Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century

Sustainable rural livelihoods: practical concepts for the 21st century

Sustainble livelihoods: the importance of flexible credit for new small enterprises

Working on the premise that in the 21st century there may be two or three times the human population than at the time of writing, this paper explores the concept of sustainable livelihoods. The analysis points to priorities for policy and research, including pricing and taxing policies for the rich that would reduce environmental demand, and further research into small farming systems, local economies and factors influencing migration.


  • capability, equity and sustainability are the fundamental means and ends of sustainable livelihoods. Capability is the ability to perform certain basic functions, to cope with stresses and shocks and the ability to find and make use of livelihood opportunities. Equity is more equal distribution of assets, capabilities and opportunities, and an end to discrimination. Sustainability is the ability to maintain and improve livelihoods while maintaining or enhancing the assets on which livelihoods depend
  • planning for future livelihoods implies placing value on the future. However the future is often undervalued due to discounting, lack of democratic representation of future generations and an inability to predict future trends (e.g. population, technology, social change)
  • enhancing livelihood intensity is possible. There is now better understanding of complex, diverse and risk-prone agriculture that can be enhanced by diversification with interlinking enterprises. Degraded resources have been proven to present immense livelihood potential for the poor, and they are protected by their low value to others. Many small-scale economic opportunities other than farming can be generated locally, and this can result in a synergy of recirculation of income. Optimising this synergy of recirculation should be a central priority.
  • net sustainable livelihoods is a measure of the number of environmentally and socially sustainable livelihoods that provide an adequate living in a context, less their negative effect on the benefits and sustainability of the totality of other livelihoods elsewhere. This does not require a precise measure of 'how much', but rather relative values, weightings or trends can be usable for decision-making

Recommendation: policies and programmes that enhance capability, improve equity and increase social sustainability for the poor should be promoted. These should include flexible credit for new small enterprises, securing rights to resources, especially land, and accessible health services.

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