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Building on people strengths: in Niger the SFLP helps the community of Tafouka to improve their own traditional fish farming system
Building on people strengths: in Niger the SFLP helps the community of Tafouka to improve their own traditional fish farming system
Courtesy of SFLP, 2004

What is 'sustainable livelihoods'?

Sustainable livelihoods (SL) is a way of thinking about the objectives, scope and priorities for development in order to enhance progress in poverty elimination. It is a holistic approach that tries to capture, and provide, a means of understanding the vital causes and dimensions of poverty without collapsing the focus onto just a few factors (economic issues, food security, etc.). It also tries to sketch out the relationships between the different aspects (causes, manifestations) of poverty, allowing for more effective prioritization of action at an operational level.

The SL approach (or approaches - given that there is no set way of doing things) aims to help people achieve lasting livelihood improvements measured using poverty indicators that they, themselves, define. This, in turn helps to combat exclusion. It is people-centred. It recognizes that people have certain rights but also certain responsibilities to each other and to society more generally. It recognizes the enormous diversity among the 1.3 billion extremely poor people in the world, and stresses the strengths of these people. If we want to make a difference we must build on these strengths, helping people to move in the directions that they want to move.

SL approaches rest on core principles that prioritize people-centred, responsive and multi-level approaches to development. These are backed up with a set of tools, including the SL framework developed by the British Department for International Development (DFID).

Sustainable livelihoods principles

Sustainable Livelihoods principles hold that poverty-focused development activity should be:

  • people-centred: sustainable poverty elimination will be achieved only if external support focuses on what matters to people's lives, understands the differences between people and works with them in a way that is congruent with their current livelihood strategies, social environments and ability to adapt;
  • responsive and participatory: poor people themselves must be key actors in identifying and addressing livelihood priorities, and 'outsiders' need to adopt processes that ensure they listen and respond;
  • multi-level: the scale of the challenge of poverty elimination is enormous, and can only be achieved by working at multiple levels, ensuring that micro-level activity informs the development of policy and an effective enabling environment and that macro-level structures and processes support people to build upon their own strengths;
  • conducted in partnership: with both the public and the private sector (including civil society/ non-governmental organisations);
  • sustainable: there are four key dimensions to sustainability - economic, institutional, social and environmental sustainability. All are important - a balance must be found between them; and
  • dynamic: external support must recognize the dynamic nature of livelihood strategies, respond flexibly to changes in people's situation, and develop longer-term commitments of support.

For DFID, SL approaches must be underpinned by a commitment to poverty eradication. Although they can, in theory, be applied to work with any stakeholder group, an implicit principle for DFID is that activities should be designed to maximize livelihood benefits for the poor.

The Sustainable Livelihoods framework

DFID's sustainable livelihoods framework - which builds on various concept roots - provides an analytical structure for building an understanding of livelihoods. It encourages users to think about existing livelihood patterns as a basis for planning development activities and spending. Using various existing tools such as social and stakeholder analysis, economic and rapid appraisal methods, this entails analysis of:

Box 1: The Sustainable Livelihoods framework
Box 1: The Sustainable Livelihoods framework
  • the context in which (different groups of) people live, including the effects upon them of external trends (economic, technological, population growth etc.), shocks (whether natural or manmade) and seasonality;
  • people's access to different types of assets (physical, human, financial, natural and social) and their ability to put these to productive use;
  • the institutions, policies and organisations which shape their livelihoods; and
  • the different strategies that they adopt in pursuit of their goals.

DFID's SL framework avoids laying down any explicit definition of what exactly poverty is (indeed, the framework is says nothing about poverty per se. It can be used to help understand the livelihoods of both rich and poor.) The `outcomes' in the box are `suggestions' of the type of objectives that people may be pursuing, but the `real' meaning of poverty remains context-specific, something to be investigated on a case-by-case basis with different groups.

