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What is Livelihoods Programming? (Special Supplement 3)


2.1 Livelihoods principles and the livelihoods framework

The livelihoods principles and framework form the basis of all livelihoods programming. The fundamental principles of livelihoods programming are that it is people-centred, multilevel, dynamic, and ultimately aims to achieve sustainable livelihoods4.


Livelihoods programming fully involves the people whose livelihoods are affected. A livelihoods approach identifies programmes based on the priorities and goals defined by people themselves and supports their own livelihoods strategies. It builds on people's strengths, and in emergencies, people are assisted in becoming less vulnerable and more resilient to the impact of disasters.

Multi-level and holistic

Livelihoods programming recognises multiple influences on people at different levels, and seeks to understand the relationships between these influences and their joint impact upon livelihoods. This includes influences at the macro level (national and international) and at the micro-level (community and household). It also recognises the multiple actors (from the private sector to national level ministries) influencing livelihoods. It acknowledges the multiple livelihood strategies that people adopt to protect and secure their livelihoods and multiple livelihood outcomes.


Livelihoods change over time. A livelihoods approach aims to understand and learn from change so that it can support positive patterns of change and help mitigate negative patterns. It explicitly recognises the effects on livelihoods of external shocks and the longer-term processes that may erode livelihoods, such as climate change, HIV/AIDS and economic decline. It also recognises the potential for competing livelihood strategies. People compete for jobs, land, etc, and this makes it difficult for everyone to achieve simultaneous improvements in their livelihoods. This is particularly important in emergency situations where competition for access to resources may increase.


Livelihoods are sustainable when:

  • they are resilient in the face of external shocks and stresses
  • they are not dependent upon external support (or if they are, this support itself is economically and institutionally sustainable)
  • they maintain the long-term productivity of natural resources, and
  • they do not undermine the livelihoods of, or compromise the livelihood options open to, others.


In emergencies, the focus is more likely to be on reducing vulnerability and improving resilience, than promoting sustainability. The likelihood and appropriateness of achieving sustainability will depend on the conditions in which people live, including political stability and basic respect for human rights.

The sustainable livelihoods framework is shown in figure 1. This captures the main elements which comprise and influence people's livelihoods. This framework was devised for development programming, and a number of changes have been suggested for emergencies (see figure 2). The description of the different elements below includes an interpretation of the framework for emergencies.

Vulnerability context

This refers to the structural and underlying causes of people's vulnerability to food and livelihood insecurity. According to DfID (1999) it frames the external environment in which people exist, and is the element of the framework that is most beyond people's control. It includes shocks (e.g. natural, economic, conflict), trends (e.g. population, economic, governance), and seasonality. Together with policies, institutions and processes, the vulnerability context determines the options that people have in achieving their livelihood goals. Adapted emergency frameworks either show the vulnerability context as having a direct relationship with each element of the livelihoods framework (Collinson, 2003, February) or eliminate the external box on the vulnerability context (Lautze and Raven- Roberts, 2003, September). Rather than being external, vulnerability needs to be considered as endogenous and inherent to livelihoods systems.

Livelihood assets

This encompasses what people have, i.e. physical, financial, human, social and natural assets or capital5.

  • Human assets represent the skills, knowledge, education, ability to labour and good health that enable people to pursue different livelihood strategies and achieve their livelihood objectives.
  • Social assets refer to status in society, as well as access to an extended family and other social networks, such as membership of more formalised groups. It also includes relationships of trust and reciprocity that facilitate cooperation, reduce transaction costs and can provide the basis for informal safety nets amongst poor people.
  • Natural assets comprise natural resource stocks, which people can access and use to build their livelihoods (such as agricultural land, forests, water resources etc.).
  • Physical assets include livestock, land, shelter, tools and equipment, but may also be community owned, e.g. road infrastructure, communication networks, etc.
  • Financial assets include income, but also access to credit and investments. It may include available stocks, which can be held in several forms, e.g. cash, bank deposits, livestock and jewellery. It may also comprise regular inflows of money, including earned income, pensions, other transfers from the state, and remittances.

Emergency livelihood frameworks have added a sixth asset - political assets or capital. This can be most easily interpreted as proximity to power, which in many emergency and nonemergency contexts can be the main determinant of vulnerability to food and income insecurity. In many internal conflicts, people's vulnerability is linked to their political status, and traditional minority or marginalised groups (often particular ethnic groups) are exploited by state or non-state actors.

The resilience of people's livelihoods is largely determined by the resources or assets available to them and how these have been affected by disaster. In natural disasters, people with a greater asset base are often less vulnerable, and able to recover more quickly. Emergencies have varying impacts on assets, which may be lost, destroyed or sold.

Vulnerability is however, not necessarily associated with poverty, as assets can be transformed into life-threatening liabilities in complex emergencies (Lautze and Raven-Roberts, 2003, Spetember). The emergency model shown in Figure 2 expands the asset pentagon to include liabilities as, in violent conflict, assets can expose households or population groups to greater risks. For example, for numerous populations who live in resource rich areas (e.g. oil and diamonds in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Liberia, Angola), this asset has turned into a liability. Similarly, Dinka livestock wealth in South Sudan was turned into a liability in the context of violent raiding (Keen, 1988).

