“A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities  required for a  means of living.A livelihood is sustainable when  it can cope with and  recover from stresses and shocks and maintain  or enhance its capabilities and assets both now and in the future, while not undermining  the natural resource base.’’


The Department for International Development (DFID) is the British government department responsible for promoting development and the reduction of poverty. The government elected in May 1997 increased its commitment to development by strengthening the department and  increasing its  budget.

The policy of the government was set out in the White Paper on  International Development, published in November 1997. The central focus of the policy is a commitment to the internationally agreed target to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty by 2015, together with the associated targets including basic health care provision and universal access to primary education by the same date.

DFID seeks to work in partnership with governments which are committed to the international targets, and also seeks to work with business, civil society and the research community to encourage progress which will help reduce poverty. We also work with multilateral institutions including the World Bank, UN agencies and the European Commission. The bulk of our assistance is concentrated on the poorest countries in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.

We are also contributing to poverty elimination in middle income countries, and helping the transition countries in Central and Eastern Europe to enable the widest number of people to benefit from the process of change.

As well as its Headquarters in London and East Kilbride, DFID has offices in New Delhi, Bangkok, Nairobi, Harare, Pretoria, Dhaka, Suva and  Bridgetown. In other parts of the world, DFID works through staff based in British Embassies and High Commissions.


Sustainable livelihoods: Putting people at the centre of development
The livelihoods approach is a way of thinking about the objectives, scope and priorities for development. A specific livelihoods framework and objectives have been developed to assist with implementation, but the approach goes beyond these. In essence it is a way of putting people at the centre of development, thereby increasing the effectiveness of development assistance.
This set of Guidance Sheets attempts to summarise and share emerging thinking on the sustainable livelihoods approach. It does not offer definitive answers and guidelines. Instead, it is intended to stimulate readers to reflect on the approach and make their own contributions to its further development.  The sustainable livelihoods framework  The framework, which is presented in schematic form below and discussed in detail in Section 2 of the  Guidance Sheets, has been developed to help understand and analyse the livelihoods of the poor. It is  also useful in assessing the effectiveness of existing efforts to reduce poverty. Like all frameworks, it
is a simplification; the full diversity and richness of livelihoods can be understood only by qualitative  and participatory analysis at a local level.

The framework does not attempt to provide an exact representation of reality. It does, however, endeavour  to provide a way of thinking about the livelihoods of poor people that will stimulate debate and  reflection, thereby improving performance in poverty reduction.In its simplest form, the framework  views people as operating in a context of vulnerability. Within this context, they have access to certain  assets or poverty reducing factors. These gain their meaning and value through the prevailing social,  institutional and organisational environment. This environment also influences the livelihood strategies   ways of combining and using assets – that are open to people in pursuit of beneficial livelihood
outcomes that meet their own livelihood objectives.

The Guidance Sheets These Guidance Sheets are intended to be a ‘living’ series. As the sustainable livelihoods approach evolves, so the sheets will be updated. Suggestions for modifications and/or new topics for sheets are

Specifically the sheets aim to:
• show how the livelihoods approach fits in with DFID’s overall aims;
• explain the livelihoods framework (as it is currently understood);
• explain links between this and existing/past approaches and ethodologies;
• lay out suggestions for how the approach can be implemented in practice;
• pinpoint priorities (notable ‘gaps’ in understanding) for future work;
• identify relevant expertise (projects, experience and literature).

The sheets will be made available on the DFID website.
Process: Consultation and collaboration The Guidance Sheets are one product of a lengthy and still ongoing process of consultation about
sustainable livelihoods. The consultation, which commenced in January 1998, has extended to: • DFID personnel (both at headquarters and in regional offices)
• NGO representatives
• representatives of other bilateral and multilateral donors
• researchers
• DFID consultants.

The process of consultation and collaboration has been highly productive. These Guidance Sheets are a genuinely joint product; they try to capture thinking from well beyond DFID itself. However, thus far, DFID’s developing country partners – policy-makers, leaders and clients – have not been adequately involved; their views have been sought only indirectly. These sheets can therefore be thought of as a starting point from which DFID personnel, and others who find the sheets useful, can begin to explore
and develop further the new ideas with partner organisations.

