Sustainable Livelihoods - Developments, Reflections and the Future

posted Jan 23, 2017, 4:36 AM by SUSDEC A


Robert Chambers


Origins and spread


Although it has an earlier history, it was probably only in the 1970s that the term livelihood began significantly to enter the development lexicon.  It was used to offset the urban and industrial biases of the dominant terms and concepts of employment, jobs, workplace and income in cash.  Livelihood, in contrast, could encompass the multifarious activities and sources of support typical especially of poor rural and agricultural households. 


When the Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century paper was published in 1992 (Chambers and Conway 1992), “sustainable livelihood” had already been around for at least six years.  It was developed and gained currency through several initiatives. It was discussed in IIED in 1985. IIED’s  Sustainable Agriculture and Rural Livelihoods programme  led by Gordon Conway  was established in 1986 and Richard Sandbrook, the Director of IIED, played a part in making sustainable livelihoods a theme of the large “Only One Earth Conference on Sustainable Development” convened in April 1987.  The papers of that conference  were published as The Greening of Aid: sustainable livelihoods in practice (Conroy and Litvinoff  eds 1988).


“Sustainable livelihood” was adopted and developed as a concept by the Advisory Panel on Food Security, Agriculture, Forestry and Environment of the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCD - the Brundtland Commission), meeting in 1986.  The Panel elaborated this as “sustainable livelihood security” in the opening pages of its report Food 2000 (WCED 1987a).  The Commission itself, in its report, Our Common Future (WCED 1987b),  began with older thinking and language with “jobs” (e.g pages 43, 49),  but shifted substantially to the use of “livelihood”.  It speaks of  “securing the livelihoods of the rural poor” (p.130),  maintaining and even enhancing agricultural productivity and “the livelihoods of all rural dwellers” (p.133), and “securing the livelihoods of the rural poor” (p.130).  It uses the expressions “adequate livelihood”, “livelihood opportunities”, and “livelihood security” (ibid p.40 and p.129; p.54 and p.142; and p.118 and p.129 respectively).  Agriculture “lacks policies to ensure that food is produced where it is needed and in a manner that sustains the livelihoods of the rural poor” (p.118).  Sustainable livelihoods are mentioned twice: “Shifting production to food-deficit countries and to the resource-poor farmers within those countries is a way of securing sustainable livelihoods" (p.129) and “Providing sustainable livelihoods for resource-poor farmers presents a special challenge for agricultural research” (p.138 ).


After the WCD there was then a hiatus. It was only some five years later that sustainable livelihoods began to take off as a practical concept.  A succession of influential organisations picked up the term, used it, gave it meanings and put it to uses which fitted their needs and purposes.  Among these were OXFAM in 1993,  CARE, the International Institute for Sustainable Development IISD) in Canada, and UNDP.  Perhaps most significant and influential was the adoption of a sustainable livelihoods framework by DFID in its 1997 White Paper on International Development (DFID 1997) which made it an approach for achieving the elimination of poverty.  DFID established a Sustainable Livelihoods Support Office and promoted use of sustainable livelihoods approaches (SLA), especially in natural resources management.


In parallel a succession of research programmes were launched and bore fruit.  In 1994 the Society  for International Development launched a 3-year programme in 19 countries on Sustainable Livelihoods and People’s Everyday Economics, one purpose of which was to develop further the theory of the sustainable livelihoods approach to sustainable development[1].  More significant was research sponsored by DFID.  One project was carried out by IDS, the Poverty Research Unit at Sussex, and IIED, with fieldwork in Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Mali and Zimbabwe.  ODI conducted extensive analysis of SLs. Together with DFID itself, these organisations published whole series of empirical and analytical papers which made substantial contributions to understanding and practice.


Conceptual evolution and diversity


Researchers and organisations took the skeleton of the two words and put flesh on it. 


The most influential elaboration and definition of dimensions, categories and connections was that of an ecologist, Ian Scoones, in his 1998 Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: a framework for analysis.  OXFAM and DFID came to use variants of the Scoones diagram. Its framework with five headings has, with minor modifications, been widely adopted and adapted.  The most commonly used version has been that of DFID:




Source: Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheet Section 2


As it spread and evolved, the framework was perhaps best known for its identification of the five “capitals” as livelihood resources – natural capital, physical capital, economic/financial capital, human capital and social capital.  It was also important that it made explicit the significance of influence, access, structures and processes. DFID defined sustainable livelihoods, following the paper above as:


“A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets 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”


This reduces the strength of the sustainability requirement.  Producing net benefits for others was considered an unrealistic demand (Carney with others 1999:8).  Not surprisingly, this also left out the implications for those who are not poor.  For its part OXFAM made to help secure “the right to a sustainable livelihood” as one of its five corporate aims.  (ibid: 11).


Dimensions of sustainable livelihoods have been explored by numerous authors.

