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World Problems Project (Explanations)

Comments: Problem perception and levels of awareness

World Problems Project

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1. Degrees of immediacy of pain

Awareness of problems could be characterized in terms of the directness of the experience of that problem as a pain or a painful tension, with which it is possible to identify. Degrees of immediacy might then range as follows:

2. Problem-need hierarchy (beyond Maslow)

The study of human needs has developed on Maslow's concept of a hierarchy of such needs. Implicit in any categorization of needs is a categorization of problems associated with fulfilling or failing to fulfil those needs. One categorization of human needs is that of Carlos Mallmann, during the course of work in the Goals, Processes and Indicators of Development project of the United Nations University (1986). He distinguishes the following:

It has been argued that, to the extent that such needs constitute a hierarchy, the earlier needs must be adequately fulfilled before attention can be devoted to the later ones. Some have questioned this as reinforcing bureaucratic tendencies to give priority to the earlier needs at the expense of any attempt to allocate resources to problems arising from inadequate fulfilment of the later ones. It is clear that the proportion of resources allocated to "higher" needs is low and easily neglected or discounted, as in the case of "peak" or self-realization experiences. There is even the irony that only through allocation of resources to the disputed "higher" needs is any solidarity felt with those having "lower" needs.

There would seem to be an inverted hierarchy complementing that above and grouping the attention accorded to corresponding problems. The two hierarchies, like two triangles, intersect somewhat as in the Star of David symbol. The apex of the inverted triangle is indicative of the relatively small amount of attention accorded to the concrete maintenance problems, especially the intractable problems like hunger (which are easily accepted by others as an unfortunate fact of life). Whereas the broad base of that triangle is indicative of the widespread attention given to (the rhetoric concerning) the problems relating to the higher needs like justice.

This may be another way of looking at a phenomenon described by analogy to the Peter Principle of career advancement. Namely problems tend to get abstracted to a level at which little can be effectively done about them, neglecting any focus at those levels amenable to action. Rhetoric can be used very elegantly to conceal the absence of effective action, precisely by focusing on the urgency of needs defined at a level where concrete action is necessarily difficult and slow to show results.

3. Complexity of response to problems

"Enemies", as dealt with by the approaches to problems detailed earlier, are essentially external, objective realities - or at least are assumed to be so. But this need not necessarily be the case. As noted earlier, perception of problems is very much a product of a particularly Western mindset. It is possible that the following open up other levels of understanding and response to problems:


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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