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Chapter 1



Every once in a while an idea emerges, opening a window and offering fresh, new ways of looking at things, linking them and understanding what makes them tick. Such ideas often bring together the best practices of the past with new configurations of thought, enabling people to overcome hurdles and offering them the promise of success. The sustainable livelihoods approach (SLA) is one such idea, emerging as an alternative poverty-reduction approach just as development agencies were debating the need for new ways of practising development to enable countries to move towards the international development target: halving the world's poor by the year 2015. SLA is made up of the best of past practice in participatory development and configured into a new framework and basic principles that together hold the promise of enabling more sustainable means of reducing poverty.

Another important step in SLA's journey from promise to reality was taken at an inter-agency meeting in Siena, Italy, on 7-11 March 2000. The Inter-Agency Forum on Operationalizing Participatory Ways of Applying Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLA Forum) brought together experts from five agencies: the Department for International Development of the United Kingdom (DFID), the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the Interna-tional Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the World Food Programme (WFP). These agencies were expected to answer the following questions:

  • Why use SLA? Does it have the potential to add value?
  • How can SLA be made to work in the field, at different stages and at critical points in the project cycle?
  • How can SLA be made a part of the way agencies' projects and programmes are designed and implemented?

This proceedings sets out to document the SLA Forum, as an aide-mémoire for those who participated in the Forum and to share the thinking and learning of the Forum with policy-makers, managers and development practitioners.


It is important to understand how such a forum came to be, the actors who made it happen, the aspirations, needs and concerns that gave it direction and the thinking and events that gave it its final shape. Figure 1 shows a timeline of milestones along the way to the Forum, which are described in the narrative below. In the fall of 1997, FAO's Rural Institutions and Participation Service (SDAR), while formulating a research programme on "rural household income strategies and linkages with the local institutional environment" (HH-LI) became familiar with UNDP's sustainable livelihoods programme (SLP) and began to explore several avenues for collaboration. The exploration led to dialogue, the exchange of visits, a teleconference among the groups in December 1997 and a decision to hold a technical meeting among the organizations.

At about the same time, SDAR and the Food Security and Agricultural Projects Analysis Service (ESAF) of FAO began discussing the possibility of cooperation between SDAR's HH-LI pilot research activity and ESAF's Special Programme on Food Security (SPFS) efforts. UNDP/SLP was keen to work with SDAR on certain methodological issues and was interested in promoting SLA principles in FAO's field programme on food security. This convergence of interests resulted in the groups' coming together in Rome in April 1998 for a technical meeting to share information, consider the possibility of elaborating a common framework or vision statement out of the different approaches and agree on a strategy for the groups' continued collaboration.

The convergence around SLA

The outcome of the meeting in April 1998 generated two streams of thought and action. First, it became obvious that agencies were converging on a set of broad guiding principles, aimed at supporting sustainable livelihoods and food security, which included a common goal of sustainable development, using participatory approaches, emphasizing macro-micro linkages, holistic understanding of livelihood constraints and being people-centred. While there remained differences on such issues as "entry points" and "target groups", there was sufficient convergence to plan future collaboration, including a follow-up workshop for further exposure to SLA and other participatory approaches and possible joint field projects.

The other important outcome of the meeting was a strongly felt need that FAO could and should capitalize on its experience with participatory approaches and methods, scattered among its various units, and use it more effectively to support and enhance the performance of its programmes and projects. SDAR and ESAF fuelled this thinking by proposing that their services be willing to facilitate the formation of an informal working group on participatory approaches and methods to provide an appropriate mechanism for nurturing creativity and innovation. Such a group, they felt, could relate formally to the FAO system while retaining informality and flexibility in its working arrangements. What finally emerged was the Informal Working Group on Participatory Approaches and Methods to Support Sustainable Livelihoods and Food Security (IWG-PA).

The first meeting of the proposed IWG was held in September and brought together staff from all across FAO, including members of the existing PRA network. To learn more about the work within FAO on various aspects of "participation", the group decided to convene a Participatory Methods Exchange Workshop, held in November 1998. What emerged from this workshop and subsequent brainstorming sessions was a detailed list of outputs and activities to meet the participation-related needs of FAO, and corresponding to four broad goals for the IWG-PA:

Goal 1: Carry out inventory, analysis and evaluation of FAO's experience. This should be done with participatory approaches and methods to identify best practices, needs for improvement and gaps in expertise.

