Sustainable livelihoods: Lessons from early experience

Sustainable livelihoods: Lessons from early experience

Early experiences of sustainable livelihoods in DFID

DFID review of conceptual development of sustainable livelihoods research and early experiences with programme implementation

The approach was was found to be useful for:

  • supporting systematic analysis of poverty and its causes, in a way that is holistic – hence more realistic – but also manageable
  • promoting a wider and better informed view of the opportunities for development activities and their likely impact
  • placing people and the priorities they define firmly at the centre of analysis and objective-setting


Initial observations include:

  • Holistic SL analysis can provide an invaluable basis for design, but should lead to focused entry points. Projects guided by SL approaches may be anchored in a single sector, but the contribution to livelihoods and links with initiatives in other sectors should be clear.
  • The SL framework is just one tool for livelihoods analysis. A wide range of other methods – including elements of poverty, stakeholder and institutional analysis – is required to implement SL approaches
  • SL analysis can contribute to the process and content of policy dialogue; other tools/skills are needed to understand the complexity of structures and processes and to build momentum for change.
  • SL approaches can be used in any sector and as a common language for cross-sectoral teamwork. Perceived differences between various development ‘approaches’ are greater in language than in practice
  • The SL framework is a useful checklist for the design of monitoring systems. However, measuring change in livelihoods is difficult. Participatory approaches to monitoring and evaluation are essential.
  • While increasing the effectiveness of development activity, SL approaches can also increase costs. These need to be kept in check through mainstreaming SL and by managing information effectively
  • SL principles are more important than the SL framework. When working with partners, it is important to avoid over-emphasising SL and SL vocabulary and to proceed gradually by demonstration
  • Partners in overseas governments are likely to be sectoral ministries. Their ability to embrace the holism of SL may be limited. SL approaches can, nevertheless, encourage a focus on livelihood impacts, not sectoral outputs, and help build cross-sectoral links.
  • Use of SL approaches does not necessarily ensure that sustainability is addressed. Environmental, social, economic and institutional aspects of sustainability all need to be addressed, and negotiated among stakeholders.
  • Some issues – such as power relations – may be under-emphasised by SL approaches. Integrating various perspectives is therefore key. Any organisation adopting SL approaches is bound to face internal challenges. It will be important to review internal institutional procedures to ensure compatibility with SL. Staff will require support to develop new skills and to learn by doing.
  • Use of SL approaches must be underpinned by a commitment to prioritising the needs of the poor, as the concepts are themselves distributionally neutral.


A shorter, related version of this paper is avaialble at