The SL framework helps to 'organize' various factors that constrain or enhance livelihood opportunities, and to show how they relate to each other. It is not intended to be an exact model of reality, but to provide a way of thinking about livelihoods that is representative of a complex, holistic reality, but is also manageable. There is no real beginning, middle or end to the framework. The entire `picture' endeavours to represent `whole' livelihood systems, and these do not have a fixed organisational structures but are characterized by repeated patters of connections and influences. Arrows in the framework do not represent any strict causality; the longer ones show important feedback (among the multiple feedback loops that occur) while the shorter ones denote an even looser idea (something like `existing within and environment that is influenced by?'). The asset pentagon in the middle represents a graphical way of thinking through combined asset portfolios.

The value of a framework such as this is that it encourages users to take a broad and systematic view of the factors that cause poverty - whether these are shocks and adverse trends, poorly functioning institutions and policies or a basic lack of assets - and to investigate the relations between them. It does not take a `sectoral' view of poverty, but tries to recognize the contribution made by all the sectors to building up the stocks of assets upon which people draw to sustain their livelihoods. The aim is to do away with pre-conceptions about what exactly people seek and how they are most likely to achieve their goals and to develop an accurate and dynamic picture of how different groups of people operate within their environment. This provides the basis for the identification of constraints to livelihood development and poverty reduction. Such constraints can lie at local level or in the broader economic and policy environment. They may relate to the agricultural sector - the main focus of donor activity in rural areas - or they may be more to do with social conditions, health, education or rural infrastructure.

DFID's SL framework is just one of a number of tools available to assist users in implementing SL approaches. It is frequently used in livelihoods analysis and the planning of development activity to ensure that important factors are not neglected. But the framework cannot - and does not attempt to - capture everything that is important to poverty elimination. Users must therefore employ a range of other tools, including stakeholder analysis, social analysis, gender analysis, and economic and institutional analysis, to gain a full understanding of livelihoods and how external activities can best support these. Work is now in progress within DFID and with partners to provide a clearer guide to which methods are useful at which point and how they can best be combined and adapted for use in the SL context.

The SLA recognize that fisherfolks are also involved in other economic activities. Here fish processors growing their own trees but also food crops in Moree, Ghana
The SLA recognize that fisherfolks are also involved in other economic activities. Here fish processors growing their own trees but also food crops in Moree, Ghana
Courtesy of SFLP, 2004

Origins of the approaches

SL approaches draw on three decades of changing views of poverty (which is now recognized to go well beyond income, and to have multi-dimensional characteristics and causes). In particular, participatory approaches to development have highlighted great diversity in the goals to which people aspire, and in the livelihood strategies they adopt to achieve them. Poverty analysis has highlighted the importance of assets, including social capital, in determining well-being. The importance of the policy framework and governance, which have dominated much development thinking since the early 1980s, are also reflected in SL, as is a core focus on the community. Community-level institutions and processes have been a prominent feature of approaches to natural resource management and are strongly emphasized in SL approaches, though in SL the stress is on understanding and facilitating the link through from the micro to the macro, rather than working only at community level.

SL approaches also stem from concerns about the effectiveness of development interventions. While professing a commitment to poverty reduction, the immediate focus of much donor and government effort has been on resources and facilities (water, land, clinics, infrastructure) or on structures that provide services (education ministries, livestock services, NGOs), rather than people themselves. SL approaches place people firmly as the starting point for development activity; the benchmark for success is whether sustainable improvements in people's livelihoods have taken place. It is anticipated that this refocusing on the poor will make a significant difference to the achievement of poverty elimination goals.

Other concerns about development effectiveness that have fed into SL approaches include that: many activities are unsustainable (environmentally, economically and in other ways); isolated sectoral initiatives have limited value while complex cross-sectoral programmes become unmanageable; and success can only be achieved if a good understanding of the household economy is combined with attention to the policy context. It may be ambitious but SL approaches try to address all these concerns and thereby to improve the effectiveness of development spending.

Using the approaches

SL approaches have already been used in DFID for identifying, designing and assessing new initiatives (projects and programmes), for re-assessing existing activities, for informing strategic thinking and discussion, and for research. One of the key features of the approach is its flexibility and applicability to a wide range of situations, across the various sectors and activities in which DFID works.

