What is the goal as we build back better from the aftermath of COVID-19?

Man looking at flow chart

Josephine Robertson, MA FIA CERA MPH, with inputs from the workstream, discusses the importance of revisiting the definition of goals we strive to achieve while we rebuild our post-pandemic societies.

The pandemic has afforded us an opportunity to embrace a ‘new normal’ as necessary adjustments are needed to find alternatives that not just reduce our exposure to a prevalent virologic risk, but simultaneously provide positive progress from our pre-pandemic positioning. That is, “not just defeating coronavirus but ..using this crisis to tackle [the] great unresolved challenges of [previous] decades”(1).

However, it is also worth pausing to reflect on the ideological basis for our “build back better, build back greener, build back faster” direction (1). If “changes will make life better for the people”(1), it would seem reasonable to consider there has also been a change in the underlying ideology, that is, the ideology behind the basis for the prevalent economic and political theory backing the necessary policy for creating action in our society. After all, ‘insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results’.

What is this ideology? What is underlying our prevalent economic and political theory? What is the common belief shared in society? What are we striving to achieve? What is the goal? Is the goal one held individually, or collectively as part of a community or society? Does our individual and collective action improve or detract from our achievement of that goal?

Later blogs in this series will provide further detail on ‘the goal’ as one of growth, separated from the underlying ideology and out of kilter with humanity living within environmental boundaries. In this blog, a dialectic positioning will be used to compare, contrast, and better understand potential ideologies behind the goal. Two examples that may underlie economic and political theory, and hence policy in our society, are discussed to better allow for a critique of policy detail for its ability to aid or hinder the creation of a ‘new normal’ where life is truly better for people.

Without this, our way forward may simply be doing the same again expecting different results. Bringing a conscious awareness to this goal can allow for a critique of the implication of our actions individually and collectively; are we reducing the risk of a prevalent viral threat, living within the sustainable boundaries of our environment and are we truly living more fulfilled/better lives?

Theories behind the ideologies

Two example theories regarding human needs come from Maslow and Max Neef.

Maslow’s theory has three types of need (2); basic, psychological, and self-fulfilment as shown in Figure 1. These needs are considered to have predominance, i.e only when the lower goal is realised does the next become increasingly dominant (2). The implication being that humanity is in a continual state of striving, and therefore moving upwards through the diagram.

Figure 1: Maslow's theory of human need

Maslow's theory of human need pyramid showing: self actualisation; psychological needs; basic needs.

Max Neef’s theory has nine types of needs: subsistence, protection, participation, understanding, affection, idleness (or leisure), creation, identity, and freedom (3, 4).  Importantly, there is a distinction between a need and a want; needs may be satiated unlike wants (5). These needs are interrelated and interactive i.e. without predominance. Therefore, the process of satisfying a need is “characterised by simultaneities, complementarities and tradeoffs”(6).

It follows that a satisfier, chosen to satisfy the need, can contribute to the satisfaction of different needs and that it may take more than one satisfier to meet a need. Satisfiers can be synergistic (meeting more than one need), destroyers (meeting one but detracting from another need), or pseudo-satisfiers (provide a false concept of meeting a need).  Needs are considered to be few, classifiable and universal through humanity (6). What varies between countries, generations, etc. is what is chosen to satisfy the need. The theory states that culture determines which satisfiers are chosen to meet the need, and so cultural change is a result of moving away from traditional satisfiers to newer forms. The video embedded below has a condensed summary of Max-Neef’s theory.

Dialectic positioning: Implication on attainment of the goal

Contrasting these theories may aid critiquing the ideology behind economic and political theory i.e. does policy detract from or aid a positive step toward a ‘new normal’.

As there are limited resources in the environment in which humanity lives, it can be seen how a concept of insatiable needs puts humanity out of kilter with a sustainable dependent relationship on that environment.

