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1. Why are we doing this?

1.1 Context

Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLA) emerged as a means for more effective and more relevant poverty reduction through understanding poverty from the perspective of the poor. Originally conceived of in the 1980’s in the context of Farming Systems Research and Education, the approach was developed through the 1990’s and crystallized as SLA in the late 1990’s by the Department for International Development (DFID) (Carney, 1998; 1999). A number of organizations have employed the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach and Framework. The framework has been used as a programming framework (UNDP); for programming analysis, design, monitoring and evaluation (CARE Household Livelihood Security); and for integrating environmental sustainability (The SL Approach to Poverty Reduction, SIDA; Carney, 1999). The Department for International Development (DFID) has sought to advance poverty reduction results through mainstreaming good development principles associated with the SLA (people centred, responsive, multi-level, conducted in partnerships, sustainable, dynamic) and by applying a holistic perspective in programming support activities to ensure relevance to improving peoples’ livelihoods. Although there has been an evolution in the principles that can be included in the SLA and framework and an acceptance of how these reflect good development practice, the question remains, "is poverty being reduced?"

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has built upon the SLA to find ways and means to improve the sustainable livelihoods of rural dwellers. In 2003, during its 17th Session, the FAO Committee on Agriculture (COAG) discussed the role of SL approaches in FAO programmes and projects. As an outcome, the Committee "requested FAO to identify and document specific examples where applications of the rural livelihoods approach had led to success in reducing rural poverty." In an initial effort to respond to this request, the Livelihoods Support Programme is supporting the desk study reported on in this document.

1.2 Purpose and Objectives

This paper examines case studies of projects that employed a sustainable livelihoods approach or sustainable livelihoods principles and in which there were measurable effects of poverty reduction. The paper is not a comparative study between livelihoods and non-livelihoods approaches and as such "traditional" development cases were not considered.

Although not part of the specific request from COAG, the paper also attempts to identify the operational and institutional elements that were consistent among cases of successful impact on the rural poor.

1.3 Methodology

This paper is based on a desk study undertaken at FAO Headquarters in Rome. The study consisted primarily of a review of existing project case study documents with input from members of an extended study team and from participants of an update meeting held at FAO in April 2004. Case studies representing different regions, sectoral entry points and scales of influence were sought from within and outside of FAO. Those retained as having enough data to support useful evaluations are listed in Box 1.

Further contributions were sought through interviews and e-mail exchanges with resource persons of the cases under review (section 6.2). An extended summary of each of the cases reviewed as well as other resources are available in the Supplemental Materials, being published separately in order to keep this present document down to a reasonable size.

The Livelihoods Support Programme of FAO and the co-sponsors of the People Centred Development Day have been engaged in the study through a preliminary review of findings and a workshop to enhance the analysis of the outcomes. The study has been termed a "desk study with follow-up" and is considered a basis for the design of additional related activities.

1.4 Case Studies Reviewed



Implementing Organization

Entry Point

Project Time Frame


Strengthening Household Access to Bari Garden Extension Services (SHABGE)





Inter-regional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development

Government of Italy/FAO

Integrated Watershed Management

1992-2000 (three phases)


Participatory Natural Resource Management in the Tonle Sap Region

FAO/Government of Cambodia

Community Fisheries and Forestry

1995-2004 (ongoing)


The Ruba Lomine Integrated Rural Development Programme





The Lowlands Agricultural Development Programme (LADEP)





Rural Development in Lempira Sur Project (PROLESUR)





DELIVERI - Decentralized Livestock Services in Eastern Indonesia


Livestock Services



Environmentally Sustainable Food Security and Micro-Income Opportunities in Critical Watersheds

FAO/Forest Department of the Government of Myanmar

Food security; Natural resource rehabilitation; Income-generating opportunities



Empowerment of Women in Irrigation and Water Resource Management for Improved Food Security, Nutrition and Health (WIN)


Irrigation, Health, Nutrition



Inter-regional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development

FAO/Government of Pakistan

Integrated Watershed Management



Community-Based Regional Development Programme (CBRDP)


Community Enterprises



Improving Household Food Security and Nutrition through Community Empowerment in the Luapula Valley




The analysis of case studies was carried out in three stages related to meeting SL criteria, assessing of impact on the rural poor, and determining the added value of the SL approach on impact.

The first stage involved establishing whether the projects to be used incorporated an adequate number of SL principles for it to be considered sufficiently ‘sustainable livelihoods-related’. For this purpose, key criteria defining the SLA were identified and categorised according to their centrality to the approach (Figure 1). These criteria were used to determine which projects to include in the study. Few cases of those selected were designed or initiated specifically to implement a sustainable livelihoods approach, but all those retained had addressed the majority of sustainable livelihoods principles.

The second stage of the analysis involved evaluating the impacts each project had had on the rural poor, the results of which evaluation form the core of this paper.

Subsequently, stage three was designed to address the value added by the SL approach in reducing poverty. This was done by using the findings from previous stages along with a set of hypotheses addressing SL specific principles which had been developed by the extended study team participants (Box 2).