DFID is not the only agency working with such approaches. NGOs such as CARE and Oxfam have explicitly adopted livelihoods approaches as guiding principles of their development activity, and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) employs SL approaches as one means of achieving sustainable human development. Discussions with various other NGOs, donors and domestic governments have shown that they are adopting similar approaches, or elements of SL approaches, even if they do not explicitly use the SL terminology.

Working with partners

The development and strengthening of partnerships is a priority for DFID. In developing thinking around the SL approach, DFID has consulted widely with partners in the UK and beyond. Its aim has been to ensure that SL thinking builds on and incorporates the ideas and accumulated experience of partners. It is also important to ensure that the ideas are widely shared by partners, as without partnerships we cannot hope to achieve success. The challenges of development are just too great.

Partnerships operate at many levels, between donors, with the governments of the countries in which we work, with civil society organisations and, increasingly, with the private sector. SL approaches embrace and stress the need to develop multiple partnerships. DFID is therefore engaged in a process of discussing with partners what the approach is, how its underlying principles can be honoured and how it `fits' with other existing development approaches and ideas. Through this process, it is hoped that ownership of SL ideas and principles can be extended, as to be effective any development approach must have wide ownership.

Working in partnership: in Cotonou, Benin, the fishing community selected the non-governmental organization Oxfam-Quebec to provide them with management and organizational training
Working in partnership: in Cotonou, Benin, the fishing community selected the non-governmental organization Oxfam-Quebec to provide them with management and organizational training
Courtesy of SFLP, 2004

Early lessons

Although SL approaches are relatively new within DFID, there has already been substantial progress in applying them in a variety of ways and circumstances. DFID recognizes the need to learn about the application of SL approaches from very early on. Only in this way will the contribution to poverty elimination be maximized. It is therefore supporting an active dialogue and learning process and has established a dedicated SL Support Office that is charged with synthesising lessons and facilitating the flow of information.

The following are just some of the early lessons that have been learnt:

  • Project focus Holistic livelihoods analysis does not have to lead to holistic or multi-disciplinary livelihoods projects. What is important is the holistic perspective, but this can very easily translate into sharply focussed sectoral projects. The difference will be the way in which these projects are conceived and their overall objective: a contribution to livelihoods rather than a narrow sectoral goal (e.g. km of road built, increase in yield, etc.). Establishing dedicated SL projects (as opposed to `SL guided projects') can encourage over-ambitious projects and prove to be off-putting to partners.
  • Tools and methods A variety of methods and tools is required to operationalize SL approaches (and particularly to prioritize among a range of possible `entry points' for development activity). The SL framework provides a useful checklist but may not be appropriate in all circumstances (e.g. if partners find that it is too complex). The approach tries to build on learning from all areas of development, which means employing a wide variety of tools. There may be a need to develop new tools over time. However, it is generally more important to ensure a commitment to the underlying principles of the SL approach, than it is to worry about particular tools.
  • Monitoring and evaluation Monitoring and evaluation of SL-guided projects is a challenge, but cannot be ignored if ongoing learning is to be effective. The SL framework and principles provide something of a checklist when considering the impacts of projects on the poor, but they do not make it any easier to measure changes in livelihoods that result. It will be important to negotiate indicators with various stakeholders, and there is much to be learnt from existing work on participatory monitoring and evaluation. At the same time, it is important to avoid undue complexity, spending too much time/money on monitoring and requiring project-level staff to take responsibility for outcomes that are well beyond their control. This will be counter-productive in the long run.
  • Micro-macro links SL approaches are useful for highlighting the importance of micro-macro links and the need for policy change. They demonstrate how policies can have a profound effect on livelihoods and highlight the need for policy and institutional reform - whether in sector programmes or other forms - to be informed by people-centred goals. There is, however, a need to employ other methods to gain an adequate understanding of the nature and operation of policies, institutions, organisations and governance. This is an area in which work is currently underway.
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