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Annex 4

Theme papers discussed in the Web/E-Conference

Livelihoods approaches compared


Diana Carney with Michael Drinkwater and Tamara Rusinow (CARE),
Koos Neefjes (Oxfam) and Samir Wanmali and Naresh Singh (UNDP)


The aim of this brief review is to clarify understanding of the fundamental principles behind the livelihoods approaches of four different agencies: the United Kingdom Department for International Development (DFID), Cooperative for Assistance and Relief (CARE), Oxford Committee for Famine Relief (Oxfam) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). It is hoped that this will facilitate discussion and learning as well as promote in-country partnerships on livelihoods work. The fact that there is some variation in emphasis among the agencies does not mean they cannot work together; overall, their similarities far outweigh their differences. Nevertheless, it is useful to be aware of where differences occur so they can be accommodated. This review should elucidate the application of various livelihoods approaches and the direction in which these might move in the future. This is important since livelihoods approaches are evolving in all the agencies that currently employ them.

The review covers the approaches only of CARE, DFID, Oxfam and UNDP, but it is hoped that this list of agencies will be expanded, as there are several other organizations (donors, domestic government agencies and civil-society organizations) that espouse some or all of the principles underlying sustainable development (SL) approaches (whether or not they use the SL language). It is also hoped that this review can be updated as the four agencies covered gain more operational experience with implementing livelihoods approaches.

The common thread uniting all the agencies is that all four link their ideas back to the early 1990s work of Chambers & Conway, and most adopt Chambers & Conway's definition of livelihoods (or a slight variant). This definition holds that:

"a livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living: a livelihood is sustainable which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the long and short term."

(R. Chambers & G. Conway, 1992, Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century. IDS Discussion Paper No. 296. Brighton, IDS, p. 7 -8)

Although all four agencies had their own reasons for beginning to explore new ways of operating (see the individual sections below), it should be noted that the early 1990s was a period of intense questioning of the nature and value of overseas development assistance. Recognition of the limited achievements of four decades of development aid was coupled with new thinking about the role of the State in development and the meaning and nature of poverty. Socio-economic issues began to figure much more prominently in people's understanding both of the nature of poverty and of the processes of poverty reduction.


CARE's organizational mandate is to focus its programmes on helping the poorest and most vulnerable. The livelihoods approach (N.B. not explicitly a sustainable livelihoods approach) is its primary programming framework, in use in its relief and development work. CARE sees this framework as an effective way of improving intersectoral coordination and thus increasing the impact of its work. The approach is deemed sufficiently comprehensive for facing the challenge of large-scale poverty and yet sufficiently flexible for addressing context-specific constraints.

CARE adopted the livelihoods approach in 1994. Much of the impetus for this shift came from the food security side of the organization, informed by Amartya Sen's work on entitlements. CARE began to move from a concern for regional and national food security to a consideration of household and individual food security issues. At the household level the concern shifted from "food first" or food production to a wider focus on the ability of households to secure the food that they required. This then led to a widening of the scope and recognition that food was just one of the range of factors that determined poor people's decisions. Thus the evolution of the concepts and issues related to household food and nutritional security led to the development of the concept of household livelihood security and then, more broadly, to livelihoods.

Core emphasis and definitions

CARE uses the Chambers & Conway definition of livelihoods. From this it identifies three fundamental attributes of livelihoods:

The interaction among these attributes defines what livelihood strategy a household will pursue.

CARE's emphasis is on household livelihood security linked to basic needs. Its view is that a livelihoods approach can effectively incorporate a basic needs and a rights-based approach. The emphasis on rights provides an additional analytical lens, as do stakeholder and policy analysis, for example. When holistic analysis is conducted, needs and rights both can be incorporated as subjects for analysis. This focus on the household does not mean that the household is the only unit of analysis, nor does it mean that all CARE's interventions must take place at the household level. The various perspectives brought to livelihoods analysis contribute to the generation of a range of strategic choices that are reviewed more fully during detailed project design.

