A three-hour bus journey brought the participants from Rome to the Certosa di Pontignano, a conference centre at the University of Siena, created out of a refurbished 1000-year-old monastery among the Chianti vineyards of Tuscany.
Jennie Dey-Abbas, Chief, SDAR, FAO and Manager of the SLA Forum Project warmly welcomed the participants, pointing out how unusual it was for technical specialists to be able to take time off to spend a few days with their colleagues, reflecting on their work and evolving ways and means to give new directions to it. The Forum was also unusual, she noted, in that it had been designed, developed and organized in a participatory manner that brought all the stakeholders into the process. The IWG-PA and the SLA Forum, she suggested, are perhaps the forerunners of a new kind of participatory platform that can create spaces and nurture the coming together of disciplines, promote creativity and generate the innovations necessary to address problems (of development).
The questions facing the Forum on SLA - how do we make it work, does it add value and how do we make it a part of the way development is practised? - may seem simple, but their answers are complex, and as yet unknown; SLA as a formal framework is a relatively new idea with little concrete field experience to evaluate. This, Dey-Abbas emphasized, would require the participants to rely on their own experience, reflect on the case studies and bring the power of their combined expertise and synergy to come up with answers and give direction to the future.
Jennie Dey-Abbas thanked DFID for taking a gamble in supporting an experiment such as the SLA Forum and emphasized that, for FAO, sustainable livelihoods, as an organizing principle and as a goal, was not just a buzzword but a firm commitment, an important part of FAO's Strategic Framework approved by its Member Nations during the 1999 FAO Conference. She hoped that the SLA Forum would go beyond producing the traditional proceedings and actually begin a process in which development practitioners worked together to constructively change the way they practised development.
Michael Scott, who heads DFID's Rural Livelihoods Department, stated that DFID's investment in the SLA Forum was not in fact a gamble but a carefully considered move to achieve DFID's objectives, which were to share experience with others on SLA, learn from others' experience, and explore the scope of future work together. Scott briefly took the participants through the context within which DFID's policy and actions needed to be seen. DFID is committed to the international development targets of reducing by one half the people living in absolute poverty by 2015, and to do so the agency is committed to working in partnership with governments, development agencies, the private sector and civil society. The strategy DFID is evolving, including a strategy paper on economic well-being, states that at the core of any strategy for poverty reduction must be the promotion of sustainable livelihoods for the poor.
DFID, Michael Scott explained, has responded to the commitment by setting in motion consultations on the principles and analytical framework underpinning the concept of sustainable livelihoods; by operationalizing the approach through committing more than US$300 million to its development and application, and actively learning lessons from such efforts; and by establishing a Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office to facilitate the mainstreaming of SLA within DFID.
In conclusion, Scott expressed the hope that the SLA Forum would help DFID to identify gaps in an understanding of SLA and, most importantly, start the process of interagency cooperation to apply the approach in the field.
The next step in the inaugural session was the first of the Forum's several participatory events and gave the participants an opportunity to express the expectations they had of the Forum and the issues they hoped would be addressed. Each participant wrote down his or her key expectations and issues on cards. These cards were prominently displayed in the corridor to remind everyone of what they had come to the Forum expecting, to help them gauge where they were at any given time, to give direction to the Forum's evolution and to help participants reflect on what had or had not been achieved.
The more than 150 cards sometimes bluntly, often humorously, often sceptically portrayed the diverse thinking of the participants. Many of them described their expectation of the Forum as a way to learn: "about SLA, its strengths, weaknesses and potential"; to learn from others experiences ("How do we actually get it to work?"; "Can SLA give practical answers on how to improve livelihoods?"; "Does it really have value, can it help me to do things better?").
Others had come with doubts and were interested in overcoming or reinforcing their scepticism through dialogue and learning. They asked: "What's beneath the jargon?"; "What's new?"; "How is it really different from what we are already doing?". There was also concern that there wasn't "the flexibility in our organizations to apply what we learn at the Forum".
Some came looking for cooperation and to share. One card said, "Let us eliminate the competition for money and influence and work together". Others said, "I have come to share experiences and learn from others' experiences", "to develop networks for future strategising and partnership", "to evolve a common conceptual and methodological basis to promote inter-agency cooperation".
And then there were those who were "believers" in SLA but who wanted specific questions answered: "How do we monitor and assess the impact of SLA?"; "Does it really reach the poorest?"; "Does SLA (with its people-centred focus) take environmental/ecological sustainability into account?"; "How can development agencies work with people's organizations and civil society that are not supported or tolerated by governments?"; "How to operationalize holistic analysis into specific actions?"
The Web/E-Conference was held ahead of the Forum to create a level playing field. To refresh everyone's memory, the conference took advantage of the presence at the Forum of one of the leading practitioners of livelihood approaches, asking Timothy R. Frankenberger, Senior Food Security Adviser and Livelihood Security Coordinator of CARE International, to present the main concepts of and experience with SLA from the perspective of CARE. The complete text of his presentation is included in Annex 7.
Tim Frankenberger began by briefly going over the history and evolution of sustainable livelihoods approaches. Starting with the different ways of naming SLA, he warned of the danger of getting hung up on labels, which can create divisions. He noted that it was more important to understand what were the underlying principles governing these types of holistic approaches. He then briefly touched upon the principles of SLA, which include holistic diagnosis and analysis, application of participatory people-centred approaches, focused strategy, coherent information systems and reflective practice.
Frankenberger highlighted a number of issues that have arisen in the application of SLA, which turned out to coincide with several of the principal cross-cutting issues that emerged from the case study discussions later at the Forum. Some of the issues raised were: