The Sustainable Livelihoods Web/E-Conference on "Operationalizing Participatory Ways of Applying Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches" was held throughout the month of February 2000, with the participation of 338 professionals of different backgrounds and from a vast variety of agencies and countries. It was organized around themes, with a number of discussion threads for each theme and topic. These included a section on basic questions aimed at stimulating thinking on some of the characteristics and underlying principles of SL approaches.
The theme "SL approaches compared" featured a contribution by Diana Carney et al. (reviewing the SL approaches of CARE, DFID, Oxfam and UNDP); the theme "Operationalizing SLAs" featured a contribution by Tim Frankenberger et al. (illustrating CARE's experience in implementing SL approaches in the field); the theme "SLA at the policy level" featured a contribution by Anne Thomson (raising some salient points regarding rural development policies); and, finally, the theme "institutions and sustainable livelihoods" featured a contribution by Jim Bingen (pointing out some of the main institutional issues that arise when SL approaches are adapted).
In general, the electronic conference has encouraged a wide range of contributions, in addition to the resource papers, ranging from more philosophical and political observations on paradigm shifts and the political economy of international relations to the sharing of policy papers and a number of concrete "operationalization" tools. These place community-based development and natural resource management more in the foreground as "the ruling economic and social organization", making communities the central actors in development.
Some cross-cutting topics were picked up under the "basic questions" thread, and elsewhere, especially the crucial question regarding sustainable livelihood approaches (SLAs) monitoring and evaluation and the development of indicators suitable for capturing livelihood outcomes and the differentiated impact of SLAs. At this stage, no concrete examples exist of sets of SL indicators developed within a programmatic framework, but this complex work is under way, being pursued by a number of professionals. This aspect is closely related to the current practice regarding the agencies' project and programming cycles, and there were renewed calls for a thorough review of these processes to ensure that they responded to accommodating higher levels of participation along the way, through greater flexibility and less-determined specifications. It was generally agreed that SL might provide a better chance of extending development to the poorest as an understanding of livelihoods issues may render more visible several small-scale activities that are important to the poor.
There was general agreement that there were no substantial differences among the SL approaches as they were currently employed by the different agencies. There was some debate as to the difference between SLA-type projects and "traditional" ones, traditional projects being perhaps cheaper, and the more costly and time-consuming SLAs being seen as primarily benefiting the analytical capacities of development personnel. Many argued, however, that SL approaches also benefited the analytical capacities of their "beneficiaries", especially the poorer stakeholders, equipping them with the means to analyse, plan, act and evaluate for themselves. Nevertheless, empirical evidence has not been supplied that would indicate how new SLAs' analytical skills have helped solve certain concrete problems or improved standards of living.
The latter are opportunities facilitated by SLAs' providing a coherent, flexible framework for programming, and attempting to establish micro-macro linkages. "SLAs provide a road map into some pretty complex issues, adaptable for use in practical ways, providing guidance on how to use PLA, or other approaches, and on what information is needed, and why, and how to go about getting and analysing it". SLAs may thus be seen as comprehensive tools that will allow all the necessary parts to be added in an appropriate "natural" time sequence, or possibly simultaneously. Social, environmental, institutional and political analysis, etc. will be taken care of as the SLA framework sheds light on the relative importance of these factors, in a quest for "optimal ignorance": the minimum amount of data collected (as it is not necessary to know everything). Given their intersectoral nature and broad objectives, SLA-type projects may be more prone than "traditional projects" to create expectations that are not easy to meet.
Related to this is the fact that the project formats used by many agencies require predetermined and quantified project inputs, outputs and budgets. This conflicts with the principle that, when using participatory SL approaches, "the role of the project needs to be shifted to creating and supporting an enabling framework for an iterative process of community-based appraisal, planning and action". The role of a project may need to change if it is to remain truly demand driven, regardless of its original entry and leverage points, which raises a number of issues pertaining to the mandate of the implementing agencies.
It was found that at the community level, (sometimes "fanciful") log frames may become less important, and that a "community has no problems understanding the [SLA] concept". However, SLA's focus on community strengths (as opposed to previous approaches' focus on basic needs) poses a different set of potential problems in the operationalization of SLA-type programmes, namely that these "community strengths" may not necessarily include the most marginalized segments of local society. Finally, the jury is still out regarding SLAs' ability to include the poorest, aside from the fact that a more holistic analysis is likely to shed more light on their coping mechanisms.