Types of activity

CARE has used its livelihoods approach both in rural and in urban contexts. It identifies three not mutually exclusive categories of livelihood activity appropriate at different points in the relief-development spectrum. These are:

Livelihood promotion (improving the resilience of households). These include programmes that focus on savings and credit, crop diversification and marketing, reproductive health, institutional development, personal empowerment and community involvement in service delivery activities). Most livelihood promotion activities are longer -term development projects that increasingly involve participatory methodologies and an empowerment philosophy.

Livelihood protection (helping prevent a decline in household livelihood security). These include programmes that focus on early warning systems, cash or food for work, seeds and tools, health education and flood prevention.

Livelihood provisioning. This includes directly providing food, water, shelter and other essentials, most often in emergency situations.

These activity categories are non-exclusive. A good livelihood promotion strategy is one that has a "protection" element, which deals with existing areas of vulnerability and helps ensure that any improvements in livelihood security are protected from re-erosion. The aim is that elements of "protection" and "promotion" be built in as early as possible to "traditional relief" (provisioning) activities. For instance, institutions established to help with relief activities are set up in a participatory way. Over time, capacity-building training is provided so that the same structures can be used to plan and initiate livelihood promotion activities.

Cutting across these categories of livelihood support activity are CARE's three focus areas of activity:

The transition from livelihood protection to livelihood promotion and CARE's cross -cutting focus areas are illustrated in Box 1.


Transition from livelihood protection to livelihood promotion in a CARE project

Designed in 1992 as a typical livelihood protection project, the Lusaka-based Project Urban Self-Help (PUSH) provided food-for-work (FFW) opportunities to vulnerable women who had been affected by the recent drought in southern Africa. The FFW activities focused on road rehabilitation, proper drainage and rubbish clearance, thus contributing to basic service delivery for the poor, and cholera control, which was a concern at the time. The second phase of PUSH continued to use FFW for community initiatives but combined it with a strong emphasis on personal empowerment (including livelihoods/empowerment training and encouragement of the use of part of the food ration to initiate savings and credit services) and social empowerment (the formation and strengthening of representative area-based organizations with an emphasis on the involvement of women). In addition to the FFW activities, the area-based organizations also addressed other service delivery needs identified by the communities (including water supply, solid waste management and police services). PUSH II included a strong element of livelihood protection, but also promotion. The follow-up project that has since been initiated, PROSPECT, no longer includes FFW but has greatly expanded the social and personal empowerment elements, thus promoting livelihood strategies.

Compared with DFID, CARE places less emphasis in its framework and approach on structures, processes and macro-micro links. This is not to say that it ignores institutional/organizational factors, but as an NGO it is less involved in the micro-macro issues that are a key feature of agencies such as DFID and UNDP. In the organizational realm, CARE's work has been largely limited to local matters (e.g. community mobilization). Increasingly, though, it is seeing local institutional development within a broader democracy and governance agenda. Where this is the case, CARE works with local authorities and relevant national government agencies to legitimize and gain support for democratic local structures. It is also increasingly involved with advocacy, helping higher-level authorities develop appropriate strategies for working with community groups, etc. This is particularly the case in urban livelihood projects, as urban areas tend to be highly politicized and projects must work closely at the outset with municipal and sometimes national governments.

Operationalizing the approach

CARE makes use of various graphics to assist it in its application of the livelihoods approach. Its core programming principles are shown in Figure 1.


CARE's programming principles for livelihood project

This graphic stresses the dynamic and iterative nature of the programming process and the importance of learning so that the household livelihood security focus ensures better overall programme quality.

A phased approach is adopted that includes the following steps:


CARE's livelihood model

CARE has developed some specific tools for the livelihoods approach (e.g. a livelihood monitoring survey, participatory learning and training in action needs assessment and personal empowerment) but makes flexible use of a variety of existing tools, including rapid participatory assessments of livelihoods and baseline surveys. Its aim in using various tools is to gain a multidimensional view of livelihoods that helps identify the most vulnerable households and place people's own priorities and aspirations at the centre of the analytic and planning process. It stresses the importance of working with partners and taking into account cross-sectoral linkages even when working within a single sector.

Value added by the approach

CARE perceives the livelihoods approach to have generated the following benefits:

Lessons learned so far

Over the period that it has been working with the livelihoods approach, CARE has learned various lessons. These include:

Key publications

Drinkwater, M. & Rusinow, T. 1999. "Application of CARE's livelihoods approach". Paper presented at Natural Resource Adviser's Conference 1999. (Available at

Frankenberger, T. & Drinkwater, M. 1999. "Household livelihood security: A holistic approach for addressing poverty and vulnerability". Atlanta, Georgia, CARE.


