Sustainable Livelihoods: A multi-level, multi-dimensional approach

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach was created in the 1990’s as a response to the conventional development and poverty reduction approaches of the previous years, such as agricultural development through green revolution strategies of the 1950’s, integrated rural development of the 1970’s and structural adjustment programs with market liberalization and privatization in the 1980’s (Bohle, 2009). Those approaches seemed to have too narrow points of view, focusing more on income and productivity issues rather than social aspects like vulnerability, exclusion or equity (Krantz, 2001).

For this, the concept of sustainable livelihoods has been defined as “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 and maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining the natural resource base” (Department for International Development, 2001). In this context, the sustainable livelihoods approach has the following core principles that have been summarized briefly by Krantz (2001) and Bohle (2009):

  1. People-centred: people as the core of the development issues, taking into account that external support should focus on supporting and improving their livelihoods.
  2. Responsive and participatory: people as active identifiers of their priorities, strengths and needs, for which proper methodologies should be developed for their participation.
  3. Multi-level: by addressing poverty reduction actions either at micro and macro level.
  4. Conducted in partnership: recognizing all the actors, such as government, communities, organizations and private firms.
  5. Sustainable: trying to find equilibrium between the economic, institutional, social and environmental dimensions of sustainability. Special remarks for this topic are analyzed by the Department of International Development (2001).
  6. Dynamic: understanding that people and their livelihoods are actively changing within the time and taking into account the environment and conditions that shape their behavior.

The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach takes into account the available livelihood assets such as physical, natural, financial, social and human capital that are used by the poor (from households to broader groups) in the context of vulnerability and interacting with the policies, institutions and processes affecting them in order to reproduce and improve their conditions of life (Bohle, 2007). This approach is explained through a framework, which scheme is shown in Figure 1.

Figure 1: The Sustainable Livelihoods Framework.

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Source: Bohle (2009)

Analyzing all the components of the framework in the reality of the poor is needed to identify the points of intervention for external support, as well as to plan and implement strategies, projects and promote changes in institutional arrangement. For this, each component of the framework has been explained by the Department for International Development (2001) to help the users of this methodology to obtain deeper findings on the livelihoods analysis:

Livelihood assets that people use to obtain livelihood outcomes, understood as peoples’ strengths in each category of assets, or as considered in the framework, levels of each capital: human capital (skills, knowledge, abilities, health, measured as the available labour in a household), social capital (trust, and reciprocity relationships, networking, membership to grassroots organizations or cooperatives that enhance the use of other assets), natural capital (land, forests, water, biodiversity, other natural resources used by the poor in the form of goods or services), physical capital (infrastructure, tools, machinery, services such as water and energy supply, available for the poor’s production and survival) and financial capital (available stocks and inflows of money for consumption and production). The different categories of capital can be related between them, reinforcing the “people-centred” principle.

The Vulnerability context defined as the environment in which the poor develop their livelihoods. People are influenced by the effect of shocks (events destroying or reducing the availability of assets), trends (more predictable, such as economic or technological trends affecting the use of assets and the results of livelihood strategies) and seasonal shifts (of prices, production, food availability, employment).

Policies, Institutions, Processes (Transforming structures and processes) that affect and model livelihoods and determine the terms of exchange and access to different types of capital, as well as affect the returns to the peoples’ strategies. Structures (as public, private sector, NGOs) and processes (laws, governance systems, policies from different levels of government, NGOs and from international bodies, culture and power relations) can be found at multiple levels, interacting between them and with the poor, having an impact on the shape of the livelihood strategies.

Livelihood strategies consisting on the diversity of choices, opportunities that are later transformed into decisions and activities done to satisfy their needs and attain their livelihoods goals in a dynamic process in which mobility of the resources and the people is characteristic. The aim of interventions and projects using the sustainable livelihoods approach should focus on the increase of choices for a wider scope of livelihoods strategies and consequently a higher ability to cope with the shocks, trends and seasonality.

Livelihood outcomes defined as the “achievements or outputs of livelihood strategies” (Department for International Development, 2001). Livelihood outcomes may be categorized as more income (increase in net returns and savings to achieve economic sustainability), increased wellbeing (self-esteem, social inclusion, health, security, access to services), reduced vulnerability (increased ability to cope with social, political, climatic, economic changes), improved food security (at all the dimensions of the concept) and more sustainable use of natural resource base (ensuring the availability of the natural resources along the time).

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