Outputs and resources

Other outputs of the consultation process include:
• A book of edited papers presented at the 1998 DFID Natural Resources Advisers’ Conference: Sustainable rural livelihoods: What contribution can we make? Available from Marnie Durnford

• The Sustainable Livelihoods ‘Virtual Resource Centre’ formed to provided support to DFID’s learning about and implementation of the sustainable livelihoods approach. This resource centre brings  together a wide range of external expertise in support of DFID.

• The Sustainable Livelihoods Theme Group, an internal DFID grouping charged with enhancing  DFID’s effectiveness in promoting sustainable livelihoods. The Virtual Resource Centre will report through the DFID management point to the Theme Group.
• The establishment of productive working relations with a number of other development partners  (including various NGOs, the UNDP, the World Bank).

Livelihoods thinking dates back to the work of Robert Chambers in the mid-1980s (further developed by Chambers, Conway and others in the early 1990s). Since that time a number of development agencies have adopted livelihoods concepts and made efforts to begin implementation. However, for DFID, the sustainable livelihoods approach represents a new departure in policy and practice. Origins: The White Paper This series of Guidance Sheets comes out of an ongoing process of dialogue about how to achieve the goals and policy directions laid down in the UK Government’s 1997 White Paper on International Development. The White Paper commits DFID to supporting:
(i) policies and actions which promote sustainable livelihoods;
(ii) better education, health and opportunities for poor people;
(iii) protection and better management of the natural and physical environment; thereby helping to create a supportive social, physical and institutional environment for poverty elimination.
Although the sustainable livelihoods approach appears to focus on objective (i), in its interpretation it subsumes the other objectives. It explicitly recognises the importance of physical well-being, education
and the state of the natural environment (amongst other factors) to poor people and to the achievement of sustainable livelihoods.

Sustainable livelihoods objectives
The sustainable livelihoods approach is broad and encompassing. It can, however, be distilled to six core objectives. DFID aims to increase the sustainability of poor people’s livelihoods through promoting:
• improved access to high-quality education, information, technologies and training and better  nutrition and health;
• a more supportive and cohesive social environment;
• more secure access to, and better management of, natural resources;
• better access to basic and facilitating infrastructure;
• more secure access to financial resources; and
• a policy and institutional environment that supports multiple livelihood strategies and promotes equitable access to competitive markets for all.
These objectives relate directly to the livelihoods framework; they will be explored in greater detail in Section 2 of the Guidance Sheets. Together they define the scope of DFID’s livelihood-promoting activities (though not all objectives will be pursued in any given situation).

What are we trying to achieve?
DFID’s aim is the elimination of poverty in poorer countries. Specifically, DFID has signed up to the  International Development Target of reducing by one-half the proportion of people living in extreme  poverty by 2015. Adopting the livelihoods approach to understanding poverty, and pursuing the  livelihoods objectives above, is expected to make a direct contribution to achieving this aim. It will  provide structure to debate and discourse and help DFID and its partners respond to poor people’s views  and their own understanding of poverty – both its income and non-income dimensions. Most important, it will facilitate the identification of practical priorities for action that are based on the views and interests of those concerned.
The approach recognises the multiple dimensions of poverty identified in participatory poverty  assessments (see 1.5). Its goal is to help poor people to achieve lasting improvements against the  indicators of poverty that they themselves identify, and from a baseline they define. Through taking a
wider and better informed view of the opportunities, constraints, objectives and interactions that characterise people’s lives, it extends the ‘menu’ for DFID support to livelihood development.