Michael Drinkwater:
Tamara Rusinow:


DFID's adoption of sustainable livelihoods approaches stems directly from its 1997 White Paper on International Development. In this publication it was affirmed that DFID's aim was the elimination of poverty in poorer countries.1 One of three specific objectives designed to achieve this aim is DFID's commitment to "policies and actions which promote sustainable livelihoods". For DFID, sustainable livelihoods is thus an approach to achieving poverty elimination rather than a goal in its own right.

Over the past two years, DFID has been gradually expanding and adopting sustainable livelihoods approaches. The initiative came from the rural side of the organization, with efforts to include urban livelihoods and mainstream the approach within the organization as a whole gathering strength in 1999. DFID is currently in the process of extending the discussion of SL ideas and assessing how they fit with existing procedures (e.g. country programming systems) and approaches (sector-wide approaches, rights-based approaches). It has also established a Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office to coordinate its learning process and several teams tasked with the investigation of particularly difficult issues (such as monitoring and evaluation and understanding policies and institutions in the SL context).

Core emphasis and definitions

Like the three other agencies, DFID adopts a version of the Chambers & Conway's definition of livelihoods: A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base.

DFID's definition of a livelihood reduces the strength of the sustainability requirement from the Chambers & Conway definition (i.e. there is no requirement to produce net benefits for others). DFID considered this to be an unrealistic demand.

DFID stresses that there are many ways (rather than a single way) of applying livelihoods approaches, but that there are six underlying principles to all these approaches. According to DFID, poverty-focused development activity should be:

Poverty-focused development activity should also be informed by an underlying commitment to poverty elimination, which is the thread running through all DFID's work.

DFID stresses the importance to livelihoods of capital assets and distinguishes five categories of such assets: natural, social, physical, human and financial.

It also stresses the need to maintain an "outcome focus", thinking about how development activity affects people's livelihoods and not only about immediate project outputs. This is one of the most significant changes associated with the SL approach. It means that projects will be planned and evaluated according to the contribution they make toward achieving beneficial livelihood outcomes for their target beneficiaries. These desired outcomes can be fully known only if there has been a participatory dialogue with project beneficiaries or their representatives. It is not enough to assume what people want to achieve in their lives. (There is a strong link here with participatory poverty assessments.)

If a project produces a given set of outputs (for example, if it is responsible for developing certain new technologies) but those outputs make no contribution to livelihood outcomes (e.g. if the uptake of those technologies is limited), then it will not be judged a success, regardless of the apparent or intrinsic value of those outputs. This outcome focus also encourages different projects or sectors to work together toward achieving shared goals (beneficial outcomes), rather than for each to define its own area of activity and fail to look beyond this. This can provide the basis for non-sectoral entry points. (For example, the entry point may be to reduce people's vulnerability to shocks. This may translate into activities that span the sectors, such as financial services activities, group empowerment activities, the development of new risk-reducing technologies and preventive health care.)

Types of activity

DFID is operationalizing livelihoods approaches in many different contexts. Broadly speaking, it aims to promote sustainable livelihoods through:

The idea that links these two ideas is one of empowerment. Generally speaking, if people have better access to assets, they will have more ability to influence structures and processes so that these become more responsive to their needs.

At a higher organizational level, DFID has identified three types of actions that can contribute to poverty elimination:

Focused actions are targeted directly at the needs of poor people.

SL approaches can contribute in all these areas. Work at the level of "transforming structures and processes"2 is clearly linked to enabling actions. Support to the accumulation of different types of assets might be either inclusive (e.g. education programmes) or focused (e.g. supporting microfinance organizations for poor women).

Operationalizing the approach

DFID has begun to make use of livelihoods approaches in project and programme planning and in monitoring and review of existing activities. It has used the approaches to a lesser extent in policy dialogue.

