Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

The sustainable livelihoods framework seeks to take a more comprehensive and integrated approach to poverty than traditional interpretations, which largely considered poverty in relation to a narrow set of indicators (such as income and productivity). Building upon prior work by organizations such as the Institute for Development Studies at the University of Sussex1 and Oxfam,2 The British Department for International Development (DFID) Sustainable Livelihoods Framework was developed in order to organize and improve organizations’ efforts to eliminate poverty. The framework aims to present these primary factors, their significance, and the nature of their interactions.3 It consists of five major components that are related through sequential relationships and feedback. These include:

1. Vulnerability context

  • Overview: The vulnerability context describes the external uncontrollable factors that influence people’s assets and livelihood opportunities. Broadly, these factors are classified as:
    • Shocks (e.g. environmental, conflict-related);
    • Trends (e.g. resources, technology);
    • Seasonality (e.g. price fluctuations, employment opportunities)
  • How to influence: In the short- to medium-term, there is little that people can do to affect the vulnerability context itself. However, humanitarian and development agencies can play a critical role in promoting resilience to these factors by increasing access to insurance, improving institutional response capacity, and implementing other resiliency-promotion programs.4

2. Livelihood assets

  • Overview: The DFID framework outlines assets in terms of five categories necessary for the pursuit of positive livelihood outcomes:
  1. Human capital (i.e. the amount and quality of knowledge and labor available in a household)
  2. Natural capital (i.e. the quality and quantity of natural resources, ranging from fisheries to air quality)
  3. Financial capital (i.e. savings and regular inflows of money)
  4. Physical capital (i.e. the infrastructure, tools, and equipment used for increasing productivity)
  5. Social capital (i.e. social resources, including networks for cooperation, mutual trust, and support)
  • How to influence: This element of the framework utilizes a pentagon to describe livelihood assets, with each point assigned to a particular type of asset so that the shape of the pentagon changes as stores of certain types increase. When addressing this component of the framework, humanitarian and development agencies should pay attention to two considerations in particular: the sequence in which certain assets contribute most effectively to the attainment of others, and instances when certain types of assets can be substituted for other types (e.g. human capital for financial). As people acquire more assets, they will become more empowered to influence the next component of the framework, the structures and processes that affect them.
  • 3. Transforming structures and processes

    • Overview: Here, “structures” refer to the organizations that create and enforce legislation, provide the necessary requirements for acquiring and capitalizing upon assets (e.g. private suppliers of materials for building shelters), manage natural resources, and provide other services crucial for gaining access to assets, exchanging them, and benefiting from their use. Meanwhile, “processes” determine the interactions between the structures and individuals. Examples of processes include policies, legislation, power relations, norms, market stability, and general rule of law.5
    • How to influence: Structures must be accompanied by appropriate policies if they are to have any impact on the poor, while policies must be implemented by competent structures if they are to be carried out in the intended manner. Still, humanitarian and development organizations can take steps to improve structures and processes individually. Organizations should focus on building institutions’ capacity to represent interests of the poor, provide training so as to reduce the market gap in goods and services, and bring together different organizations and interests through joint forums. Likewise, they should support participatory models of policy formulation, increase the accountability and transparency of institutions, support the expansion of social safety net policies, and direct other efforts toward elevating the voice of the poor in policies, legislation, and institutions. 6

    4. Livelihood strategies

    • Overview: Livelihood strategies concern the individual’s available and implemented options for pursuing livelihood goals. The greater the diversity of livelihood strategies, the higher the household’s resilience to the shocks, trends, and seasonality conditions within the vulnerability context.
    • How to influence: In accordance with a sustainable livelihoods approach, humanitarian and development agencies should look to promote those underlying conditions that provide the greatest diversity of choice and flexibility in the pursuit of maintaining a livelihood. In doing so, agencies should focus on expanding access to a variety of capital assets and supporting the improvement of the structures and processes that shape livelihoods. These efforts should be complemented by attention to the social safety nets provided to those who are unable to achieve livelihood objectives through the market system.7

