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lessons learned


The need to clarify what SL approaches are emerged as a central concern of the Forum. There was consensus that SL approaches comprised two elements: the SL guiding principles and the SL framework. The tools and methods used to put sustainable livelihoods into practice are essential but not specific to SL approaches.

The SL guiding principles. These are a guide to the main concerns of sustainable livelihoods. They are the defining characteristics of development interventions that have been designed to address issues identified through the use of the SL framework. But they are only guiding principles. They neither prescribe solutions nor dictate methods, not least because the guiding principles themselves prioritize flexibility and adaptation to the diverse nature of local conditions. SL guiding principles2 are to:

1. Be people centred:

2. Be holistic:

3. Be dynamic:

4. Use micro-macro links:

5. Aim for sustainability:

The SL framework. The SL framework is an analytical tool for understanding livelihoods systems and strategies and their interaction with policies and institutions. However, it needs to be made context-specific. This will often imply changing or adding elements to reflect local social, cultural, political and economic realities.

A wide range of diverse tools and methods may be used to design and implement projects that can contribute to achieving sustainable livelihoods. These methods, however, are not exclusive to SL approaches.


Tools and methods useful for SL approaches






Household surveys

Stakeholder analysis & consultation

Case studies

Institutional capacity analysis


Poverty mapping (VAM/FIVIMS)

Livelihood security assessment (CARE)

Participatory planning


Community action plans

Institutional capacity-building

Farming systems research

Action research

Farmer field schools

Integrated & participatory policy evelopment

Participatory monitoring & evaluation

Impact monitoring & evaluation


Participants acknowledged that reaching consensus on the guiding principles of SL approaches is a major strength:


Forum participants agreed that the use of the SL framework and the incorporation of the guiding principles into development policy, planning and implementation could add value in a number of ways:


Participation and SL approaches. Participatory approaches are essential to operationalizing the guiding principles, but they need to be adapted, developed and used, as well as internalized and institutionalized by all stakeholders.


Weave a fabric of sustainability.

Acknowledge interdependence.

Build trust.

Find shared vision, goals, values
and interests.

Honour the range of resources.

Generate a culture of mutual support.

Find opportunities for creative synergy.

Address relationship difficulties as they occur.

See partnering as a continuous learning process.

The participatory element of SL approaches, and the resulting focus on people's livelihoods, is a powerful contributor to sustainability. The first phase of the WFP project in Ethiopia was implemented under a coercive and authoritarian regime. Project interventions attempted to address land degradation, but activities were implemented through coercive "mass mobilization". With the fall of the Derg regime in 1991, communities started to revolt against the system. This led to widespread destruction of communal woodlots and physical conservation structures. The few community woodlots that were untouched were those that the communities had specifically requested and whose species composition they had selected.

Sustainability. Within the SL framework, sustainability must be looked at holistically, and it should concern:

Working at multiple levels. It is crucial to ensure that micro-level institutions/organizations influence the development of policy to secure an effective enabling environment, and that macro-level structures and processes support people to build on their own strengths.

Develop a shared vision of change. The poor have problems and weaknesses. They also have strengths and opportunities, and they often have clear aspirations of where they want to be in the future. It is important to help them to bring about this vision.

"Buy into" SL approaches. Policy-makers and implementers at all levels, as well as the private sector, must "buy into" SL principles and processes. Indications from several projects, including DELIVERI and Honduras, point to the crucial role that internal champions can play in facilitating this process.


The Mali Segou Village Development Fund Project largely bypassed the poorest households because insufficient attention was given at the project design stage to socio-economic differentiation within the project area or to the livelihood systems of the poor. The main entry point - animal traction - excluded the poorest households. Moreover, the project failed to reach women and youth because it selected village associations - which are composed of elderly male heads of extended household production units - as its institutional entry point. This was rectified in the course of the project's successive phases, as a result of evaluations.

Skills, attitudes and knowledge. The use of SL approaches requires new skills, attitudes and knowledge that need
to be introduced across organizations, agencies and staff at all levels.


Participatory diagnosis of livelihoods is essential prior to designing a project and selecting entry points. Projects that had failed to undertake a holistic analysis of livelihood systems prior to design often adopted strategies and entry points that were largely irrelevant to the local population, especially the poor. For instance, natural resource management (NRM) projects in Bolivia and Pakistan had to expend a lot of project staff time and resources on raising awareness of their NRM initiatives because these did not correspond to the communities' felt needs.

Inappropriate entry points. Agencies should be wary of committing themselves to a narrow or commodity-based institutional entry point unless communities have been consulted or a participatory analysis of livelihoods has been carried out. Institutional commitments can make it difficult to change the project's entry point once implementation has begun.


