A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets and activities needed for a means of living - and is sustainable when it can cope with and recover from shocks and stresses, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets and provide sustainable opportunities for the next generation. The sustainable livelihoods approach considers vulnerabilities as the main factor that shapes how people make their living.

The level of vulnerability of an individual or community is determined by how weak or strong their livelihoods are, what occupational activities they are engaged in, the range of assets they have access to for pursuing their livelihood strategies and the strength and support of the social networks and institutions that they are part of or which have influence over them.

The key factor that influences the choice and strengths of the livelihoods that people pursue is the range of resources or assets that people are able to access and use.

A rural household which owns a small amount of land and has household members with skills in traditional farming, but who have no education, no savings, and poor access to markets, will probably be limited to making a living from subsistence, rain-fed agriculture alone. However, a household with more extensive land, access to water resources, additional skills in food processing and some savings to risk investing in a business opportunity, could develop a range of agricultural and non-agricultural livelihood options. They will have alternatives to fall back on in times of need or crisis.

Certain components or assets are required to make a living. These assets can conveniently be divided into 5 main groups for ease of analysis.

  • Financial - sources of income, assets which can be traded or sold, savings, financial services, etc. These are objects, resources or activities that can generate cash. A person sells their labour for cash; a person runs a small business to generate cash, sells his/her labour, etc
  • Natural - soil, water, forest, environmental assets, etc. These are natural resources such as the land used to produce crops or grazing, the river which provides fish and the forest which provides wild food, timber, fuel and other useful products for consumption or sale.
  • Physical - houses, schools, clinics, roads, ploughs, producer goods accessible by community, etc. These are the physical structures such as buildings, including shops and markets and include the tools used in making a living such as ploughs, blacksmith's tools etc
  • Human - health, skills, education, knowledge, confidence etc. These are the qualities which help one make a living such as knowledge; knowing how to do things, the ability to work due to good health, and confidence, a sense of self worth, or motivation.
  • Social - family links, groups, support networks, leadership, influences over political decisions, conflict, etc. People are more resilient, able to withstand threats to their livelihoods when there is group cohesion. The family structure, support from groups (women's groups, churches etc), a sense of belonging and leaders who actively promote the well-being of their constituents all contribute to the resilience of a community.

Broadly speaking, if people have access to a broader range of assets or resources, they have more choices and are able to adapt more easily to changing circumstances. The quality and security of these resources is also important - for example the fertility and security of tenure of land and financial resources that keep their value.

The sustainable livelihoods framework describes the different aspects of peoples' vulnerability while pointing to the social, political and economic structures and processes which influence vulnerability.

Sustainable livelihoods framework (DFID)
Sustainable livelihoods framework (DFID)

Other factors affect people's ability to pursue a sustainable choice of livelihood. Policies, institutions and legislation operating at various levels from local to international, can either support or hinder people in making a living. Institutions such as schools, health services, or agricultural extension agencies, can significantly enhance people's human assets if they are functioning properly. The existence of an "enabling environment" is an important element contributing to the sustainability and resilience of the livelihoods of the poor. But poor people usually have least influence over policies or access to institutions; they lack a voice in decision making.

People have to cope with hazards and stresses, such as earthquakes, erratic rainfall, diminishing resources, pressure on the land, epidemics such as HIV/AIDS, chaotic markets, increasing food prices, inflation, and national and international competition. The uncertainties and risks created by hazards and stresses influence how people manage and use their available resources, and the choices people make.

In the event of disasters, when the impact of a hazard or shock overwhelms the ability to cope, the poor and their livelihoods are the hardest hit. The small and cottage industries often suffer substantial losses, both in terms of damaged property and missed opportunities. The livelihoods of marginal and small farmers, artisans and fishermen are most affected in disasters through the loss of assets, and loss of employment opportunities.

Post-disaster humanitarian assistance often does not prioritise the rehabilitation of people's means of earning a living. Recovery is difficult when livelihoods have been disrupted or destroyed. This increases their vulnerability to future hazards. Thus a succession of small events can often drive the poor from a state of vulnerability to one of total destitution.


A particularly severe flood hits a community in Bangladesh.

Scenario 1:
Mehrul has a brick house on raised land away from the waters edge. It has storage space in the roof where he shifts his belongings and food stocks when he notices the water level rising. He instructs his son to move his animals to a livestock shelter he has invested in on higher ground so they are safe. He also loses his rice crop as it is washed away, but he has savings so he will still be able to buy rice or other food. His other son is a rickshaw driver so that will continue to bring income to the household. The flood is unpleasant, but is by no means a disaster.

Scenario 2:
Ali and his family live close to the edge of the river. When the water level rises, their home quickly floods. His home is a simple mud construction, which starts to wash away. He has nowhere to put his belongings to save them. He is a farmer. His crops are destroyed by the floods, and some of his land is eroded into the river. He has no other income source and will probably have to borrow money at high rates to feed his family. His young children are already malnourished. With the flood, latrines are washed away, conditions are unsanitary, and they become ill. This implies further costs to pay for treatment. Ali was surviving before the flood, but now his family is close to destitution. This flood has been a disaster for him and many others like him.

The difference between these two scenarios has very little to do with the nature of the hazard or shock itself. The factors that turn the hazard into a disaster are:

  1. the vulnerability or security of people's livelihoods (assets available and institutions to support) and
  2. their level of preparedness (early warning and mitigation measures)

Investment in strengthening and diversifying the livelihood options of people in disaster prone areas is an effective strategy for both long-term sustainable disaster risk and poverty reduction.

A livelihoods approach to disaster risk reduction puts people first and aims to understand and strengthen their livelihoods to ensure that they can better cope with and recover from shocks or hazards. It also looks at measures to ensure that people are prepared, and can mitigate against hazard impacts.

Case study: Bangladesh response to floods 2007 - a snapshot of a community-based organisation's activities
To help address community vulnerability to floods in Kamargani Union of Gaibandha District Bangladesh, a group of 17 people (11 male and 6 female) came together voluntarily to form a Community-Based Organisation (CBO) to serve their community. The CBO has arranged vaccination campaigns for livestock, motivated the community to carry out work to improve their water and sanitation facilities, repair culverts, bridges and the embankment and assisted government service providers to organize meetings and training workshops in the community.More »

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