Manfred Max-Neef / CEPAUR

Awarded 1983


For revitalising small and medium-sized communities through 'Barefoot Economics'.

Manfred Max-Neef (1932-2019) was a Chilean economist who gained an international reputation for his work and writing on development alternatives. A committed environmentalist, passionate musician, and inspiring professor, Max-Neef was also a leader seeking to change from the bottom up. 

If the first part of his career saw him working within the internationally accepted framework of economics, his decisive step into the mud gave him a different perspective on the world and the economist’s role. At the heart of his development alternatives lies the principle of practising economics as if people matter, working for the reorientation of development to stimulate local self-reliance and satisfy fundamental human needs.

In 1993, he was the first-ever ecologist to run for president in Chile. He became known as “the candidate of the absent issues”, promoting local economies and participatory democracy.

I severed my ties with the trends imposed by the economic establishment, disengaged myself from 'objective abstractions' and decided to step into the mud.

Manfred Max-Neef, 1983 Laureate

The barefoot economist

Manfred Max-Neef was a world-renowned Chilean economist most famous for his work on development alternatives. After teaching economics at the University of California (Berkeley) in the 1960s, he served as a Visiting Professor at a number of US and Latin American universities. He has worked on development projects in Latin America for the Pan-American Union, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the International Labour Office.

In 1981 he wrote the book for which he is best known, From the Outside Looking In: Experiences in Barefoot Economics, published by the Dag Hammarskjöld Foundation, Sweden. It describes his experiences as an economist attempting to practise 'economics as if people matter' among the poor in South America.

In the same year, he set up in Chile the organisation CEPAUR (Centre for Development Alternatives) largely dedicated to the reorientation of development in terms of stimulating local self-reliance and satisfying fundamental human needs. It has advocated a return to the human scale acting as a clearinghouse for information on the revitalisation and development of small and medium-sized urban and rural communities. CEPAUR has researched new tools, strategies and evaluative techniques for such development, assessed with projects aiming at greater local self-reliance and disseminated the results of its research and experience.

In Human Scale Development, published in 1987 in Spanish and later in English, Max-Neef and his colleagues at CEPAUR outlined a new development paradigm based on a revaluation of human needs. Needs are described as existential (having, doing, being) and as axiological (values) and the things needed to satisfy them are not necessarily dependent upon, or commensurate with, the kinds or quantities of economic goods available in any given society. The book seeks to counter the logic of economics with the ethics of well-being.

The candidate of the absent issues

In 1993, he once again became a pioneer by running for president in Chile as the first environmentalist and independent candidate, achieving an impressive minority vote. He was subsequently appointed Rector of the Universidad Austral de Chile in Valdivia, where he taught for 25 years until retirement in March 2019. During his extensive academic career, he authored fourteen books and more than a hundred scientific articles and essays translated into several languages. He was Director of the Master’s Degree Programme in Human Scale Development and Director of the first Latin American campus of the Right Livelihood College. This Right Livelihood education initiative linking activism and academia was created in Valdivia in 2013.

Throughout his life, he received the National Prize for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (Chile) and the Kenneth Boulding Award from the International Society for Ecological Economics, in 2008. The Soka University (Japan) bestowed on him the University Award of Highest Honour. He received honorary degrees from the University of Jordan, Saint Francis University and Milenaria University.

At the age of 86, Max-Neef passed away in his house in Valdivia. A year after his passing, an international and interdisciplinary group of young professionals, who had been his colleagues and students, founded an organisation bearing his name with the purpose of updating his ideas and putting them into practice through activism, research, education and public advocacy.

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