    5. Livelihood outcomes

    • Overview: Livelihood outcomes refer to the outputs of livelihood strategies. Achievements may include higher income, greater well-being (e.g. self-esteem, physical security, political empowerment), reduced vulnerability, greater food security, and/or improved environmental sustainability.
    • How to influence: The balance of livelihood goals indicates motivations for behavior, livelihood priorities, and, in turn, the types of activities that humanitarian and development agencies should implement. Of course, livelihood outcomes are not always coherent; they oftentimes conflict, as when the pursuit for income comes at the expense of environmental sustainability. Thus, while the primary goal of agencies is to support the achievement of positive livelihood outputs, conflicting outcomes, the difficulty of translating outputs into indicators of success, and lack of objectivity in the monitoring process make an output-based set of indicators complicated.8

    Comparing the DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Framework to Others

    The DFID framework is but one proposed mode. CARE, Oxfam, and UNDP and others have also used sustainable livelihoods models in their programming. While similar in many ways, all models differ slightly in the components of the framework, their emphasis on each part, and the extent to which they implement the framework into their development programs.

    CARE, for instance, puts less emphasis on the structures and processes since its programs are largely focused on delivering assistance at the local level.9 Because of the decentralized nature of Oxfam’s structure, their framework is used to varying degrees in their programs across the world. UNDP, meanwhile, differs from DFID in that it promotes adaptive strategies rather than transforming structures and processes. Conceptions of sustainability, too, differ across organizations: for example, interpretations focused on household livelihood security (such as CARE’s) can come to conflict with ones that involve broader environmental protection.

    Here we devote the greatest attention to the DFID model because it was developed most recently (and therefore incorporates many elements from the others) and because it is one of the most prominent frameworks among the others

    Benefits and Criticisms of the DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

    A sustainable livelihoods approach empowers the poor by seeing them not as victims, but as decision-makers with their own sets of priorities. Its transcendence of a sector-by-sector view of development accommodates the variety of economic activities an individual may rely on in order to subsist. To this end, the livelihoods approach takes a more holistic view of poverty, considering multiple resources beyond income levels and productivity; the DFID approach is especially unique in its inclusion of environmental sustainability as a consideration of relevance to poverty.

    That said, the approach is not without criticism. Critical points include:

    • Lack of guidelines on classifying individuals as “poor”.
    • Not enough emphasis is given to the informal structures and processes that affect access within the community.
    • While the frameworks make note of gender considerations, attempts to increase the voice of women are difficult to achieve successfully in practice.. 10
    • The livelihoods framework is incongruent with the conditions of the existent context: government ministries are grouped by sector, as are most standing development projects. It is impractical to employ a framework that does not take into account the nature of these structures.
    • Local organizations may not have the capacity to carry out the type of analytical research integral to the sustainable livelihoods approach to development.11

    Though the sustainable livelihoods approach has a number of weaknesses to be remedied, the approach marks a positive change from the previous approach to poverty alleviation. Its holistic view of individuals’ sources of income and critical resources for households departs from the traditional income-centric view of livelihood promotion. Likewise, its approach to development gives due attention to the ways in which people may rely upon multiple income generating sectors at once. These noteworthy distinctions from conventional development models explain why the sustainable livelihoods approach is garnering such widespread consideration in recent years.


    1 Ian Scoones, “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: A Framework for Analysis.” IDS Working Paper 72, Institute of Development Studies, 1998.
    2 Diana Carney et al., “Livelihoods Approaches Compared.” DFID, 1999.
    3“Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets: Framework, Section 2.” DFID, 1999. subsection 2.1
    4 Ibid. subsection 2.2
    5 M. Kollmair and St. Gamper, “The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach.” Development Study Group, University of Zurich, 2002
    6“Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets: Framework, Section 2," subsection 2.4.
    7“Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets: Framework, Section 2,” subsection 2.5.
    8“Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets: Framework, Section 2,” subsection 2.6.
    9 Diana Carney et al., "Livelihoods Approaches Compared," DFID, UNDP
    10 Lasse Krantz, "The Sustainable Livelihood Approach to Poverty Reduction.” Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), 2001. p.25
    11 Ibid

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