The  analysis that the approach entails helps improve the targeting of that support and makes explicit the  connections between different activities undertaken by DFID and its partners. The result is a more  effective contribution to poverty elimination. Sustainable livelihoods and poverty elimination  DFID’s Theme Group on the Reduction of Poverty and Social Exclusion provides the overarching focus  point for DFID’s poverty reducing activities. The Theme Group’s aim is to enhance DFID’s potential for
fostering pro-poor growth, undertaking poverty analyses and designing, implementing and assessing  the impact of poverty reducing interventions. It works at both a conceptual level – developing background
papers and guidance material – and providing operational support to country programmes. It also plays  a role in the dissemination of publicity material on DFID’s approach to poverty reduction and it liaises
with external networks such as the DAC Informal Poverty Reduction Network.
The Sustainable Livelihoods Theme Group and the Theme Group on the Reduction and Poverty and  Social Exclusion share a commitment to develop close links, facilitated in the first instance through
overlapping membership. The Sustainable Livelihoods Theme Group looks to the Poverty Theme Group  for advice on general approaches to poverty reduction and specific methodologies for understanding
poverty (e.g. participatory poverty assessments). At the same time it is hoped that the Poverty Theme  Group can gain from the perspectives and approaches to implementation promoted by the Sustainable
Livelihoods Theme Group.
Sustainable livelihoods and rights-based approaches The 1997 White Paper commits DFID to promoting human rights through policy and practice.
Rights-based approaches to development take as their foundation the need to promote and protect human rights (those rights that have been recognised by the global community and are protected by
international legal instruments). These include economic, social and cultural as well as civil and political rights, all of which are interdependent. Running through the rights-based approach are  concerns with empowerment and participation, and with the elimination of discrimination on any grounds (race, language, gender, religion, etc.).
Rights-based and sustainable livelihoods approaches are complementary perspectives that seek to  achieve many of the same goals (for example, empowerment of the most vulnerable and a strengthened capacity of the poor to achieve secure livelihoods).

The primary focus of the rights perspective is on  linkages between public institutions and civil society and, particularly, on how to increase the  accountability of public institutions to all citizens. The livelihoods approach recognises the importance  of these links and of enhancing accountability, though it takes as its starting point a need to understand
the livelihoods of poor people in context. From this starting point it then tries to identify the specific  constraints which prevent the realisation of people’s rights and consequently the improvement of  their livelihoods on a sustainable basis.


The White Paper stresses the importance of partnerships at all levels. The debate about what this  means in practice is still ongoing. It is hoped that the dialogue around the development and  implementation of the sustainable livelihoods approach will eventually provide the basis for deeper and more meaningful development partnerships. Indeed this is already proving to be the case for DFID’s  relations with other donors. The debate has not yet extended adequately to partner organisations in
developing countries. This is now a priority: DFID can only work effectively with partners with which it  shares common objectives and approaches to development.

The livelihoods approach is necessarily flexible in application, but this does not mean that its core  principles should be compromised. This sheet outlines these principles and explains why they make  such an important contribution to the overall value of the approach.
The livelihoods approach puts people at the centre of development. This focus on people is equally important at higher levels (when thinking about the achievement of objectives such as poverty  reduction, economic reform or sustainable development) as it is at the micro or community level
(where in many cases it is already well entrenched).
At a practical level, this means that the approach:
• starts with an analysis of people’s livelihoods and how these have been changing over time;
• fully involves people and respects their views;
• focuses on the impact of different policy and institutional arrangements upon people/households and upon the dimensions of poverty they define (rather than on resources or overall output per se);
• stresses the importance of influencing these policies and institutional arrangements so they  promote the agenda of the poor (a key step is political participation by poor people themselves);
• works to support people to achieve their own livelihood goals (though taking into account considerations regarding sustainability, see 1.4).
Sustainable poverty reduction will be achieved only if external support (i.e. support from outside the household) works with people in a way that is congruent with their current livelihood strategies, social environments and ability to adapt.
People – rather than the resources they use or the governments that serve them – are the priority concern. Adhering to this principle may well translate into providing support to resource management or good governance (for example). But it is the underlying motivation of supporting people’s livelihoods that should determine the shape of the support and provide the basis for evaluating its success.

The livelihoods approach attempts to identify the most pressing constraints faced by, and promising opportunities open to, people regardless of where (i.e. in which sector, geographical space or level, from the local through to the international) these occur. It builds upon people’s own definitions of
these constraints and opportunities and, where feasible, it then supports people to address/realise them. The livelihoods framework helps to ‘organise’ the various factors which constrain or provide opportunities and to show how these relate to each other. It is not intended to be an exact model of the way the world is, nor does it mean to suggest that stakeholders themselves necessarily adopt a systemic approach to problem solving.