Ultimately however, the extent to which the paper speaks to each of these hypotheses is limited by the fact that it is not a comparative analysis with ‘non-SL’ approaches to development, and by the lack of detailed evaluative material available on the majority of projects. These hypotheses are discussed further in the lessons learned in Section 3.0. A full set of principles, hypotheses, and indicators can be found in Annex 6.2.

1.5 Criteria defining the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach[1]

1.6 Hypotheses relating to SL-specific principles


Corresponding Hypothesis/es

Addresses vulnerability and increases resilience

- Projects that address the vulnerability context, by reducing vulnerability while strengthening individual and collective capacity to withstand shocks, are more effective in enabling the poor to overcome their poverty than approaches that ignore the vulnerability context

Builds assets

- Because asset ownership reduces vulnerability in the face of shocks, projects that build rural people’s assets are more effective in reducing poverty than projects that focus exclusively on raising income without regard for asset ownership and balance

- To reduce poverty on a sustainable basis, it is not enough to raise household income above a national poverty line; it is equally important for households to acquire a capacity to prevent themselves from falling back into poverty when exposed to shocks

- Projects that build rural people’s human and social capital in addition to building their physical, financial and natural capital are more effective in reducing poverty than those that neglect human and social capital while building other types of capital

Livelihoods focus

· Projects that focus on livelihoods are more effective in reducing poverty than projects that seek to reduce poverty through economic growth or improved access to infrastructure and social services without regard for the ways that poor people make their living

The 12 case studies reviewed to date in preparation of this document were chosen to reflect different initiating partners and geographical settings. It was hoped that the study would include a broad array of sectoral entry points. However, because the nature of reducing poverty in rural populations is often strongly linked to food security, the majority tended to have an agricultural focus. Yet in a few cases, multiple entry points were addressed simultaneously.

Preference was given to projects that had been in place long enough for results to have been achieved and, in the best scenario, those that had undergone an evaluative process. In general, the outcomes of monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and participatory monitoring and evaluation (PM&E) strategies within the cases yielded mixed results. The highly variable quality and type of evaluation and reporting processes meant that in many cases "normative" and poverty reduction-related data were inconsistent or even unavailable[2]. The fact that the soundness of reported outcomes and impacts for many of these projects should be considered as indicative rather than as firmly proven clearly places limits on the analyses given here. Thus although we have attempted to make the best use of the material available to us our conclusions are deliberately provisional, not definitive.

In most of the cases, the studies did not specifically identify poverty reduction as a goal of the project although it is anticipated that this is the driving premise given the nature of the projects. It is important to note that the cases were not looked at to evaluate whether project implementers met their original targets and objectives but rather the cases were viewed through a superimposed poverty reduction and sustainable livelihoods lens.

1.7 General Indicators of Poverty Reduction

General measures of poverty reduction have historically included increases in income or food security, however, a broader definition of poverty reduction also captures elements of enhanced choice, capability and power (Box 3). The SL approach, which builds on principles of building assets and a livelihoods focus, also incorporates principles of reduced vulnerability and sustainability as critical to achieving lasting poverty reduction. Subsequently for the purpose of this paper, poverty reduction will be reported along with evidence (or lack there of) of reduced vulnerability and long-term sustainability (see Box 4).

Box 3. Definitions of livelihood and poverty

Definition - Livelihood: a livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (including both material and social resources) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from stresses and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities or assets while not undermining the natural resource base (DFID, 1999).

Definition - Poverty: "Poverty: a human condition characterized by the sustained or chronic deprivation of the resources, capabilities, choices, security and power necessary for the enjoyment of an adequate standard of living and other civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights." (United Nations Committee on Social, Economic, and Cultural Rights, 2001).

1.8 Looking for Evidence of Positive Impact on the Rural Poor[3]

Box 4

General Indicators of Poverty Reduction

o Improved income levels of poor and non-poor
o Changes in household food security
o Improved basic needs (shelter, health, nutrition)
o Changes in income distribution and decreases in inequities
o Diversification of income sources
o Changes in income security
o Improved human rights
o Increased access to public goods and services
o Increased yields
o Changes in consumption and diet
o Improved quality of life

Indicators of Increased Resilience and Reduction in Vulnerability/Volatility

o A reduction in frequency/severity of shocks.
o An increase in risk preparedness.
o Increased capacity to cope with/prepare for/adapt to natural or economic shocks.
o Increased capacity to cope with/prepare for/adapt to seasonality (IMM, 2004)

Indicators of Long Term Sustainability

o Increase in environmental sustainability
o Reduction in conflict or increase in peace/resolution
o Changes reflecting livelihood sustainability
o Sustained Post Project Activities
o Sustained Post Project Institutional Changes
o Sustained Post-Project poverty reduction
o Sustained or permanent removal of groups from social exclusion
o Addressed inequities faced by disadvantaged groups

[1] Output of an LSP brainstorming session held on February 2nd, 2004.
[2] See Section entitled “What do we think we know?” and Annex 6.1 for a full account of PM&E processes adopted by each of the case studies.
[3] Annex 6.2 presents a list of poverty indicators related to each principle and associated hypothesis/es.

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