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Annex 7

A brief overview of sustainable livelihoods approaches

Presented by Timothy R. Frankenberger, CARE


It is very difficult in the time allotted to give an overview on all of the work that has taken place on sustainable livelihood approaches over the past several years. I will try to highlight some of the key issues and trends that I see are taking place as the approach gets operationalized in different settings by different institutions.


In the 1970s, many development practitioners were concerned about the famines that were taking place in Africa and Asia, and a concerted effort was made to put more resources into increasing food supplies globally. Out of this concern, the CGIAR centres were born, and significant increases in food supplies were created through crop research.

However, as we transitioned into the 1980s, many development practitioners realized that even with significant national-level surpluses, many households were still not obtaining adequate amounts of food for a healthy life. It was determined that many households did not have enough income or resources to exchange for food to meet their food needs. This led to a shift from national food security to a concern with the food security and nutritional status of households and individuals. Farming systems research, focusing on the production activities of poor households, also provided a new perspective on the way to view the production and consumption decisions of households.

In the mid-1980s to the early 1990s, researchers began to widen their perspective from food security to a livelihood perspective. Some of the first writings on sustainable livelihoods were beginning to appear in the farming systems literature in the late 1980s.

During the 1990s until the present, there has been a shift from a material perspective focused on food production to a social perspective that focuses on the enhancement of peoples' capacities to secure their own livelihoods. Much of this thinking is derived from the participatory approaches that have become well integrated into the various implementing agencies' activities for project diagnosis and design.

Thus, we can see that the sustainable livelihood approaches in vogue today build on the experiences of the past. They are not based on dramatically new methods but utilize the methods that have been developed over the past 20 years. This is why SLA seems so familiar to those who have been involved in systems-oriented approaches such as farming systems research and household food security.


There are a number of definitions currently in use that a number of agencies share in common. These are:

Livelihood. A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living (Chambers & Conway 1988).

Sustainable livelihood. A livelihood is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from the stresses and shocks and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future without undermining the natural resource base (Chambers & Conway).

Household livelihood security. Household livelihood security is defined as adequate and sustainable access to income and resources to meet basic needs (Frankenberger 1996).


It is important not to get hung up on the label, that is, whether you call it SLA, HLS or something else. When people are not familiar with the terms, labels can create divisions, even when different agencies may be pursuing similar approaches. It is more important to understand what are the underlying principles that govern these types of holistic approaches.


Holistic diagnosis and analysis

A sustainable livelihood approach attempts to take a holistic perspective in determining problems and opportunities for programme activities. This holistic perspective involves taking into account:

Context. What are the social, economic, political, historical, demographic trends that influence the livelihood options of a given population and what are the risks to which they are exposed?

Resources. What are the various assets (financial, physical, social, human and natural) that households and communities have access to and how are they differentiated and disaggregated? Vulnerability is determined by the risks that households and communities are exposed to and their ability to use assets to cope with these risks.

Institutions and organizations. The institutions that operate within a given context will be critical to sustainable livelihood outcomes. It is important to identify which government, civic and private-sector institutions operate in a given livelihood setting to determine their relative strengths and weaknesses in delivering goods and services essential to secure livelihoods. The private sector is usually left out of such analyses. A stakeholder analysis is a critical first step in any diagnosis.

Livelihood strategies. A holistic diagnosis attempts to identify the various strategies people use to make a living and how they cope with stress. These are also referred to as adaptive and coping strategies in the food security literature. To tailor interventions appropriately, it is important to determine the variability that may exist across ethnic groups, households and individuals in the pursuit of different strategies

Livelihood outcomes. Outcomes are measured to determine how successful households are in their livelihood strategies. These outcomes can be based on normative standards (e.g. nutritional status) or on criteria identified by the communities. Such outcome measures need to be differentiated and disaggregated across groups, households and individuals.

Application of participatory, people-centred approaches

SLA uses a wide variety of participatory tools for diagnosis, programme design and monitoring and evaluation. Participation and empowerment are the basic tenets of the approach.

Focused strategy

Although the SLA emphasizes holistic diagnosis, this does not mean that interventions must be multisectoral. Single-sector projects/programmes may be the most appropriate avenue to pursue based on a good problem and opportunity analysis. There are multiple entry points through which to begin programme activities. The analysis should determine which entry point to pursue.

Coherent information systems

The indicators used for monitoring and evaluation are clearly linked to the problem analysis and the objectives. Cross-sectoral impacts that are measured are derived from the links that are demonstrated from the holistic analysis. The project should not collect unnecessary data that is not clearly linked to the objective or the problem analysis.

Reflective practice

Programme information systems should be set up to capture both the intended and unintended consequences of programme activities. These lessons can be derived from participatory monitoring systems and other aspects of the M&E system. Documenting the lessons will be critical to programme improvements. One of the key problems that implementing agencies have is allocating time and resources to document the lessons learned.



There are a number of issues that have arisen in the application of SLA in the past several years.

Programme design

As stated earlier, SLA projects/programmes can be either single-sector focused or multisector in scope. What is needed is a range of options that can be applied depending on where the project is in the programme cycle. Ongoing projects can incorporate a livelihood perspective during critical moments of their project cycle, such as during mid-term reviews or evaluations to determine if other factors beyond the sector constraints that the project is focusing on could influence the achievement of project objectives.

Entry point

Although we may be concerned with the livelihood outcomes at the micro level, this does not mean that interventions have to be only at the micro level. Macro-level policy changes can have a significant impact at the local level. The problem analysis should determine at which level it makes sense to operate programme activities. Similarly, the programme strategy may work with different people in the community than the group we wish to help. If the strategy is correct, then the livelihoods of the target group we wish to support should be improved. For example, working with merchants may assist poor farmers in obtaining inputs more easily. It is important to monitor the distribution of benefits to make programme adjustments when needed.

Measuring impact

To measure the impact of a livelihood programme, it is important to measure criteria relevant to communities as well as normative criteria. Criteria derived from participatory approaches are the changes that are meaningful to communities. If these changes do not occur, then the project has not brought about the kinds of improvements that are significant to the community. These measures may be location specific. Normative measures are important for targeting and allowing for cross-regional comparisons. Such measures are critical for donors and governments that need to make resource allocation decisions across regions or countries. Thus, both types of information need to be included in SLA M&E systems.

Changing structures and processes for sustainable outcomes

To sustain positive livelihood outcomes, effective local institutions that deliver goods and services must be in place. These include government agencies, civil organizations and the private sector. An important part of most livelihood programming activities has been community capacity-building and institutional strengthening. Capacity-building efforts must focus on service delivery as well as risk-management. Institutions that are not able to mange 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 efforts. Finally, much more work needs to be done on capacity-building indicators. Currently, we have few examples of indicators for measuring institutional improvements.

Working with multiple partners at various levels

SLA activities may be initiated at different levels (i.e. national, regional, local) depending on where the greatest leverage can be achieved. For this reason, SLA programmes must be able to mange partnerships at various levels. This is a different way of operating than working with local partners only, and it may require a different set of skills.

Balancing natural resource management objectives with poverty-alleviation objectives

It is important to take into consideration that natural resource management interventions that have public benefits do not always have direct benefits for the poor. Care must be taken to determine whether the poor are participating in project activities. If the poor are not involved, then consideration must be given to opportunities for including additional components that address the livelihood needs of the poor. These needs may be addressed by partner organizations and not directly by the project.

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