Most of the "operationalization" discussion has focused on dealing with the need for multisectoral, decentralized planning, and how difficult this is to institute. There was also a brief discussion on poverty, and it was generally agreed that the poorest in society are the most difficult to reach. Therefore, the implementing agencies and partner organizations should concentrate their efforts on assisting those communitites that provide their own traditional, informal support for the poorest (after first assessing the local power structure and conditions of participation and social exclusion, since these traditional mechanisms can also be important determinants of marginalization).
Healthy scepticism was voiced about the success of SLAs in adequately addressing actual field-level problems or issues, but also some theoretical arguments were put forward in support of the "holistic" nature of the SL approach to development. Unfortunately, no examples of a successful holistic SL project/programme were cited. Participatory approaches may "awaken a sleeping giant of possibilities and opportunities" through people's involvement in their own development, and the question was posed as to whether the SL approach could effect such a profound transformation of existing institutions, or if it could be successfully implemented only through externally supported programmes that reached limited target areas. This has profound implications for the local and supra-local power structure, and may well become a political threat to present powerholders. SLA implementers must be aware of these dangers.
The need had been expressed to consider the SL debate within the context of the international development targets (IDTs), with a deadline of 2015, and to draw linkages with the comprehensive development framework (World Bank) and poverty reduction strategy processes. At the same time, it was agreed that more tools were required to improve sequencing and assessment of trade-offs. Such tools could include economic, environmental and social appraisals to implement, for example, DFID's three-pronged approach of enabling, inclusive and focused actions. The finding that " ... the best possibility for achieving a sustainable improvement in livelihoods policy is to focus on increasing civil society and stakeholder participation in the policy process", was warmly welcomed, shifting the centre of the macro-micro linkages policy debate from the "content" of policy to the "processes" by which policy was determined - an area, however, "where change will take time and where sudden reversals are common".
"One of the main contributions which the SL approach can make in the area of policy issues is to provide an analytical framework and common language for understanding poverty, and thus [the approach is] a potentially effective means of focusing the policy process on the poor". In sum, by "supporting and enhancing capabilities, rather than simply meeting needs", policy implementation with an SLA perspective can "change the effective content of policy". However, this will require the development of "effective channels of communication between poor households, particularly in rural areas, and central policy networks", for which appropriate institutions at the local, intermediate and national levels are essential. One entry point could be to start with local-local horizontal relationships, asking "not how the state can be supportive of local livelihoods, but how the state can facilitate the development and multiplication of horizontal relationships which are themselves supportive of the SLA".
This led to claims that from the point of view of institutions, with SLAs' micro-macro intersectoral focus, there is, at least in theory, comparatively more potential for the creation of wealth at the local level. The key to long-term institutional sustainability may well lie with making institutions and institutional interfaces more SLA friendly, and by building on their local-level legitimacy where this exists. It will be necessary to level the playing field further by building negotiating capacities among local institutions, leading to more political and economic clout, and to tap social capital, something that other, less people-centred approaches to development have largely failed to do. At the local level, a great number of customary and other local institutions are intersectoral, legitimate, and, given their informal nature, capable of responding to change in flexible and adaptive ways. "Typically the `problem' is that local institutions are ignored and/or misunderstood by external institutions/initiatives ... "
"Working through local institutions does not automatically lead to more equitable livelihood outcomes ... " It is important to continue to refine helpful stylized categorizations, such as the five-class taxonomy of institutions and the distinction between institutions and organizations proposed in the contribution by Jim Bingen, to make such analytical tools more tractable and useful for SL analysis, to identify which do or do not favour access to assets by the poor. Suggestions for refinement have included to "distinguish among them in terms of level, function, effect, and motivation". The categorization also points to the "incentive systems that condition or encourage different forms of SL behaviour, and to the fact that rural people don't necessarily follow just one set of norms and values, but follow several and may hop or skip from one to another depending on the particular problem at-hand". Perhaps missing in this context is the role of social capital as linked to individual initiative, and the role of charismatic, articulated and innovative leadership in negotiating a larger space for local constituencies in national arenas.