Well, a bit of hubris and competition for an assumption of a finite number of philanthropic dollars an assumption driven by us funders. But that is for another post.