Rather, it aspires to provide a way of thinking about livelihoods
that is manageable and that helps improve development effectiveness.
• It is non-sectoral and applicable across geographical areas and social groups.
• It recognises multiple influences on people, and seeks to understand the relationships between
these influences and their joint impact upon livelihoods.
• It recognises multiple actors (from the private sector to national level ministries, from communitybased
organisations to newly emerging decentralised government bodies).
• It acknowledges the multiple livelihood strategies that people adopt to secure their livelihoods.
• It seeks to achieve multiple livelihood outcomes, to be determined and negotiated by people themselves.
In this way it attempts to gain a realistic understanding of what shapes people’s livelihoods and how the various influencing factors can be adjusted so that, taken together, they produce more beneficial  livelihood outcomes.

Just as people’s livelihoods and the institutions that shape them are highly dynamic, so is this approach. It seeks to understand and learn from change so that it can support positive patterns of change and help mitigate negative patterns. It explicitly recognises the effects on livelihoods of external shocks and more predictable, but not necessarily less damaging, trends. Attempting to capture and build upon such livelihood dynamism significantly increases the scope of livelihood analysis. It calls for ongoing
investigation and an effort to uncover the nature of complex, two-way cause and effect relationships and iterative chains of events.

The true dynamism of livelihoods cannot be adequately presented in a two dimensional framework, but it can be reflected in process and modes of analysis. This is an important area for monitoring and learning as we move forward. Building on strengths  An important principle of this approach is that it starts with an analysis of strengths, rather than needs. This does not mean that it places undue focus on the better endowed members of the community. Rather, it implies a recognition of everyone’s inherent potential, whether this derives from their strong social networks, their access to physical resources and infrastructure, their ability to influence core  institutions or any other factor that has poverty-reducing potential. In ‘livelihoods focused’ development  efforts, a key objective will be to remove the constraints to the realisation of potential. Thus people will be assisted to become more robust, stronger and better able to achieve their own objectives.

Macro-micro links
Development activity tends to focus at either the macro or the micro level. The livelihoods approach  attempts to bridge this gap, emphasising the importance of macro level policy and institutions to the livelihood options of communities and individuals. It also stresses the need for higher level policy  development and planning to be informed by lessons learnt and insights gained at the local level. This  will simultaneously give local people a stake in policy and increase overall effectiveness. It is, though, a difficult task to achieve. Much macro policy is developed in isolation from the people it affects. Indeed, understanding of the effects of policies on people (what actually happens as opposed to what is assumed will happen) and people on policies (the policy making process itself) is remarkably limited.
Both these areas will need to be better understood if the full value of the livelihoods approach is to be realised. Sustainability
While it is common to hear and use the short-hand ‘livelihoods approach’ (i.e. omitting ‘sustainable’), the notion of sustainability is key to this approach. It should not be ignored or marginalised. Its different
aspects are discussed in detail in the following sheet


What is sustainability?
Sustainability has many dimensions, all of which are important to the sustainable livelihoods approach.

Livelihoods are sustainable when they:
• are resilient in the face of external shocks and stresses;
• are not dependent upon external support (or if they are, this support itself should be economically
and institutionally sustainable);
• maintain the long-term productivity of natural resources; and
• do not undermine the livelihoods of, or compromise the livelihood options open to, others.
Another way of conceptualising the many dimensions of sustainability is to distinguish between environmental, economic, social and institutional aspects of sustainable systems.
• Environmental sustainability is achieved when the productivity of life-supporting natural resources is conserved or enhanced for use by future generations.
• Economic sustainability is achieved when a given level of expenditure can be maintained over time. In the context of the livelihoods of the poor, economic sustainability is achieved if a baseline level of economic welfare can be achieved and sustained. (The economic baseline is likely to be
situation-specific, though it can be thought of in terms of the `dollar-a-day’ of the International Development Targets.)
• Social sustainability is achieved when social exclusion is minimised and social equity maximised.
• Institutional sustainability is achieved when prevailing structures and processes have the capacity  to continue to perform their functions over the long term.

Very few livelihoods qualify as sustainable across all these dimensions. Nevertheless sustainability is a key goal and its pursuit should influence all DFID’s support activities. Progress towards sustainability can then be assessed, even if ‘full’ sustainability is never achieved.

