Skip to main content

3.1 The sustainable livelihoods framework

The sustainable livelihoods framework in 3.1.1 is an effort to conceptualise livelihoods in a holistic way, capturing the many complexities of livelihoods, and the constraints and opportunities that they are subjected to. These constraints and opportunities are shaped by numerous factors, ranging from global or national level trends and structures over which individuals have no control, and may not even be aware of, to more local norms and institutions and, finally, the assets to which the households or individual has direct access. For now, we will use the household as a unit of analysis, but as we will discuss in later units, it is important to recognise that not all individuals within a household have equal decision-making power, or benefit equally from household assets or income.

3.1.1 Sustainable livelihoods framework

Diagram revisions for 3735.gif

Source: DFID (1999) p. 1.

The vulnerability context in 3.1.1 refers to the external environment in which people live. This includes trends (such as national or international economic trends, changes in available technology, political systems), shocks (such as illness or death, conflict, weather), and seasonality (of prices, production cycles and so on). The vulnerability context is important because the three factors have a direct impact on the possibilities that poor people have to earn a living now and in the future. Wider economic conditions can create more or fewer opportunities; an illness in the family can deprive a family of an important source of income and can force them to sell important assets that they have built up. Seasonal shifts in prices, production and employment opportunities are one of the most enduring sources of hardship for poor people all over the world.

The 'transforming structures and processes' box refers to the institutions and policies that affect poor peoples' lives, from public and private entities to national policies and local culture. All of these can change both the vulnerability context and the assets to which poor people have access.

The idea of assets is central to the sustainable livelihoods approach. Rather than understanding poverty as simply a lack of income, the sustainable livelihoods approach considers the assets that poor people need in order to sustain an adequate income to live.

Based on those assets, and shaped by the vulnerability context and the transforming structures and processes, poor people are able to undertake a range of livelihood strategies - activities and choices - that ultimately determine their livelihood outcomes. As we discussed earlier, poor people are usually obliged to combine a range of strategies in order simply to survive; individuals may engage in multiple activities, and the different members of a household may live and work in different places. The outcomes that they may achieve, all being well, could include more income, increased well-being, reduced vulnerability and greater food security. Sometimes one outcome can negatively affect another; for example, when poor people engage in less risky, and hence lower income activities, in order to be less vulnerable to shocks.

Five types of assets, or capital as they are described in the literature, have been identified that we all, not just poor people, need in order to make a living. These are the following:

The more assets any household has access to, the less vulnerable they will be to negative effects of the trends and shocks as described above, or to seasonality, and the more secure their livelihood will be. Often increasing one type of capital will lead to an increase in other amounts of capital, for example, as people become educated (increase in human capital) they may get a better job which earns more money (increase in financial capital) which in turn means that they are able to upgrade their home and facilities (increase in physical capital). Sometimes, however, one form of capital decreases as another increases. This could be true, for example, where a person or household sells their land to migrate to a city.

The sustainable livelihoods approach is no more than an attempt to provide a tool which is ‘useful to think with’. You might, therefore, find it helpful to ‘test’ the livelihoods framework by trying to assess your own personal situation. The very fact that you are studying this programme suggests that you are more fortunate than most people in your country, or in the world as a whole, or at least that you are not poor. What do you ‘have’, that has enabled you to get to your present status, and that will most likely enable you to progress further, by whatever measures you assess progress?

What shocks have you suffered along the way? Are there trends that you have benefited from? Are there structures and processes that have helped or hindered your progress so far?

Critiques of the sustainable livelihoods framework

In recent years the prominence of the five capitals has been criticised by development practitioners for focusing too much on the micro-level and neglecting the 'higher' levels of governance, the policy environment, national and global economic growth and so on. This has led, for example, to a limited understanding of how markets work; how processes far from the lives of poor people nonetheless have an enormous impact on the possibilities that exist for them to earn a secure income. These issues are of course captured in the wider sustainable livelihoods framework, within the transforming structures and processes and the 'vulnerability context' but, in practice, many people have used the idea of the five capitals more than they have the linkages between those and the wider environment in which people live. It is very important to keep in mind that the wider environment affects not only the assets to which people have access, but also what can be achieved with those assets.

The sustainable livelihoods framework has also been criticised for failing to take power dynamics into consideration, as it relates to gender, for example. Again, while such dynamics are included in the framework, in practice, they have been neglected. In particular, social capital has often been seen as simply 'a good thing' whereas, in reality, social networks can be both inclusive and exclusive, with often the weakest and most vulnerable excluded. They also often involve hierarchical and coercive relationships that limit options for those at the lower levels, and even when relationships are more horizontal than vertical, the obligations that reciprocal relationships involve can be onerous.

All of the criticisms and limitations of the sustainable livelihoods approach outlined above are certainly valid. The approach attempts to summarise in a single set of diagrams and connected terms the extremely complex and diverse reasons for poverty and the possibilities for addressing it. Inevitably, when used in practice it is unwieldy and certain elements will be highlighted more than others depending on the interests of the users. Nonetheless, it remains very useful for our purposes in this module, both for considering the very micro-level details of poor people's livelihoods and for considering the wider context in which those livelihoods operate.