Livelihood Essay

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Since the early 1990s the notion of a “sustainable livelihood” has come to prominence as a way to analyze poverty and natural resource use in international development circles. The sustainable livelihoods approach has been particularly influential in the study of community-based natural resource management, but it originates in studies of the relations between development, poverty, and food security. In its simplest sense, a livelihood is a means of gaining a living, but the concept has broadened with the recognition of the full range of diverse activities and resources that make up a person’s or household’s ability to survive over time. Rather than conceive of people as “peasants,” “farmers,” “laborers,” or some other fixed category, the sustainable livelihoods approach recognizes that households may employ multiple economic strategies simultaneously, sometimes in different locales.

Definitions and an Example

In an important article, Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway defined a livelihood as comprising the full range of “capabilities, assets…and activities required for making a living.” Later authors refined the concept of assets, identifying five key forms of “capital”: human capital, natural capital, financial capital, physical capital, and social capital. The sustainable livelihoods approach also draws attention to the context of vulnerability in which livelihoods exist, typically conceived in terms of stresses and shocks. The former term refers to long-term, predictable processes like population growth, seasonal variation, or declining availability of resources, while the latter refers to sudden and unpredictable events like drought, flood, death or illness of a family member, loss of a job, and so on. A livelihood may be considered sustainable when it can avoid, resist, and/or bounce back from such stresses and shocks, while maintaining its capabilities and assets, and without undermining its natural resource base.

An extended example can illustrate both the kind of complex livelihoods that the concept was designed to understand and the advantages of the livelihoods approach. Consider the household of Sipho Mazibuko (a pseudonym). Sipho is a retired labor migrant living in rural South Africa and drawing a state old-age pension. His eldest son, Jongisizwe, works on a mine outside Johannesburg where members of his community have worked for generations and sends money home to his family. Sipho and his wife, Nokhaya, have a large garden adjoining their household, and a field a few miles away. They plow their land by combining their oxen with those of Sipho’s extended family. Sipho’s younger son, Patrick, is responsible for herding their cattle, sheep, and goats. Jongisizwe’s wife, Vuyo, also lives with the family, caring for her two young children. While Sipho and Patrick are responsible for plowing, Nokhaya and Vuyo do most of the everyday work in the garden. At certain times in the agricultural cycle, when extra labor is needed for harvesting or weeding, Nokhaya brews beer and invites people from the neighborhood for a work party. Occasionally she brews beer for sale locally. Vuyo and Nokhaya are responsible for fetching water and for cutting thatching grass to repair the roof of the family’s houses. Sipho and Patrick cut wood from nearby forests for building and maintaining the family’s houses and the fences of their garden and livestock enclosures. Patrick also fishes in a nearby river, and sometimes sells fish to white tourists who stay at a hotel in a nearby nature reserve. At certain times of year, Nokhaya also gathers wild fruit from the forests for domestic consumption.

To return to the definition of a livelihood, the different members of the household have capabilities: the knowledge and ability to farm, to care for livestock, to find a job in an urban area, to negotiate government bureaucracy and secure an old-age pension, to brew beer, to locate wild foods, and so on. Together, this diverse package of capabilities gives the household the ability to respond to changing economic and ecological conditions and to manage stresses and shocks. In doing so, they draw on different forms of capital: human capital (the labor of the different household members), natural capital (land, water, livestock, forests, fish, and more), financial capital (wages, pension payments, and the proceeds of selling beer and fish), physical capital (their houses and domestic structures and the infrastructure that enables travel to and from the workplace), and social capital (extended family and neighbors). As is evident, the household draws on a wide range of activities. The household’s diversification gives it the ability to manage stresses: for example, it has a way to recruit labor during seasons of scarcity; it also has some insurance mechanisms in the event of shocks: for example, it could sell livestock to cover hospital bills in an illness.

Contrast with Other Approaches

The livelihoods approach can be contrasted to older, sector-specific conceptions of poverty and its alleviation. A production-focused approach might conceive of Sipho as a “farmer,” and propose measures to improve the agricultural output of gardens and fields, but this would ignore the contribution of wages and pensions to the household. An employment-focused approach might focus on the fact that several household members of employable age are not working, but this risks ignoring the contribution of their labor to agriculture. In contrast, notes Colin Murray, a livelihoods approach “acknowledges the need to transcend discrete sectors-urban and rural, industrial and agricultural, formal and informal, etc.” Moreover, rather than focus on what households lack, the approach focuses on identifying their existing strengths and their potential.

The approach is particularly useful for facilitating community-based natural resource management because it calls attention to the contribution of the local environment to livelihoods. In the example above, note that neither a focus on production nor on employment would take into account the household’s reliance on natural resources like thatching grass, building wood, fish, and wild fruit. Conventional socioeconomic surveys often tend to omit the value of natural resources. In contrast, the sustainable livelihoods approach draws attention to the role of the environment in the household economy, illustrating how the sustainability of a livelihood may be connected to the sustainable use of natural resources.

The example above came from South Africa, but the analysis of sustainable livelihoods has been applied throughout the world, to topics as diverse as understanding the impact of irrigation on fisheries in Sri Lanka, involving the poor in urban services development in Ethiopia, and analyzing the relation of climate variability and household welfare in the Andes. The approach has been used both to formulate new development interventions and to analyze and refine existing programs.

Influence and Shortcomings

The approach has spread widely in international development and conservation circles. The 1987 Report of the United Nations Commission on Environment and Development (also known as the Brundtland Report), the 1987 Greening of Aid Conference at the International Institute for Environment and Development, and the 1992 United Nations Conference on Environment and Development in Rio de Janeiro (the Earth Summit) set the stage for Chambers and Conway’s influential paper by linking conservation to poverty alleviation. In the 1990s, the United Nations Development Programme, Oxfam, CARE, and the British Department for International Development (DFID) have all developed programs aimed at promoting sustainable livelihoods. Drawing on the experiences of these organizations and others, the UK-based Institute of Development Studies has developed an important Web site ( documenting the approach, providing “guidance sheets” on research methods and planning techniques to operationalize it, and offering dozens of examples of its application in development and conservation programming.

Despite its influence and widespread use, several significant critiques have been made of the approach. First, while access to different forms of capital depends on political processes, the livelihoods approach may lead to a focus on individuals and households, rather than changing the political and economic macro-environments that create “vulnerability contexts.” Second, the focus on the household may lead to potentially false assumptions that households act in a unified manner toward common goals and may ignore inequalities of gender and age within households. Third, as Murray points out, the notion of “sustainability” is also seen to beg important questions: “”Sustainable’ for whom? By what criteria? In the short term or the long term?” Finally, the holism of the approach may make it effective as a tool for describing existing diverse livelihoods but may lead to undue complexity when it is used as a basis for defining policy priorities and formulating interventions.


  1. Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway, “Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Practical Concepts for the 21st Century,” Institute of Development Studies Discussion Paper 296 (1991).
  2. Leon de Haan and Annelies Zoomers, “Exploring the Frontier of Livelihoods Research,” Development and Change (v.36/1, 2005);
  3. Frank Ellis, Rural Livelihoods and Diversity in Developing Countries (Oxford University Press, 2000);
  4. Colin Murray, “Changing Livelihoods: The Free State, 1990s,” African Studies (v.59/1, 2000).

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