Priority outputs envisaged are:

  • comparative analyses of the costs and benefits of various participatory approaches;
  • development of monitoring-and-evaluation indicators on participation for the FAO field programme.

Goal 2: Capitalize on FAO's best normative and field experiences. This should be done with participatory approaches and methods through sharing, adaptation, replication and dissemination, to enhance the FAO field programme.

Priority outputs envisaged are:

  • an FAO interactive website on participation with an annotated inventory, help desk, roster of experts and relevant weblinks;
  • case studies of concrete examples of participation in the FAO field programme.

Goal 3: Raise awareness and increase capacities within FAO. This should be done at all levels, to mainstream participatory approaches and methods into the organization's normative and field programme work.

A priority output envisaged is:

  • increased awareness of and skills in participatory and sustainable livelihood approaches and methods among FAO staff members and government and civil-society partners implementing the FAO field programme, through decentralized capacity-building workshops and the use of practical guidelines.

Goal 4: Stimulate cross-fertilization with the international community. This should involve the exchange of state-of-the-art knowledge and experiences with participatory approaches and methods, via networking.

A priority output envisaged is:

  • inter-agency technical consultation on participatory approaches to operationalize sustainable livelihoods, with FAO, IFAD, WFP and international partners.

To address these goals, IWG-PA members divided themselves into four "task groups" corresponding to the four goals: the Analysis & Evaluation Task Group (AETG), the Inventory & Dissemination Task Group (IDTG), the Capacity-Building Task Group (CBTG) and the Sustainable Livelihoods Task Group (SLTG).


During its first year, the IWG-PA set out to foster horizontal, cross-sectoral and multidisciplinary collaboration for sharing and learning within FAO and with outside partners, focusing on the nexus where participation, sustainable livelihoods and food security came together. The current IWG-PA consists of about 70 staff members from 22 different FAO units, including Community Forestry, Fisheries, Animal Production, Extension, Nutrition, Farming Systems and the Investment Centre, as well as individuals from IFAD, WFP and UNDP. The IWG-PA enjoys formal recognition from management, including access to reasonable amounts of staff time and the possibility for obtaining non-staff resources. Membership, however, is entirely voluntary.


The Informal Working Group on Participatory Approaches and Methods to Support Sustainable Livelihoods and Food Security is central to the SLA Forum and the way it was designed and implemented.

The cross-cutting nature of the IWG-PA's membership and its participatory style of functioning brought it to the notice of many within the Organization, including the permanent representation of the United Kingdom to FAO and DFID. DFID saw the possibility of using the IWG-PA as a vehicle for carrying forward a project that could help improve the impact of agency and donor interventions on poverty reduction through the review, refinement and incorporation of sustainable livelihoods-type approaches in those agencies' and donors' respective development project and programme interventions.

The goals of the IWG-PA, in particular the output planned by the SLTG, and DFID's interest in getting development agencies to consider sustainable livelihoods approaches, resulted in DFID's and FAO's beginning a dialogue in mid-1999. This dialogue resulted in a project that aimed at bringing together the experiences of the different agencies that had been developing and applying sustainable livelihoods-type approaches in their work, namely CARE, DFID, FAO, IFAD, UNDP and WFP.


The design process of the SLA Forum began with the development of the Project Memorandum, a list of the problems and questions the Forum would address, which were drawn from the thinking of the IWG-PA, the SLTG and, more significantly, a stakeholder analysis of prospective participants from the five proposed cooperating agencies. The Project Memorandum proposed that the Forum adopt a practicum approach in which small groups of cross-sectoral, inter-agency teams reviewed case study material derived from projects/programmes that had adopted SLA or SL-type approaches. It was also proposed that the Forum avoid lengthy discussions on terminology, concepts and semantics. To pre-empt such discussions, the Project Memorandum suggested that an electronic discussion around a few review papers, commissioned specially for the Forum, be convened prior to the Forum, leading to a more level playing field in regard to an understanding of SLAs. The Project Memorandum was formally signed in September 1999, and the design and preparations began.