A first step is to understand livelihoods (to conduct livelihoods analysis) as a basis for planning, prioritization and eventual monitoring. There is no designated sequence for livelihoods analysis, nor has DFID developed particular tools for such an analysis. The stress is on using and building on the best of existing tools for the circumstances in hand (e.g. social analysis, gender analysis, stakeholder analysis, macroeconomic analysis, institutional appraisal, environmental checklists, strategic environmental assessment, strategic conflict assessment, governance analysis, market analysis and participatory methods).3 There is, however a distinct DFID SL framework (Figure 3) that provides an organizing structure for analysis.


DFID's SL framework

* "Transforming structures and processes" is now known as "policy, institutions and processes".

Through use of the framework and a variety of tools, SL analysis asks a broad range of questions about poverty and its causes. It is not bounded by sectors or existing notions of what is important. The analysis is initially broad and relatively shallow, covering most or all aspects of the SL framework and employing various perspectives. As the main dimensions of livelihoods are uncovered and the meaning and causes of poverty become better understood, the analysis becomes iteratively narrower and deeper. Participation is critical throughout, though external experts do also have a role to play.

In Figure 3:

H represents human capital, the skills, knowledge, ability to labour and good health important for the pursuit of different livelihood strategies.

P represents physical capital, the basic infrastructure (transport, shelter, water, energy and communications), production equipment and means that enable people to pursue livelihoods.

S represents social capital, the social resources (networks, group membership, relationships of trust, access to wider institutions of society) upon which people draw in pursuit of livelihoods.

F represents financial capital, the financial resources (whether savings, supplies of credit, regular remittances or pensions) available to people and that provide them with different livelihood options.

N represents natural capital, the natural resource stocks from which resource flows that are useful for livelihoods are derived (e.g. land, water, wildlife, biodiversity, environmental resources).

DFID stresses the need for livelihoods approaches to be underpinned by a pro-poor bias and to be informed by prior social analysis to ensure that vulnerable households and groups are not neglected.

Value added by the approach

DFID perceives the livelihoods approach to have generated the following benefits:

Lessons learned so far

DFID has begun to learn early lessons about operationalizing SL approaches, including:

Key publications

Ashley, C. and Carney, D. 1999. Sustainable livelihoods: lessons from early experience. London: DFID. (Available at

Carney, D. ed. 1998. "Sustainable rural livelihoods: what contribution can we make?" Papers presented at DFID's Natural Resources Advisers' Conference, July. London, DFID.

Sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets. London, DFID. Sections 1-4 of 8. (Available at


Jane Clarke { Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office, DFID):


Oxfam Great Britain adopted a sustainable livelihoods approach in the early 1990s. It felt a need for a broad framework that could accommodate issues of environmental change together with concerns about globalizing markets, deteriorating economic rights, gender and wider social inequality and the need to strengthen deprived people's participation in the development process. The analytical work on sustainable livelihoods that had recently been conducted by Chambers & Conway seemed to offer a positive approach that could integrate all these issues, without falling into the trap of simply "adding the environment" to Oxfam's core aim of alleviating poverty.

Oxfam uses the SL approach in planning and assessment (of projects and wider programmes) and incorporates it as part of its overall strategic aim. Oxfam is a decentralized organization with more than 1 000 partners in more than 50 countries. The organization has always been aware of the need for the SL language to be compatible with the ideas and languages throughout its structure. Rather than promoting SL as the sole way of going about things, Oxfam has created an environment in which the approach can be more or less prominent in different parts of its programme.

Core emphasis and definitions

Oxfam takes its definition of sustainable livelihoods from Chambers & Conway (1992). It stresses that sustainability needs to be looked at from several perspectives:

One of Oxfam's five current corporate aims is to help secure "the right to a sustainable livelihood". This aim, together with the aim related to saving lives during humanitarian crises is by far the most important in financial terms. Under the sustainable livelihoods aim, two "strategic change objectives" have been formulated. These stress outcomes similar to those included in the DFID framework (however, DFID's outcomes are seen as categories of things that people might want to achieve, but there is no assumption that they should be achieved).

Oxfam's desired outcomes are that people living in poverty will:

Other corporate aims and change objectives articulate rights to social services, "the right to life and security" and various forms of social equity. In any given programme, Oxfam endeavours to address at least three of its corporate aims, with "saving lives" being a common thread in all its programmes and a way to link humanitarian support during crisis situations with longer-term development.