Reinforcement of the concept and relevant insights have come from social anthropological field research.  Two rich sources are Susanna Davies’ Adaptable Livelihoods: coping with food insecurity in the Malian Sahel (1996) and Pekka Seppala’s Diversification and Accumulation in Rural Tanzania: anthropological perspectives on village economics  (1998).  Both reveal and illustrate diversity, complexity, flexibility and resilience in the livelihood strategies and activities of rural people.  Both demonstrate how highly seasonal these are.  Davies shows how poor people juggle between a range of different requirements and how immediate food consumption (contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy of human needs, and contrary to the “food-first” approach) is not always given priority as people make finely balanced trade-offs between short- and longer-term needs (ibid: 18-19; 309). 

The comprehensiveness of the “capitals” has been questioned.  Though not concerned with a SL framework, Keppala introduces cultural “capitals”, which he identifies in the context of his study as religion, spirit possession, tradition/age, wisdom, politics, education and youth culture.  He discusses how these can rival and be in conflict with economic “capitals” (ibid:  114-133).  Baumann and Sinha (2001) make a persuasive case for adding political capital, which they defined broadly as “the ability to use power in support of political or economic positions and so enhance livelihoods”.  With evidence from field research on watershed development in India they argued that power and influence are traded with other capitals, especially financial through corruption.  They point out that political capital is critical for understanding why poverty-focussed programmes are often captured illicitly and fail to benefit the poor, and how the poor can be supported to enhance their own, legitimate, political capital.

Diversity of livelihood sources and strategies has been repeatedly pointed out, emphasised and illustrated (e.g. Hussein and Nelson 1998; Ellis 1999).  Participatory analysis of marketed naturally available rural products could produce a list of over 60 in Namibia and well over 100 in the Philippines (Bennett 2002: 73).  Strategies reviewed include agricultural intensification (Carswell 1997),  migration (McDowell and de Haan 1997) and those of special groups such as the disabled.  Women’s livelihood strategies received attention (e.g. Swantz 1995).   Field research has stressed the marked seasonality of livelihood activities.


Range of applications


Sustainable livelihoods have proved versatile in their relevance and application.  They have provided organising concepts in relation to a range of subjects.  The most common have been natural resources and agriculture, for example household food security and environmental sustainability in farming systems research (Drinkwater and McEwan 1994; Carswell 1997). They have been applied in different contexts, for example coastal environments (IMM et al 2000).  Although “rural” often appears in the titles of papers, sustainable livelihoods apply also in urban contexts.  The relationships between SLs and human rights have been explored by  Moser and Norton (2001).  Several studies have discussed implications for policy (e.g. Hussein and Nelson 1998; Shankland 2000 ), and in particular with structural adjustment (Ahmed with Lipton 1997),  with the “rights and the new architecture of aid” (Farrington 2001), with sectoral policies, and with Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) (Norton and Foster 2001).   Human Development Reports have taken sustainable livelihoods as their organising theme, for example in Jordan.


Strengths and weaknesses


Reviews of experience with the SLs framework (e.g. Ashley and Carney 1999; Farrington 2001) have pointed to strengths and weaknesses but have come out quite strongly  positive.


Among the strengths of the SL approach has proved to be its people-centredness and poverty Orientation.  Starting as it does with the vulnerability context of shocks, trends and seasonality, listing the five (or six with political) capitals, including influence and access to resources and services, taking account of structures and processes, giving space for livelihood strategies (in the plural), and allowing for multiple livelihood outcomes, it has a complexity and comprehensiveness which nonetheless can be presented in a memorable diagram. With this comprehensiveness, it belongs to no discipline.  It is neutral ground on which all can meet, and where all can find a familiar patch. Almost every development professional can identify with one of the five capitals – natural capital (geographers, resource economists, ecologists, foresters, agriculturalists, soils scientistS), physical capital (engineers, physical planners), human capital (educationalists,  health professionals), financial capital (economists) and social capital (social scientists, social development specialists).  And if political capital is added, there is a place too for political scientists. In his review, John Farrington (2001) added that the SL approach provided a reality check.  Summing up its advantages he wrote:


"SL approaches put the poor at the centre of analysis and aim to identify interventions to meet their needs and opportunities in ways not dominated by individual sectors or disciplines.  Part of the value of a SL approach therefore lies in providing an inclusive and non-threatening process by which the capacity of development specialists to think beyond conventional sectoral or disciplinary boundaries can be enhanced. This is in addition to whatever improved products it achieves in terms of e.g. better design of the interventions themselves” 


 A final advantage is flexibility and the ease with which it can be made more comprehensive and realistic by adding dimensions.


Weaknesses have also become evident.  In practice, the household has usually been taken as the unit of analysis, which tends to overlook gender issues including intra-house distribution and dynamics.  The various frameworks have tended to be difficult for some of  those who come to sustainable livelihoods for the first time.  They can be constraining when interpreted too rigidly, especially with the analysis of field data, and when the categories, for example the capitals, are treated as boxes into which realities must be fitted rather than useful checklists to ensure coverage of significant reality.  Further weaknesses (see below) have been ignoring net effects of livelihoods on others, and focusing only on the poor and not on the rich.