The concept of satiable needs, and a distinction between a need and a want is key when considering sustainability in economic theory. This distinction brings clarity to an appealing characteristic of Maslow’s theory; humanity is striving but with continuous wants, not needs. A failure to have a need satisfied, under Max-Neef’s theory, is a source of poverty (6) with follow on implications to health and wellbeing. As the concept of poverty moves beyond monetary measures (6), the remit of economic and political theory is broadened to include satisfaction (7). This deepens government’s responsibility beyond laissez-faire growth theory. That is, beyond using economic activity alone to safeguard and foster human welfare. Collective wellbeing is set as the objective for some government’s policy including Scotland, Iceland, and New Zealand (8).   


Disentangling the need from the satisfier of that need allows for a critique of which satisfier best meets the need sustainably, efficiently, and effectively. This challenges the paradigm that environmental considerations are at odds with economic development, or that living sustainably involves limiting humanity’s ability to meet their needs. Satisfying human needs may involve consumption and production, however generating consumption and production in an economy does not necessarily satisfy those needs. The consequence is unnecessary production and unnecessary consumption.

There is an unequal distribution of consumption in the world with many who require an increase in consumption to better meet their needs (9). However, global policy is led from the ‘developed’ countries, and as the importance of minimising consumption and production is touted from a place of increasing appreciation for humanity’s impact on the environment, it can appear as a ‘pulling up of the ladder behind us’(9). However, if culture is defined in part by the choice of satisfiers, then the ‘developed’ countries can learn from within and outwith to find means of better satisfying human needs while consumption and production is undertaken around the globe in places where it truly does satisfy a human need.

A way forward

If humanity’s ability to live within environmental boundaries is down to more intelligent choices of satisfiers and a more conscious development of cultural norms, then perhaps revisiting the underlying theory of human need, and so the positioning of the goal, in our society may allow us to truly ‘build back better’.

If we seek change that “will make life better for the people” (1), we should understand human need better. If we want to ‘build back greener’, we should critique how meeting our human needs interacts with the environment and place sustainably meeting human needs at the centre of discussions in society. The scope of these discussions is far reaching if we are to create cultural change; i.e. if we are to alter the satisfiers chosen in society to be those that will make life better for the people, in a sustainable way. This includes:

·         Responsible production: from the design of goods and services, to the marketing and delivery;

·         Responsible consumption: from critiquing the product’s ability to satisfy our needs, to searching for a more sustainable good or service to satisfy the need; and

·         Leading cultural change: through education, policy, laws and regulations.

The question posed and explored in this series of blogs is, how does this relate to our professional duty to act in the public interest? And can we start within our Profession?

  • Considering our own operational footprint. For example, a review and approval process of existing and new product design, marketing, and delivery that includes a consideration for the ability to satisfy human need and sustainably deliver products; and
  • Considering our professional understanding and ability to critique. For example, by including theory of human need and broader sustainability issues in the professional CPD and education material.

Following on from this blog, this working group will be considering how income generation alone may not be sufficient to meet human needs and how alternatives may be better aligned to sustainability considerations. Importantly, we will be discussing how this concerns the actuarial profession and its role in leading change.

Workstream members: James Fisher, Sheel Shah, Josephine Robertson, Madhuri Kumar (Group lead)


1. Government U. Press Release: PM: A New Deal For Britain Prime Minister's Office, 10 Downing Street: UK Government; 2020. https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-a-new-deal-for-britain.

2. Maslow AH. A theory of human motivation. Psychological Review. 1943;50(4):370-96.

3. Max-Neef MA. Human scale development: conception, application and further reflections1992.

4. Max-Neef M, Elizalde A, Hopenhayn M. Development and human needs. Real-life economics: Understanding wealth creation. 1992;197:213.

5. Mansvelt J. Green consumerism an A-to-Z guide. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Thousand Oaks, Calif. : SAGE; 2010.

6. Aamoucke R. Innovative Start-Ups and the Distribution of Human Capital The Role of Regional Knowledge. 1st ed. 2016.. ed. SpringerLink, editor. Cham: Cham : Springer International Publishing : Imprint: Springer; 2016.

7. Investopedia. Happiness Economics: Investopedio; 2019. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/h/happiness-economics.asp.

8. Alliance WE. Our Work: Wellbeing Economy Governments. https://wellbeingeconomy.org/wego.

9. Leonard A. The story of stuff: How our obsession with stuff is trashing the planet, our communities, and our health-and a vision for change: Simon and Schuster; 2010.