Why is sustainability important?
Sustainability is an important qualifier to DFID’s view of livelihoods because it implies that progress in poverty reduction is lasting, rather than fleeting. This does not mean that any given resource or institution must survive in exactly the same form. Rather it implies accumulation in the broad capital base that provides the basis for improved livelihoods, especially for poor people.
Trade-offs and choices
Recognising the multiple dimensions of sustainability and people’s  multiple livelihood objectives is  key to the sustainable livelihoods approach. However with diversity come trade-offs; trade-offs within
livelihood outcomes (see 2.6) and between dimensions of sustainability and livelihood outcomes are inevitable.

The following are just some of the different types of tension that may arise:
• tension between locally identified needs for greater livelihood security and wider concerns about environmental sustainability;
• tension between maximising production/income in the short term and guarding against vulnerability to external shocks in the longer term; and
• tension between achievement of individual, household or community livelihood objectives and the requirement not to compromise the livelihood opportunities open to others. The sustainable livelihoods approach can offer no simple ‘solutions’ to these challenges. What it does do is to provide an approach to thinking through the conflict, including providing a framework that facilitates coherent and structured discussion of differing perspectives. By encouraging local people to think about a broad range of livelihood outcomes, potential conflicts can be explicitly discussed.

Through coupling livelihoods analysis with a broader process of social assessment, equity and ‘externality’ issues can be brought to the fore. This is, however, an area in which further work is required.

The asset pentagon that lies at the heart of livelihoods analysis (see 2.3) encourages users to think  about substitutability between different types of capital. This is particularly useful when considering  whether a decline in the quality or availability of natural capital can be compensated for by an increase in other types of capital (for example social or financial capital).
• Some argue that sustainability is achieved when overall stocks of capital (in whatever combination) are maintained and accumulated. This metaphor presents problems in practical application (e.g. certain types of capital cannot be readily measured). At the same time it seems to reflect well the
way in which we think about our environment and the way technology can be manipulated to  compensate for losses in non-renewable natural resources.
• Others argue that different types of capital cannot readily substitute for each other. This type of  ‘strong sustainability’ thinking is reflected in the International Development Target on environmental sustainability. This takes the view that natural resources are sufficiently important to such a wide range of livelihoods, that absolute preservation – even replenishment, given the extent to which  they have already been degraded – should be the aim.  In all cases, the feasibility/acceptability of interchanging types of capital will depend on the type of  environment in which people live (e.g. the types of shocks and trends that they are likely to face, the reliability of markets and institutions, etc.).

National Strategies for Sustainable Development
The 1997 White Paper commits the UK Government to work at both an international level and with partner countries to help develop and implement National Strategies for Sustainable Development
(NSSDs). The international agreement that these NSSDs should be under implementation by 2005 makes this an immediate priority for DFID.

Essential elements of DFID’s current thinking on NSSD implementation are that:
• NSSDs should build on existing work rather being new, stand-alone documents;
• environmental sustainability (and poverty reduction) objectives should be integrated into
mainstream development policy, rather than being ‘add-ons’;
• implementation should be considered not only at the national level but also at sub-national,
district, local levels, etc.;
• consultation and participation should be balanced with sound analysis;
• while donors can help co-ordinate, domestic governments – and other domestic stakeholders –
must own NSSD processes;
• it is vitally important to build local capacity for design and implementation of NSSDs; and
• environmental costs should be internalised through the development of appropriate policies and incentive structures.
There is clearly much congruence between the sustainability concerns of the livelihoods approach and NSSDs. In addition, to be effective NSSDs must build upon extensive stakeholder participation, coupled with a strategic and long-term approach to development. Both these features are also key to the
success of the livelihoods approach.
Maximising the positive (as opposed to minimising the negative)
Both NSSDs and the livelihoods approach go well beyond traditional notions of ‘the greening of aid’. These tend to focus upon minimising the negative impacts of development interventions through the use of environmental impact assessment and checklists. These methodologies are important but
limited; they are often costly, seldom participatory and have a tendency to emphasise the state of resources themselves, rather than people and their livelihoods. By contrast, the livelihoods approach views the sustainability of resources as an integral component of the sustainability of livelihoods
(which has many dimensions). Rather than seeking to minimise the negative, it seeks to maximise the positive contribution made by the natural environment to people’s livelihood outcomes.