Types of activity

Since 1993, Oxfam Great Britain has employed the SL approach both in formulating overall aims and in improving project strategies. In the former area, the approach has helped articulate the need for assisting deprived people in gaining better access to and more control over productive resources, strengthening their position in markets, and ensuring that these improvements are structural rather than temporary. In the latter area the approach has been used to formulate inclusive and participatory projects and to assess their impact on livelihoods, the environment and social relations.

Like CARE, Oxfam is becoming increasingly involved in issues relating to macro-micro links, policy and advocacy. It expects this type of work to expand in the future.

Operationalizing the approach

Oxfam has used elements of Chambers & Conway's original sustainable livelihoods framework as a kind of checklist in project appraisal, planning and review. It makes use, at least semi-formally (there are no "established rules"), of a framework similar to the DFID framework (Figure 4). This similarity partly reflects the cooperation between the two agencies in developing operational ideas about SL approaches.

Oxfam's SL framework

Since 1993, Oxfam has trained staff and partner staff from about 12 country programmes in workshops on what "sustainable livelihoods" can mean (strongly based on Chambers & Conway), the use of checklists borrowed from environmental screening (i.e. an early stage of environmental impact assessment) and participatory approaches to appraisal and project review. These workshops have demonstrated that in order to operationalize the SL approach it is necessary to combine some conceptual analysis with a range of existing project management and analytical tools, including participatory rural appraisal (PRA). The workshop reports were communicated and distributed widely and influenced training in other countries. As a result, new initiatives have been adopted and analysis has improved within projects and programmes. However, it is too early to draw any conclusions about the effect this might have on livelihoods.

Oxfam has also launched the platform Exchanging Livelihoods (1994 onwards) for learning about approaches to livelihood improvement and environmental management. This inexpensive, non-glossy internal series of documents brings together collections of experiences, ideas and achievements of country programmes in the livelihoods area. It is written by staff (or edited from their materials) and widely distributed to staff and partners, in three languages.

Lessons learned so far

Current learning by Oxfam includes:

Key publications

Eade, D. & Williams, S. eds. 1995. Oxfam handbook for development and relief. Oxford, Oxfam.

Oxfam GB. 1994, 1995, 1997, 1999. "Exchanging livelihoods" (pilot edition, urban edition, food security edition, natural resources edition). Unpublished collection of case studies. Policy Department. Oxford, Oxfam.


Koos Neefjes (Policy Adviser, Environment and Development):


Within UNDP the sustainable livelihoods agenda is part of the overall sustainable human development (SHD) mandate that the organization adopted in 1995. This includes poverty eradication, employment and sustainable livelihoods, gender, protection, regeneration of the environment and governance. In this context, the SL approach is one way of achieving poverty reduction, though there are other strategies being pursued within the organization (e.g. macroeconomic growth, community development, community-based natural resource management).

A major contributing factor in the adoption by UNDP of the SL approach was the ongoing debate within the international development community on the ineffectiveness of traditional development strategies, especially with regard to poverty reduction. This ineffectiveness appeared to be partially because of an incomplete understanding of the competing demands placed on poor men and women on a daily basis. Also, the importance of the environment was coming to the fore in the early 1980s, and the links between poverty and the environment were being examined in a new light, one that attempted to go beyond the conventional wisdom of the "downward spiral" to focus on how poor men and women could protect the environment while alleviating their poverty. The onset of structural adjustment programmes and their subsequent fallout - weak safety-net mechanisms, increased vulnerability of the poor, etc. also prompted the need to look at how policies and institutions could be reoriented to serve the poor better. All these strands came together at the World Conference on Environment and Development (Brundtland Commission) in 1987.

Subsequent publications by Robert Chambers, Susanna Davies, Ian Scoones and Chambers & Conway elaborated the concept of sustainable livelihoods and provided initial research findings. For UNDP, an opportunity for putting these concepts and research findings into practice was offered in a joint programme with Canada's International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD), Adaptive and Coping Strategies in Arid and Semi-Arid Lands. This effort paved the way for SL to be included as one of the UNDP's five sustainable human development components.

