Approaches to sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor

Approaches to sustainable livelihoods for the rural poor

Features and challenges in applying the sustainable livelihoods approach

This article outlines some of the features of the 'livelihoods approach' to development, and why these are likely to be more successful in reducing poverty than previous approaches over the past five decades. Casting aside the assumption that all rural poor are farmers, foresters or fisherfolk, this approach has a more holistic focus, that considers the different contexts in which people live, their ability to access a range of assets (physical, human, social, financial and natural), the institutions that shape their livelihoods, and the different strategies they adopt in pursuit of their goals. The author suggests that for analytical purposes the approach has great potential, however the development of tools for implementation and accurate ways of measuring the contribution they make should now be a priority.

Past approaches to development have paid inadequate attention to the complexity of rural livelihoods and the multiple dimensions of poverty. Livelihoods approaches have the following strengths:

  • they have a holistic and multi-sectoral outlook more able to unify previously fragmented lessons and ideas
  • they recognise the importance of multiple actors (public and private, national and local) thereby widening the range of potential partners. They attempt to understand national and international linkages and the effects these have on people's livelihoods, emphasising the importance of macro-level policy and institutions to the livelihood options of local communities and individuals
  • they emphasise that sustainability refers to more than natural resources, and that vulnerability to various types of external shocks is a core aspect of poverty needing to be addressed.

Several concerns have been raised over this new approach, including:

  • that it is over ambitious and offers insufficient practical guidance on the way to progress. The challenge here is to develop practical and cost-effective tools for making making the linkages between different elements of rural life, and relating these to existing tools
  • there are concerns about the possibilities for transcending sectors in the way that the livelihoods approach proposes, since partner countries and donor organisations tend to be organised along sectoral lines, including budgets
  • that the approach sidelines the importance of food security and agriculture, which some agencies consider to be of primary importance
  • that little attention is paid in this approach to distributional issues. The assumption that the emphasis will be on the poorest is only implicit.

Those working with the sustainable livelihoods framework might do well to bear in mind the concern to see that the focus on the poorest is maintained; that distributional issues are considered; and that the new approaches contribute to improved agricultural productivity and access of the poor to food. The development of practical methods of implementation are a priority.

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