Two thought-provoking pieces on why livelihoods approaches have lost
ground and how they can be re-energised.
1. Practising what we preach?
The failure to apply sustainable livelihoods thinking where it is most
needed - in the North
Participation Power and Social Change
Institute of Development Studies
University of Sussex, Falmer
Brighton BN1 9RE, UK
`Sustainable livelihoods' are two words put together initially without
an explicit meaning. This has the advantage that the phrase can be
appropriated and given meanings by different actors to suit their
conditions and purposes.
A disadvantage, however, has been that meanings or implications which
are complicated, inconvenient or threatening can be ignored. With this
in mind, three aspects stand out for their importance and potential.
The first aspect concerns other qualities of livelihood and wellbeing.
Other adjectives, apart from `sustainable', have been applied to
livelihoods including `secure' and `decent'.
`Secure' is captured by the interpretation of sustainable livelihoods
that pays attention to shocks, stress and resilience. `Decent' implies
social acceptability, self-respect and a livelihood that is not
demeaning and does not involve excessive physical hardship. Beyond
this, there is also the quality of experience and fulfilment gained
from livelihood activities.
The second issue is the concept of `net sustainable livelihoods
effects'. This means a new livelihood, or a greater degree of
sustainability for an existing livelihood, may come at the expense of
others. However, it could also create or enhance other livelihoods and
their sustainability. For policies and programmes to contribute fully
to equity and to achieve international development targets, the
concept of net effects may be vital. It is better to think through,
estimate and include important externalities than to exclude them
because the means to measure them are lacking.
There are international and global dimensions to net livelihoods effects:
-War and civil disturbance are often devastating for livelihoods.
-International trade agreements and freer trade can strengthen and
create livelihoods for poor people but they can also weaken or
-Agricultural subsidies in the North as well as the long-term trends
of declining prices for primary products from the South have negative
effects on a prodigious scale.
-Much of the world economic system is skewed to diminish and destroy
the livelihoods of poor people.
The third issue is the failure to apply sustainable livelihoods
thinking to the North and to those who are rich in the South. This is
disappointing. Sustainable livelihoods was quite readily accepted as a
concept applying to `others' to poor people and to the South. It is
conveniently overlooked that the least environmentally sustainable
livelihoods and lives are `ours': those of the better-off and
relatively richer people.
Environmentally the very concept that works so well for poor people
can be applied to the rich. Some major international advocacy
non-governmental organisations are concerned with aspects of this, but
there are no signs of personal carbon accounting, for instance,
becoming a common practice.
The challenge 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 lifestyles? Are
we willing to make our livelihoods and lives more sustainable in their
effects, both economically through fairer trade relations and
environmentally? What degrees of short-term irresponsibility,
inconsistency and hypocrisy are we prepared to allow ourselves? At
whom do we point the finger?
2. Re-energising livelihoods approaches
New focus, new priorities?
Knowledge Technology and Society, Institute
of Development Studies,
University of Sussex, Falmer
Brighton BN1 9RE, UK
Livelihoods perspectives offer an important lens for looking at
complex rural development questions. So why are they seemingly not as
prominent today compared to a decade ago?
Key issues with which livelihoods approaches have failed to engage
-processes of economic globalisation
-power, politics and links between livelihoods and governance
-long-term environmental change
-long-term shifts in rural economies and wider questions about agrarian change.
These failures mean that the research and policy focus has shifted
away from the contextual, multidisciplinary and crosssectoral insights
of livelihood perspectives, often back, predictably, to macro-economic
analyses. To be responsive to new contexts, livelihoods perspectives
need to include concerns of knowledge, politics, scale and dynamics.
Whose livelihoods count? Who is to say that subsistence farmers,
poachers or sex workers are pursuing inappropriate livelihoods?
Livelihoods analyses offer a way of uncovering complexity and
diversity, but the important question is: what happens next? Which
option is best, and for whom? Attention to the processes through which
livelihoods knowledge is negotiated and used is required. Through
this, opportunities to deliberate on the political choices inherent in
livelihoods analyses can emerge.
Livelihoods analyses of complexity and context must be located in a
relational understanding of power and politics which identifies how
political spaces are opened up and closed down. Such analyses must
examine both structure and agency, and the diverse micro- and
macro-political processes that define opportunities and constraints.
They need to be informed by an explicit theoretical concern with how
class, gender and capitalist relations operate, asking who gains and
loses and why.
As global transformations continue, attention to scale must be central
to the reinvigoration of livelihoods perspectives. The challenge is to
develop livelihoods analyses which examine networks, linkages,
connections, flows and chains across scales, but remain firmly rooted
in place and context. Such analyses must illuminate the social and
political processes of exchange, extraction, exploitation and
empowerment, and so explore the multiple consequences of globalisation
on rural livelihoods.
Another challenge for livelihoods perspectives is the ability to
address longterm change, such as climate change. While the term
`sustainable livelihoods' implies that livelihoods are resilient in
the face of both external shocks and internal stresses, in conditions
of extreme vulnerability, resilience cannot always emerge through
local adaptation. Instead, more dramatic reconfigurations of
livelihoods may have to occur.
Livelihoods perspectives could be significantly enhanced by engagement
with literatures on resilience of socio-ecological systems and on
transitions in socio-technical systems, converging as they do on key
ingredients of sustainable livelihoods, including adaptive capacity,
institutional flexibility and diversity of responses. These are
challenging agendas, both intellectually and practically. For those
convinced that livelihoods perspectives must remain central to
development, this is a wake-up call.
The vibrant and energetic `community of practice' of the late 1990s
has lost focus. There is an urgent need to rethink, re-tool and
re-engage, and to draw from other areas of enquiry and experience. The
themes of knowledge, scale, politics and dynamics offer an exciting
agenda of research and practice to enrich livelihoods perspectives for
rural development into the future.