Core emphasis and definitions

As one of UNDP's five corporate mandates, sustainable livelihoods offers a conceptual and programming framework for poverty reduction in a sustainable manner. Conceptually, livelihoods denotes the means, activities, entitlements and assets by which people make a living. Assets are defined as natural/biological (i.e. land, water, common-property resources, flora, fauna), social (i.e. community, family, social networks), political (i.e. participation, empowerment - sometimes included in the social category), human (i.e. education, labour, health, nutrition), physical (i.e. roads, clinics, markets, schools, bridges) and economic (i.e., jobs, savings, credit). The sustainability of livelihoods becomes a function of how men and women use asset portfolios on both a short- and long-term basis. Sustainable livelihoods are those that are:

Unlike the other agencies covered in this review, UNDP explicitly focuses on the importance of technology as a means to help people rise out of poverty. One of the five stages in its five-stage livelihoods approach (see below) is to conduct a participatory assessment of technological options that could help improve the productivity of assets. (Where such assessment showed that indigenous technologies were extremely effective, UNDP's goal would be to ensure that these were adequately understood and promoted by governmental or non-governmental agencies that worked with local people.)

Types of activity

UNDP has employed the SL approach largely within its agriculture and natural resources work (though its place in urban work is gaining in importance). Its goal, within its overall SHD mandate, is to promote access to and sustainable use of the assets on which men and women rely. In order to do this, and to understand how assets are utilized, it takes as its entry point the adaptive/coping strategies that people employ in their livelihoods. Both assets and adaptive strategies are intersectoral in nature. Focusing on these issues highlights the multidimensionality of poverty and the range of actions that can/could be taken to reduce different forms of poverty. In practice, though, UNDP has found that programme design is facilitated by its clustering sectors (i.e. agriculture, environment, infrastructure, enterprise).

This represents a slight difference from DFID. DFID aims to understand livelihood strategies as part of its overall framework but in principle focuses its actual development activity on either assets themselves or on structures and processes (the idea being that this will maximize people's opportunities over the long term). Again, though, these initial entry points can translate into programmes that have a clear sectoral identity (though with goals that reflect not so much sectoral achievement as livelihood outcomes).

UNDP works most often at the national level, with specific programmes and activities at district and village levels. Analysis takes place at both a household and a community level.

Figure 5:

UNPD's SL approach to promoting sustainable livelihoods

Operationalizing the approach

UNDP tends to use its programming cycle as the initial entry point for promoting SL. When applying the SL approach, it adopts a five-stage approach:

Figure 5 shows UNDP's approach to promoting sustainable livelihoods. (UNDP does not have a specific livelihood framework.)

In stage 1, UNDP proposes starting with a strengths assessment, examining:

In stage 2, policy analysis (this would be akin to a subsection of DFID's analysis of overall policy, institutions and processes), UNDP uses a variety of approaches, including a "narrative methodology" (whereby it collects as many views as possible about how policy is interpreted and implemented), cost-benefit analysis, critical theory and analysis of local justice systems. This allows for triangulation and the identification of potential entry points for policy change/advocacy. (N.B. See Roe, E. M. 1998. Policy analysis and formulation for SL. New York, UNDP. Available on the UNDP website at:

In its assessment of investment mechanisms (stage 4) UNDP moves from the common response of simply offering credit to local people, attempting to gain a proper understanding of whether such investment is really required and, if so, what form it should take. (This is a participatory exercise). Investment is not limited to personal financial resources. Within this step, UNDP also looks at more macro issues, such as the investments required in, for example, health and education and, more generally, at issues to do with the mobilization of national financial resources in favour of the poor or small-scale entrepreneurs. Its aim is to uncover people's overall investment priorities and ensure that these are addressed in a meaningful way that makes an impact on livelihoods.

The fifth stage is not a discrete step but rather a reminder that the other stages be applied interactively rather than sequentially. Information gathered in one area should be relevant to other areas. The aim is to establish a holistic and highly participatory process of analysis with effective triangulation of information and an overall sense of coordination and progress.

UNDP uses a variety of participatory tools to conduct its analysis. The main adaptation it makes is to ensure that, while using these tools, there is a focus on strengths (i.e. existing assets) and not on needs. Thus the participatory analysis aims to discover why people are doing well in certain areas or aspects rather than what it is they lack. UNDP acknowledges that new tools must be developed/tested, especially for the area of linking micro concerns to national poverty action plans, etc.