For the future


“Sustainable livelihoods” are two words put together initially without an explicit meaning.  This had the advantage that they could be appropriated and given meanings by different actors to suit their conditions and purposes.  The disadvantage that goes with this is that meanings or implications which are complicating, inconvenient or threatening can be ignored.   On the other hand, it opened up scope for adding to the framework.  As weaknesses or omissions are identified, more categories are added, two being gender and political capital.  The challenge is to add to the scope and realism of the framework without sacrificing its proven practical utility.


With this in mind, three aspects stand out for their importance and potential.


The first concerns other qualities of a livelihood, and of wellbeing besides sustainability.  Other adjectives which have been applied to livelihood include secure and decent.  “Secure” is captured by the way sustainable livelihoods are interpreted, particularly the attention to shocks, stress and resilience.  “Decent” implies social acceptability, self-respect and not demeaning or involving excessive physical hardship.  There are always dangers of overcomplicating concepts.   Beyond these there is, too, the quality of experience and fulfilment from livelihood activities.  For practical purposes, to capture dimensions like these, checklists can be useful.  In this case, they can be expressed in each context poor people themselves, indicating what characteristics a good livelihood would have for them.


The second issue is the concept of net SL effects, and SL-intensity.  The point here is that a new livelihood or a new degree of sustainability for an existing livelihood may be at the expense of others.  The economic concept of externalities applies here. DFID omitted it  because of the difficulties it presented .  However, it could be argued that the concept of net effects is vital for good choices if policies and programmes to contribute fully to equity and to the achievement of the international development targets. The fact that net SL effects are difficult to measure should be no deterrent.  Important externalities  which cannot be measured can be thought through and estimated.  It is better to think through, estimate and include than to exclude for lack of means to measure.


There are international and global dimensions to net SL effects.  These concern peace and security, and international capitalism and trade.  War and civil disturbance are often devastating for livelihoods.  International capitalism and trade can be positive or negative in their net effects. International trade agreements and freer trade can strengthen and create livelihoods for poor people, or they can weaken and eliminate them.  Both agricultural subsidies in the North, and the long-term trends of declining prices for primary products from the South have negative SL effects for poor people on a prodigious scale. Much of the world economic system is skewed to diminish and destroy livelihoods of poor people.   For their livelihoods to be more adequate and sustainable, restraining and reversing these tendencies present a massive potential.


The third and final issue is the failure to apply SL thinking to the North and to those who are rich in the South.  This has been disappointing.  Sustainable livelihood, as we defined and explicated it, was a Trojan horse.  It was quite readily accepted as a concept applying to “others”, to the poor and to the South.  SLs fit well with poverty programmes, with the diverse realities of poor people, and with the poverty-reduction priorities of lenders, donors and Governments.  It has been conveniently overlooked that the livelihoods and lives that were least environmentally sustainable were “ours” those of the better off, the relatively rich.  Some major advocacy INGOs are concerned with aspects of this but have not picked up on the concept. This is surprising.  For the very concept which works so well for the poor can apply with force to the rich.  It is obvious but inconvenient to note that environmentally, at the personal level,  the least sustainable livelihoods and the life styles that go with them are those of the rich in the North.  Their net source and sink effects on the environment vastly outweigh those of the poor in the South.  Yet, to our knowledge, personal environmental accounting has not been effectively promoted even by those like Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth who might have been looked to for such an initiative.


The challenge, then, is both personal and public.  Are we, those who read this, the relatively rich and well-off, prepared to adopt the wider definition of sustainability for our livelihoods and life styles?  To make our livelihoods and lives more sustainable in their effects, both economically through fairer trade relations, and environmentally through our source and sink impacts?  What degrees of short-term irresponsibility, inconsistency and hypocrisy are we prepared to allow ourselves?[2]  To whom do we point the finger?


The ‘idea for development’ is to apply the concept of environmentally and socially sustainable livelihood to the rich as well as the poor.


[1] Employment thinking, however, remained strong.  The 1995 Number 3 issue of SID’s journal Development was entitled Employment, income and sustainable livelihoods but was little concerned with SLs.  In this respect it was like the Social Summit  of the same year in Copenhagen.  One of the draft papers for the Summit had sustainable livelihoods in its title, but was then almost entirely concerned with the language and concepts of employment, jobs and the workplace.

[2] Lest any reader suppose that I am “holier than thou” I am rather acutely aware that I am writing this in Gairloch in Wester Ross in the Northwest of Scotland, having contributed to greenhouse gases by burning up at least three tanks of petrol in driving here from the South of England. One question is whether, if there were a system of personal environmental accounting (including air travel), my behaviour would change.  I believe it would, well, a bit.  But perhaps I and others should be shamed into recognising better the distant implications of our actions for others.