Household typology - Bolivia case study


URBAN-ORIENTED ("outstanding" HHs)

FARM-FOCUSED ("rich" and successful "middle-class" HHs)

MARGINAL ("poor" and impoverished "middle-class" HHs)

Location of house(s)

House(s) in Santa Cruz, Samaipata and the community

Houses in the community and in Samaipata

House in the community


Professional or business people

Farmers working their own land

Day labourers or sharecroppers

Access to credit

Access to formal banking services and credit

Access to micro-credit

No access to credit

Labour use

Able to hire share-croppers or reciprocal exchange exchange labour

Able to participate in from reciprocal

Often excluded day-labourers labour

Farm size and type

Own over 20 ha of land with established orchards

Own 5-20 ha with established orchards

Landless or owning<5 ha of degraded land

Livestock ownership

Over 20 head of cattle

Fewer than 20 head of cattle (among Vallunos)

No cattle

Means of transport

Own truck or pick-up

Own pick-up or motorbike

No private transport

Education and literacy

Educated, with sons studying in town



Role in local politics

Influential in local politics

Active in self-help groups or community- based organizations

Do not participate in self-help groups or community- based organizations

Data produced from livelihood analyses should always be disaggregated by gender, age and socio-economic stratum. To ensure that project interventions address the concerns of the poor and build upon their strengths, it is essential that diagnostic studies start from a disaggregated analysis of the asset base and livelihood systems of different socio-economic strata, and develop a household typology3. Different socio-economic categories within a community can have widely different livelihood strategies.

Importance and timing of diagnosis. The Forum consensus was that initial diagnosis, followed by continual reassessment in the light of changing experience, is essential for the following reasons:

The Forum consensus was that projects building on 10 to 15 years of experience - which includes analyses of livelihood systems and action research-cum-evaluation - should avoid overinvestment of time and resources in diagnosis. Instead, project planners should rely as much as possible on secondary data and pilot interventions, coupled with participatory process monitoring and adjustment during project implementation4. Whereas, when entering a new area, a more substantial diagnostic process would be required up front. Diagnostic tools, however, must be adapted to the local and cultural context.


Ensuring that the views and experiences of women in purdah were accounted for offered special challenges for PRA practitioners. Literacy among women in the country is low; most women have had no previous experience participating in meetings and little opportunity to review options and make informed decisions. The project therefore developed special PRA tools that were visual and interactive rather than abstract and reflective. Time and money were spent in designing a gender-specific set of tools to detail a Brahui woman's daily time profile. One of these tools featured a woman in Brahui dress and a series of pictures drawn by a local artist representing women's triple gender roles (productive, reproductive and community management). The tool became quite popular with women. They could identify themselves through the pictures, and as they went through their daily and seasonal routines, they got a sense of how much work they were doing. This augmented their feelings of self-confidence. The project also used village-maintained photo books and a village-produced slide show for discussions. Allowing groups to select and design their own tools reinforces ownership of activities and development planning.

The holistic analysis may lead to one or more focused interventions. Once the holistic analysis is completed, a decision can be made on the scope of the entry point, e.g. how wide or narrow it should be, and within which sector, level or group it should lie. It is essential, however, that the needs of the poor be addressed.


The DFID DELIVERI project in Indonesia is an example of an SL-type project with a single-sector entry point that worked on several levels within that sector. It aimed to make existing livestock services more client-centred and more responsive to the poor. It started work at subdistrict and community levels and gradually moved up, using the outcomes of pilot experiences at the grassroots level to influence policy-makers at higher administrative levels. By bringing decision-makers from the provincial level face to face with beneficiaries in pilot villages, the project was able to lobby effectively for policy and institutional change.

The UNDP Sustainable Livelihoods Project in Malawi went to the opposite extreme. Attempting to formulate a comprehensive action programme covering all relevant sectors, the project concluded that adoption of an SL approach did not mean designing an SL programme to cover all sectors, and that it was preferable to focus implementation on a few key leverage points within the livelihood system.

Initial entry points may begin by addressing a community's priorities in one sector, and take in other sectors as the programme matures. This allows sequential movement into areas that require more community awareness, such as projects or programmes related to natural resource management (NRM).

Projects or programmes should take advantage of opportunities arising from decentralization to overcome the problems of sectoral entry points. When all government services come under the authority of the district, project funds channelled to the district level or below (bypassing the central ministries) can be allocated to one or another sector on the basis of emerging demand from communities. Decentralized services need not be provided by the line ministries but may be contracted to a wider range of service providers such as the private sector, NGOs or other civil society organizations.


Bolivia: Despite its single-sector entry point, this project was able to meet needs outside the agriculture/NRM sector by linking communities with resources provided by donors active in other sectors.

Honduras: This project developed from a single-sector entry point that addressed a felt need and grew to address complementary needs in other sectors.

Pakistan: The initial entry point of this project - watershed management - was of little interest to the local population, but the project was able to shift the focus to fruit-trees and community infrastructure.