Value added by the approach

UNDP perceives the main benefit of the livelihoods approach to be that it approaches poverty reduction in a sustainable manner. In particular, it attempts to bridge the gap between macro policies and micro realities (and vice versa). Neither poverty reduction programmes nor participatory development initiatives have been able to do this. Anti-poverty endeavours have usually been conceived and implemented at the national level, using per capita income or consumption measures and a manipulation of sectoral policies as points of departure. Little, if any, attention has been paid to the manner in which (or where) people live, the resources (assets) used for pursuing livelihoods or the human and financial costs associated with the implementation of national programmes through a centralized bureaucracy.

Participatory development, on the other hand, has usually managed to understand how men and women prioritize needs, exploit resources and offer solutions to their pressing problems, but it has failed to examine how macro and sectoral policies affect the livelihood options available to a particular community or individual. This means that participatory development initiatives remain isolated from broader economic processes.

The SL approach has the additional advantage of integrating environmental, social and economic issues into a holistic framework for analysis and programming. This results in sustainability being kept in the fore and viewed simultaneously through environmental and socioeconomic lenses.

Other advantages include:

Lessons learned so far

UNDP has learned the following lessons:

Key publications

The UNDP SL website ( includes various papers and guides in full text. Notable guides are those for asset analysis, policy analysis, governance, investment and technology analysis.


Naresh Singh:
Samir Wanmali:


Given that all four agencies covered in this review have only recently begun to implement sustainable livelihoods approaches, it is probably too early to draw firm conclusions about differences. This review has shown that the four agencies have much in common, notably their focus on assets and micro-macro links and their common roots in the work of Chambers & Conway. All four also stress flexibility in application.

The more interesting question, which can be answered only over the longer term, is how the different agencies vary in their actual operationalization of the approaches. It is likely that that variation is both internal (i.e. different parts of a single organization operate in somewhat different ways) and among the four agencies. There is scepticism that for all the new and good intentions, the agencies are in danger of reverting to familiar, needs-based income-generation programmes (unless they remain highly vigilant and seek to learn as they go).4

In the short term and at a conceptual level, commonality certainly exceeds variation:

We hope to update this assessment as time moves on, incorporating the views of those actually engaged in interagency partnerships at the country level.

1 The White Paper was prepared at a time when donors were increasingly coming under fire for their mixed objectives and their limited achievements in reducing world poverty.

2 What was previously referred to in the DFID SL framework and literature as "transforming structures and processes" is now known as "policy, institutions and processes". The change was made to emphasize core issues and increase understanding of this aspect of the SL framework.

3 DFID is currently working on developing an inventory of tools for use within SL approaches. Some adaptation of existing tools may be required. DFID is stressing the need for reflection and learning as it adopts the new approaches. This is a core purpose of its Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office and the web-based learning platform it has established.

4 This is not meant to suggest that SL approaches reject income-generation programmes. The difference is in the way in which a programme is defined and the options that are considered. Importantly, the SL approach aims to build on strengths (rather than immediately focusing on needs) as a means of achieving local participation in programmes and helping to ensure longer-term sustainability. SL programmes also take a wider view of the options. They may just as well support non-income-based livelihood priorities (e.g. reducing vulnerability or conflict, increasing political voice) as income-generation activities. The choice will depend on factors such as demand drive, strengths of partners in different areas and feasibility. There is certainly no bias against income generation, and most applications of an SL approach explicitly recognize the importance of the private sector, the market and market transactions.


Origins and use of SL approaches






Origins of SL approach

  • CARE Long-range Strategic Plan as
  • programme thrust
  • White Paper commitment to supporting policies & actions that promote SL
  • Overall aim of poverty elimination
  • Need to link environmental change with poverty issues
  • Strategic planning exercise looking for unifying concepts
  • Part of overall sustainable human development agenda

When introduced





Change from what...

