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Posted February 2000

An inter-agency initiative to better understand
Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLA)
and their usefulness for our work

Prepared by the Rural Institutions and Participation Service (SDAR)
FAO Rural Development Division


An inter-agency (FAO, WFP, IFAD, UNDP, DFID) initiative on "Operationalizing Participatory Ways of Applying Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches (SLA)", managed by the Rural Institutions and Participation Service (SDAR) of the Rural Development Division (SDA) and funded by the Department for International Development of the UK (DFID), was launched in fall of 1999 with the approval of the above project (GCP/INT/744/UK). The project is being implemented through the Sustainable Livelihoods Task Group (SLTG) which is a sub-group of the FAO Informal Working Group on Participatory Approaches and Methods to Support Sustainable Livelihoods and Food Security (IWG-PA) that now comprises 115 members representing 34 different divisions/units/regional offices of FAO and some members from WFP and IFAD.

The core message of SL approaches is that the livelihoods of poor people must be at the centre of any strategy for poverty reduction. It is based on a set of guiding principles and represents a different way of thinking about the priorities for development. It puts people at the centre of development and enables poor people themselves to participate in identifying and addressing their livelihood priorities. As well as being people-centred, the approaches are holistic as they seek to identify the various factors which hinder or provide opportunities to people to improve their situation and how these factors relate to each other, including links to macro policies. The SL approaches seek to draw lessons from the local level and bring these to the forefront of development policy, thus linking policy and community level activities.

The promotion of sustainable livelihoods, which is central to eliminating poverty through lasting change, also requires that public and private sectors work together. One of the strengths of SL approaches is the way they progress from holistic analysis to identifying a limited number of activities to make a practical difference to the well being of poor people - they are outcome oriented approaches.

The concept is not new and derives from the definition provided by Chambers and Conway in the early 1990s:

'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.' 1

However, the interest in SL approaches has grown over the last few years and DFID, UNDP, CARE and OXFAM have begun to apply the approach in their programmes since the mid 1990s, with some variation, and several bilateral and multilateral agencies, including the World Bank and the European Commission, have expressed their interest in these approach.

The DFID-funded project (GCP/INT/744/UK) consists of bringing together staff from FAO, UNDP, WFP, IFAD and FAO to participate in: 1) a learning E-Mail/Web Conference (9 -20 February 2000 with over 300 registered participants), and 2) a four-day Forum to take place in Siena from 7-11 March 2000 (with 72 registered participants). Through discussing four review papers in the E-Conference and analysing eight major and four minor case studies at the Forum this inter-agency initiative hopes to achieve the following three objectives:

The potential benefits that Sustainable Livelihoods approaches may provide in strengthening the FAO field and normative programmes need to be carefully assessed, particularly as the concept of promoting sustainable livelihoods, as a means to combat food insecurity and rural poverty, is already recognized in the FAO Strategic Framework, in Corporate Strategy A.1, as follows:

A. Contributing to the eradication of food insecurity and rural poverty

  1. Sustainable rural livelihoods and more equitable access to resources
  2. Access of vulnerable and disadvantaged groups to sufficient, safe and nutritionally adequate food
  3. Preparedness for, and effective and sustainable response to food and agricultural emergencies.

Regular updates on the outcomes of both the Sustainable Livelihoods E-Mail/Web Conference and SLA Forum, as well as follow-up activities, will be shared on SD-Dimensions.


1Chambers, R. and G. Conway (1992) Sustainable rural livelihoods: Practical concepts for the 21st century. IDS Discussion Paper 296. Brighton: IDS. (pp.7-8)



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