What are sustainable livelihoods and how do they reduce poverty?

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What are sustainable livelihoods and how do they reduce poverty?

Despite education, democracy, and advances in technology, poor communities around the world continue to experience significant challenges, especially in less-developed rural communities.

After decades of intervention by governments, NGOs and academic research projects, the successes and failures of rural development have resulted in a holistic system that aims to empower poor communities – the sustainable livelihoods approach.

What are sustainable livelihoods?

Poor rural communities are as diverse as their countries and cultures of origin, but they share a few common skills, goals and challenges.

With a focus on agriculture and crafts-based manufacturing, these communities have skills that were developed over centuries or longer – they simply need to be optimised for our modern society and economy.

The sustainable livelihoods approach, which consists of a framework for understanding the structure and challenges of poor communities and a set of principles for assisting them, is a powerful conceptual tool that can be applied to rural development projects.

Recognising survival assets and vulnerabilities

Poor communities have often been stereotyped as helpless or desperately poor and in need of rescuing – but the reality of their daily lives is far more complex.

Communities tend to have various survival assets at their disposal. These include the following:

  • Physical labour
  • Skills, knowledge and capacity
  • The health and co-operation of community members
  • Access to banking and credit facilities

While communities strive to survive using these assets, there are several threats that have a particularly negative effect on poorer people. These include natural disasters, seasonality of rainfall or unexpected weather, civil strife, and changes in the economy.

A holistic approach that focuses on the power of people

By acknowledging the assets that poor communities possess, and understanding the vulnerability contexts in which they are forced to exist, the Sustainable Livelihoods approach emphasises human development as the key to sustainable communities.

In order to support communities on their journey to sustainable living, several principles are applied. They include:

  • A holistic approach – communities exist within several contexts that need to be recognised in order to support their efforts
  • People-centred analysis – recognising the unique human condition of each community and aiming to empower people through skills development and constructive partnerships
  • Building on strengths – identifying the skills and existing resources that communities use to survive, and building on these instead of emphasising problems and difficulties

Sustainable livelihoods represent a new way of conceptualising and dealing with the challenges of poverty. The Centre of Sustainable Livelihoods is a dynamic area of postgraduate research. If you are interested in this area of research, visit our website for more details.


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