  • Primarily a sectoral focus
  • Resource-focused activity (within former natural resource division)
  • Sectoral focus
  • Primary environmental care
  • Partly a reaction against economic- and employment-focused initiatives

Status of SL within the agency

  • Primary organizationwide framework for
  • programming
  • Support from the top but still associated with rural side
  • One approach for achieving poverty eradication
  • One of five strategic change objectives
  • One of five corporate mandates
  • An approach for achieving sustainable human development

Current uses

  • Relief through
  • development
  • Urban & rural
  • Started rural, now more interest from urban side
  • Various uses through development project cycle
  • Across development emergency & advocacy
  • Mostly rural
  • Used for strategic planning purposes, seldom at field level
  • Rural and urban
  • Country programme planning
  • Small and micro enterprise activity

Types of activity

  • Livelihood protection
  • Livelihood promotion
  • Livelihood provisioning
  • Various to meet international development targets (including poverty elimination)
  • Link to rights and sector approach
  • Strategic planning activities
  • Conceptual and programming framework

Strengths emphasized

  • Comprehensive yet flexible
  • Improves sectoral
  • coordination
  • Increases multiplier effects
  • Builds upon existing experience and lessons
  • Offers a practical way forward in a complex environment
  • Participatory analysis
  • Enables links to social and human rights approaches
  • Links micro-macro
  • Integrates poverty, environment & governance issues
  • Gets the most out of communities and donors

Core ideas/organizing principles

  • Household livelihood
  • security
  • People-centred
  • People-centred
  • Multilevel partnership
  • Various types of sustainability
  • Dynamic
  • Poverty-focused
  • People-centred
  • Multilevel
  • partnership
  • Various types of sustainability
  • Dynamic
  • Adaptive strategies
  • Conditioning factors (shocks and stresses that affect asset use)


Operational issues






Starting point

  • Possession of human capabilities
  • Access to tangible & intangible assets
  • Existence of economic activities
  • Basic needs addressed:
    - income/employment
    - food security
    - water supply
    - basic education
    - basic health & family planning
    - community participation
  • Access to assets
  • Transforming structures and processes
  • Enhancing people's capabilities
  • Working towards equity
  • Working towards sustainability (four aspects)
  • Ensuring links between policy changes and livelihood improvement
  • Programming strategy
  • Analysis of strengths
  • Analysis of assets and coping/adaptive strategies

Analysis procedures

  • Identify potential geographic area
  • Identify vulnerable groups and livelihood constraints
  • Collect baseline data and identify indicators
  • Select communities (taking into account similarity and absorptive capacity)
  • Social/poverty analysis
  • Livelihoods analysis (develop an understanding of livelihoods structured using the SL framework, start broad, use a multitude of tools & become narrower)
  • Partnership analysis (decisions about action are informed by an understanding of strengths of existing partnerships and areas of expertise of partners)
  • Stress on impact monitoring and assessment
  • Participation of various stakeholders with positive bias towards excluded groups
  • Participatory assessment of risks, assets, indigenous knowledge and coping/adaptive strategies
  • Assessment of micro, macro and sectoral policies
  • Assessment of potential contribution of modern science
  • Assessment of existing investment opportunities
  • Ensuring that the first four steps are integrated in real time

Understanding of sustainability

  • Partnerships, institution/ capacity-building
  • Environmental
  • Social/gender equity
  • Emphasis on secure rather than sustainable
  • Social
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Institutional
  • Social
  • Economic
  • Environmental
  • Institutional
  • Ability to cope with stresses and shocks
  • Economic efficiency
  • Ecological integrity
  • Social equity

Asset categories

  • Human
  • Social
  • Economic
  • Human
  • Social
  • Natural
  • Physical
  • Financial
  • Human
  • Social
  • Natural
  • Physical
  • Financial
  • Human
  • Social
  • Natural
  • Physical
  • Economic
  • Sometimes political

Distinguishing features of agency's approach

  • Distinguishes between private natural assets & common property assets
  • Stress on household level
  • Personal and social empowerment emphasized
  • Stress on underlying principles and a variety of SL approaches
  • Analysis of strengths
  • Micro-macro links
  • Relatively loosely applied idea across a decentralized organization
  • Starts with a strengths (rather than needs) assessment
  • Emphasis on technology
  • Emphasis on micro-macro links
  • Adaptive strategies as the entry point

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