ACC Network:Theme:Sustainable livelihoods

ACC Network on Rural Development and Food Security

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Posted 20 July 1998

Theme: Sustainable Livelihoods - An Operational Vehicle for Sustainable Human Development

by Naresh Singh and Samir Wanmali
United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)
See also: Natural Resource and Environmental Management (NREM) (June 1998), Building a pluralistic network (May 1998) and Moving forward (April 1998)

AMONG THE INNOVATIVE THEMES running through recent UN conferences, two are particularly notable and gaining ground. The first is a general acknowledgement of the unsustainability of current production and consumption patterns in both the North and South. The second is the promotion of sustainable livelihoods (SL) for all, but in particular for those living in poverty. Surfacing over a decade ago in the World Commission on Environment and Development, the idea of sustainable livelihoods began as an approach to maintain or enhance resource productivity, secure ownership of and access to assets, resources and income-earning activities as well as to ensure adequate stocks and flows of food and cash to meet basic needs. As one of UNDP's five corporate mandates, SL offers both a conceptual and programming framework for Sustainable Human Development, or SHD (the SHD focus areas are: Poverty Eradication, Sustainable Livelihoods, Gender Equity, Protection and Regeneration of the Environment and Governance).

In much of the developing world, men and women are engaged in a number of activities (sequential and simultaneous) that contribute to their well being, or constitute their livelihoods. These activities range from agriculture, petty hawking/trading and wage labour, to the provision of low-cost transportation services. Livelihoods, therefore, are the means, activities and entitlements by which people make a living. A livelihood system is a dynamic realm that integrates both the opportunities and assets available to a group of people for achieving their goals and aspirations, as well as interactions with and exposure to a range of beneficial or harmful ecological, social, economic and political perturbations that may help or hinder groups' capacities to make a living.

Sustainable livelihoods are derived from people's capacity to make a living by surviving shocks and stress and to improve their material condition without jeopardizing other people's livelihood options, either now or in the future. This requires reliance on both capabilities and assets for a means of living. Assets, in this particular context, are defined as not only natural/biological (i.e., land, water, common-property resources, flora, fauna), but also social (i.e., community, family, social networks), political (i.e., participation, empowerment), human (i.e., education, labour, health, nutrition), physical (i.e., roads, clinics, schools, bridges, markets), and economic (i.e., income, jobs). The sustainability of livelihoods becomes a function of how men and women utilize asset portfolios on both a short and long-term basis.

One of the ways to understand SL systems is to analyze the coping and adaptive strategies pursued by individuals and communities as a response to external shocks and stresses such as drought, civil strife and policy failures. There is, however, an important distinction between coping and adaptive strategies. Coping strategies are often a short-term response to a specific shock such as drought. Actions could include switching to cultivation of drought-resistant crops or reliance on external food aid. Adaptive strategies, on the other hand, entail a long-term change in behaviour patterns as a result of a shock or stress. A common example is that of agro-pastoralists who have adapted to changing conditions of climate, water and vegetation variability by optimizing the mix of cattle, sheep, goats and camels in their herds.

The transition from theory to the practice of SL is, by no means, an easy task. UNDP has developed a methodology (or approach) for the design, implementation and evaluation of SL programmes at the country level. The approach consists of a five step process described briefly below:

  • A participatory assessment of the risks, assets, indigenous knowledge base, and coping and adaptive strategies of communities and individuals;
  • Analysis of the macro, micro and sectoral policies which influence people's livelihood strategies.
  • Assessment and determination of the potential contributions of modern science and technology that complement indigenous knowledge systems in order to improve livelihoods;
  • Identification of social and economic investment mechanisms (i.e., microfinance, expenditures on health and education) that help or hinder existing livelihood strategies; and
  • Making sure that the first four stages are integrated and interactive in real time.
The approach has similarities to some traditional development approaches and is sometimes confused with them. These include, for example, the basic needs approach, community development, integrated rural development, participatory development, community based natural resources management, sustainable resource utilization, agro-ecological approaches, income generation projects and job creation schemes.

While the SL approach has been developed independently, it nonetheless resonates with the spirit and some of the practices of these earlier approaches. It also seeks to overcome their limitations while adding independent value. It is, therefore, different from each of them individually and in totality. Its added value arises from several features. These include:

  • the provision of an integrated framework in which aspects of several earlier approaches come together synergistically;
  • the assessment of community assets, adaptive strategies and livelihood activities as the entry point. This is a holistic entry point and is different from sectoral entry points such as water, health or agriculture. Therefore the approach builds on the strengths of communities rather than their needs so as to overcome the donor-recipient syndrome.
  • the strong emphasis on the questions of sustainability in economic, environmental and social terms;
  • the examination of the linkages between macro, micro, sectoral and social policies (and their effects on livelihood systems) to better understand the trade-offs that emerge in the policy formulation process;
  • the use of an empowerment approach rather than a welfarist approach;
  • the aim to improve the productivity of existing livelihood systems and create new opportunities in a sustainable manner through appropriate investment and technology inputs;
  • the provision of an analytic framework, based on community assets, for the development of measures and indicators to monitor changes in livelihood systems and their sustainability.
To date, UNDP Country Offices in Madagascar, Malawi, Swaziland and Yemen have helped these countries develop full scale SL programmes. Several other countries are currently exploring ways and means to incorporate SL strategies and elements into their national development process. While the overall goal of these programmes is poverty eradication through sustainable livelihoods, specific components include household food security, natural resource management, watershed management, entrepreneurship development, and local institutional development for microfinance.

Further information, including downloadable discussion papers and policy documents, are available on UNDP's SL Website at: Contacts on SL work at UNDP HQ in New York are: Naresh Singh, tel: 00-1-212-906-5007, e-mail:; and Samir Wanmali, tel: 00-1-212-906-6259; e-mail:

Go to our Resources: Sustainable livelihoods section for information about complementary resource materials, and to July 1998 News to find out about: recent FAO-UNDP collaboration on sustainable livelihoods, feedback on last month's thematic focus on natural resources and environmental management, and other interesting developments.

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