An inter-agency team made up of volunteers from the SLTG formed the Forum Design Team (FDT), which took up the responsibility of designing and producing an analytical framework and structure for the Forum. Working closely with the FDT was a Substance Management Team (SMT) whose task was to select writers, commission case studies and review and prepare the papers for their use in the Web/E-Conference and the Forum. The Project Memorandum also made provisions for a Forum Facilitation Manager to be assigned the task of facilitating the preparatory process and the Forum itself.

After a process of participatory consultation by e-mail with prospective Forum participants (many from the IWG-PA), the FDT agreed that the Forum should aim to generate:

  • improved understanding of and capacity to utilize SL-type approaches and participatory methods and tools in applying SLA;
  • a clear synthesis of the relative merits of SLA for the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of projects/programmes;
  • recommendations for operationalizing participatory ways of applying SL-type approaches within participating organizations, to be synthesized into an action plan in post-Forum IWG-PA activities.

Two types of case studies were considered to enable learning from actual field projects:

Major case studies. These would deal with projects that either had completed their project cycle and been terminated or were well advanced into implementation. Participants would discuss these cases and, through comparative analysis, assess the utility and added value of using sustainable livelihoods approaches and methods in project diagnostics, design, implementation and monitoring.

Complementary, minor case studies. These would deal with on-line projects that would focus on particular policy issues or aspects of the project cycle, such as project design, mid-term evaluation, sectoral entry points and gender, leading to mid-course changes and retrofitting of projects to an SL approach. These would help the participants focus on critical issues and moments in the projects/programmes and complement the learning from the major case studies.


The strategy was that participants would work in small groups, mixed with agency and professional experience/expertise, to discuss one of the major case studies over a period of two plus days. Each group would be led by an experienced facilitator and assisted by a resource person with expert knowledge of that group's selected case study project/programme. The configuration of the case study groups was done prior to the Forum through a participatory prioritization exercise among participants. Case study groups were provided with a "strategy/case discussion note", which they could as a group modify, provided they ensured that the outputs of the discussion in terms of content and timing were synchronized with the other case study groups to facilitate joint reflection and learning in planned plenary sessions.

The broad terms of reference for each group were simple and direct:

  • Understand the project as designed and then apply the SL framework to it and assess what might have changed if SL principles had been used.
  • Analyse how the project evolved during the course of implementation and then apply SL principles and discuss what differences this might have made to implementation.
  • Examine project outcomes and consider whether the application of SL approaches would have resulted in substantially different outcomes.
  • Suggest ways of redesigning the project in light of SL approaches and identify what constraints would have been faced in implementing the redesigned project.
  • Draw lessons regarding the value added, if any, by using SL approaches and flag any issues that need further clarification and thinking through.

The case study discussions would not only help the participants address a set of specific questions but would also create a platform for them to consider how SL approaches could be incorporated usefully into their agencies. To facilitate this leap in thinking, the FDT proposed commissioning a consultant to get the "internalization of SLAs" discussion going by preparing and presenting a paper on the topic. After this presentation, it was proposed that the participants break up into groups, by agency, to discuss agency-specific issues related to internalization and elaborate recommendations for follow-up. At the end of the Forum, a group of managers and senior professionals from the cooperating agencies were to meet to discuss and agree to follow up on actions within and among agencies. The idea was to think of the Forum as one step in a long journey and to build bridges to complete that journey, fuelled by whatever enthusiasm and momentum the Forum would provide.

By the end of December 1999 a first draft of the Forum's design and strategy was completed. In late January and early February, even as the Web/E-Conference was beginning, the final touches were added to the analytical framework and structure of the Forum, and a programme was created (see Annex 2). The basic strategy/design evolved into a case discussion note (see Annex 3), which was refined based on pilot testing with one of the case studies (Zambia), using volunteers from the IWG-PA and an experienced facilitator from FAO.


Timeline of milestones leading up to the SLA Forum in March 2000: from idea to reality

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