Zambia: This project's initial entry point of household food security was too narrow to ensure improvement of nutritional status. The project discovered that food-based activities must go hand in hand with interventions such as primary health care, providing access to clean water and sanitation, nutrition and health education and improved weaning and breastfeeding practices.

NRM projects may exclude certain vulnerable poor groups (e.g. landless, sharecroppers) by focusing on land-based interventions or activities. SL approaches can help in identifying alternative interventions that support the livelihood strategies of the poor. A possible strategy would be to identify those households that do not participate in project activities and, through participatory approaches, identify their members' needs and strengths. Additional initiatives that address those identified needs can then be introduced if they fall within the project's mandate. Alternatively, the needs of the poorest could be addressed indirectly through policy and institutional reform (employment creation, strengthening local institutions). For example, the Bolivia project could have influenced land tenure policies to address the felt needs of the landless and sharecroppers. Instead of working exclusively to improve the sustainability of farming practices, the project could have explored alternative options for earning non-farm income, thereby reducing pressure on the land. Another alternative could have been to initiate a different but related project, specifically targeting the functionally landless segments of society.

The Bangladesh INTERFISH project used farmer field schools to introduce fish farming in paddy fields. Although the project empowered smallholders, with such an entry point it could not reach the poorest households, most of which had no paddy lands. To justify the project's poverty focus, the project management referred to its target group as "tomorrow's poor" (i.e. "the self-sufficient small farmers who are considered to be vulnerable to any crises or shocks in the rural economy").

Since reaching the landless poor requires a different entry point and strategy, DFID is funding a complementary project, Strengthening Household Access to Bari Garden Extension (SHABGE). This project aims to assist functionally landless women and men farmers to improve household food security by increasing the productivity of land that is normally devoted to vegetable and fruit-tree production. Beneficiaries comprise households that have a total of one acre (0.40 ha) of land or less, including the land on which the house is built.

Yet another alternative would be to establish partnership agreements with other agencies or donors to cover areas outside the project's mandate or objectives.

Efforts should be made during the design stage to negotiate with the communities to include the marginalized/ poorest groups. Establishing the rules of the project through a participatory process - and possibly putting them in writing - could provide the project with the mandate for ensuring that the rights of the poor are respected. Communities requesting partnership in the project would then have to agree on the approach.

Capacity-building for risk-management. "Capacity-building efforts must focus on service delivery as well as risk-management. Institutions that are not able to manage risk effectively can quickly become overwhelmed, seriously jeopardizing their ability to continue to provide services. It is this risk-management aspect that is often overlooked in institutional strengthening efforts5".

In the absence of a proper analysis of the vulnerability context, the Mali project gave insufficient attention to building local capacity to manage risk. The impact was apparent both at the individual level (in the inability of farming households to reduce the risk of crop failure) and at the collective level (in the vulnerability of village associations and village development funds to credit default in the event of crop failure).

In Mongolia, with the privatization of the herder collectives (negdels), all the risks of herding have been transferred to the herders in a risk-prone environment. Services that the negdels used to provide (e.g. marketing, trucks and tractors for seasonal migrations and emergencies, equipment for haymaking) have largely collapsed. Furthermore, herders do not insure their animals, as they lack cash and see the terms as unattractive. As a result, they have reverted to traditional risk-minimizing strategies by having multispecies herds and cooperating with other households in groups, or khot ails, for herding in order to cope with the higher labour demand that comes with mixed herds. A new FAO Technical Cooperation Programme (TCP) project aims at strengthening local institutional capacity to manage pastoral risk in the Central Asian grasslands.


Content and processes. Participants acknowledged the need to focus on the processes of policy-making/change rather than on the content of policy alone, in order to empower people to influence policy.

Scaling up. To influence the policy environment and make it supportive of sustainable livelihoods, the feedback mechanisms from the grassroots need to be scaled up to reach policy- and decision-making levels of institutions and administrations.

Capacity-building. Policy-making that enhances SL approaches, implementation and monitoring relies on pluralistic governance structures and processes. Capacity-building for grassroots and civil society organizations should be built in at all levels as an integral part of the SL approach. In this regard, as was pointed out in the Web/E-Conference, there is also a need to develop suitable capacity-building tools and training approaches that civil society organizations and SL beneficiaries could use to strengthen their capacity to analyse policies.

Monitoring the impacts of policy. The impacts of policy need to be monitored in order that their effects on livelihood strategies be understood. In this regard, civil society and SL beneficiaries should also play a key role in monitoring policy impacts.

2 Adapted from C. Ashley & D. Carney, 1999, "Sustainable livelihoods: lessons from early experience," London, DFID.

3 Life histories have proved effective tools for learning dynamics and the evolution of livelihoods. This helps in an understanding of capitalization and de-capitalization processes.

4 Knowledge in local academic institutions, government and NGOs should draw upon indigenous knowledge
where possible.


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