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From Income Poverty to Sustainable Livelihoods: Practical Implications of Evolving Frameworks for Understanding Poverty

Time (GMT +00) 00:00 23:59

Caroline Ashley
, Overseas Development Institute
Marilyn Howard, Social Policy Analyst

  1. The second meeting in the series was led by Caroline Ashley of ODI, and Marilyn Howard, an independent Social Policy Analyst, representing NPI.
  2. Caroline Ashley spoke first. She defined a sustainable livelihood as comprising the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living, and introduced the sustainable livelihood approach as a way of thinking about development. Its evolution could be traced in a trajectory of thinking about poverty, from income, through basic needs and vulnerability to current multi-dimensional concepts. Its core principles were that it was people-centred, responsive and participatory, multi-level (macro-micro), based on partnership between agencies, sustainable, and dynamic.
  3. The sustainable livelihood approach could be understood by means of the hedgehog and fox analogy. A hedgehog could be thought of as having one big idea, whereas the fox followed a diversity of strategies - this was the livelihoods approach. The sustainable livelihoods concept began by looking at different kinds of assets available to poor people, described as five kinds of 'capital': human capital, natural capital, financial capital, social capital, and physical capital. These underpinned livelihood strategies, which then produced livelihood outcomes: more income, of course, but also reduced vulnerability, improved food security, and more sustainable use of natural resources.
  4. Caroline Ashley noted that there had been practical applications of a livelihoods approach in programme and project design, in monitoring and evaluation, and in policy work. It had been particularly useful to have a holistic approach with a wide range of entry points, and one which was built up from poor people's own perspectives.
  5. Finally, turning to the implications for a conversation between developed and developing countries, Caroline Ashley identified five issues for discussion: (i) the importance of assets (especially social capital); (ii) the diversity of activities (not just a focus on 'jobs'); (iii) cross-sectoral approaches (joined up thinking); (iv) the challenge of monitoring, particularly the design of suitable indicators; (v) and the use of a sustainable livelihoods approach to develop macro-micro linkages.
  6. Marilyn Howard then spoke from a UK perspective. She began by introducing different models of poverty. In the UK, the poverty discourse had focused mostly on income, and had historically not been good at tracking movements over time. There was now much more work on the dynamics of poverty and on what she called 'trajectories' of social exclusion. There was also now more work on the processes of social exclusion. Many of the features of the sustainable livelihoods framework were replicated in the UK discussion, for example the importance of social capital and the emphasis on political activity and autonomy.
  7. Marilyn Howard then described UK government responses to the poverty problem: the Social Exclusion Unit, New Deal programmes, health, education and employment 'zones', cross-departmental pilot schemes (eg Sure Start for young children), minimum income guarantees, tax credits, and monitoring. The recent Government report on poverty, 'Opportunities For All', had looked at various aspects of deprivation for different groups in society. It had adopted a flexible approach, and was an example of joined up Government thinking on poverty.
  8. Finally, Marilyn Howard turned to North-South issues. She thought there were many complementarities between the sustainable livelihood and social exclusion frameworks; and also in the approach to holistic analysis adopted. There were some interesting ideas in the UK debate about 'trigger points' for intervention, and about preventive policies ('poverty-proofing'). She also signalled interest in a rights-based approach to development, which would rise up the agenda when the Human Rights Act became British law.
  9. In the discussion which followed, four key points were raised:
  1. An important issue was raised about the complexity and political acceptability of the sustainable livelihoods approach in developing countries. The SL framework was indeed comprehensive - but did the very complexity make it difficult to plan interventions and monitor their success? Was the UK approach more manageable, because more simple?
  2. Questions were asked about where politics fitted in to the frameworks, both in North and South. Did the sustainable livelihood and social exclusion frameworks exclude politics, or did they provide a way of bringing politics back into the debate? For both North and South, it seemed that the emphasis on empowerment and 'voice' might be bringing politics back in, provided that participation was taken seriously. Politics also became important when the causes of poverty rose up the agenda. This was the case, for example, if social exclusion could be defined not simply in terms of multiple deprivation, but more appropriately as a process by which people became poor.
  3. Social capital attracted a great deal of interest. It was not always clear how important interventions in this sphere were, nor how they interrelated with other interventions. The question of how different kinds of capital could reinforce each other seemed an appropriate question for research.
  4. Finally, a question was raised about whether some of the concerns of the social exclusion debate, particularly around a rights-based approach, but also exclusion processes could be adapted to fit within a livelihoods framework. How firmly rooted was the livelihoods approach in classic social theory?