Policies, institutions and processes

Oxfam food security officer in an Oxfam supported vegetable garden

Policies can be taken to include any government, donor, United Nations (UN) and non-governmental organisations' (NGO) policies, and private sector policy and behaviour, which shape people's livelihoods, at local, national and international level. For example, a country's agricultural, land tenure or land use policies can be instrumental in increasing or reducing vulnerability to disasters. Land rights and access to land are often key issues in emergencies. Policies or strategies of warring parties are frequently deliberately aimed at undermining the livelihoods of some groups. At international level, structural adjustment programmes often hamper the ability of countries to deal with disasters by removing some of the state support mechanisms by, for example, removal of food and agricultural subsidies, and reducing the role of marketing boards (de Armas and Clay, 2002). The agricultural subsidies of western countries (such as the European Union (EU) and the United States (US) and international trade rules, undermine the production and export of agricultural products from developing countries.

Institutions include civic, political and economic institutions (formal and informal governance), or any other customs, rules or common law that is an important feature of society. Examples include judicial systems, public services, but also credit systems and markets. People's protection and welfare depends on accountable political systems, rule of law, functioning judicial systems, and the provision of public services (Cliffe and Luckam, 2000; Jaspars and Shoham, 2002, December). The vulnerability of some groups is frequently determined by the absence or failure of these institutions. The role of informal governance often becomes more important where formal governance is weak or collapsed. Local institutions can play a positive role in maintaining public order, for example, in Somalia through customary law and sharia courts (UNDP, 2001). In Darfur, a study found good examples of localised conflict resolution initiatives and good local governance (Young et al, 2005, June).

Processes determine the way institutions and people operate and interact. They can include changes in the economy (e.g. inflation, exchange rates), changes in employment patterns, markets, and long term processes of social, economic and political marginalisation. Access to, and participation in, markets is crucial for all livelihoods in cash economies. HIV/AIDS, urbanisation, and climate change and long term processes of social, economic and political marginalisation all have fundamental impacts on the viability of livelihoods.

Livelihood strategies

Livelihood strategies are generally understood as the strategies that people normally use in stable and peaceful times to meet basic needs and to contribute to future well-being. Coping strategies, in contrast, are temporary responses to food insecurity, although in many protracted emergencies, the coping strategies that used to be adopted in periods of acute crisis, have now become the de facto livelihood strategies.

In emergencies, certain livelihood strategies may no longer be possible, whilst others will need to be increased to compensate. New strategies are adopted in response to food insecurity. The initial strategies adopted are generally those that are not damaging to livelihoods, such as migration for work, collection of wild foods, etc. As more people adopt the same strategies, however, or options become more limited (e.g. as a result of war), strategies become more damaging to both livelihoods and dignity. In political or conflict related emergencies, options may include engaging in violent, illegal, unsafe or degrading activities (Jaspars and Shoham, 2002, December). In many internal conflicts, the conflict itself provides economic benefits for some groups or individuals. This has led to the most extreme forms of abuse and exploitation of historically marginalised groups (Keen, 1998). The longer a conflict continues, the more likely it is that people will find a way to profit from it which in turn perpetuates the conflict.

Livelihood outcomes

Livelihood outcomes go beyond food and income security, to also include quality of life. The right to life with dignity is one of the fundamental principles in the Humanitarian Charter (Sphere, 2004), but in the rush to respond to emergencies, people's dignity is often forgotten. In fact, there is no commonly held definition of dignity, and as such it remains unidentifiable and unregulated in humanitarian response (Martone, forthcoming). Whilst there is no standard definition of dignity in most societies, it will include an element of choice, a sense of self-worth and control over one's future.

2.2 Objectives of providing livelihood support

A blacksmith in Sudan (above) and a potter in India (below), both examples of livelihood strategies

The focus on livelihoods in emergency programming originates from the late 1980's, following the African famines in the middle of that decade. At that time, emergency response started when people were destitute, malnourished and had migrated to famine camps. The actors involved in the emergency response realised that if the response had started earlier, it would have been possible to prevent large-scale loss of livelihood assets and migration to camps. In other words, that lives could be saved in the longer term by saving livelihoods. The late 80's and early 90's was also associated with the development of famine early warning systems (FEWS), whose primary objective was to detect deterioration in food security early on and to trigger responses that would prevent destitution and famine associated with large scale loss of life. Studies on people's responses to food insecurity and famine, also contributed to a focus on livelihoods in emergency response (e.g. Corbett, 1988 and de Waal, 1989). These studies showed that a key priority for people threatened by famine was to preserve essential livelihood assets and to prevent destitution, rather than maintaining levels of food intake.

Table 1 Objectives of livelihoods programming
Stage of crisis Objective of livelihoods programming
Early Livelihood protection/mitigation (prevent erosion or destruction of assets).
Acute Save lives and livelihood protection.
Post crisis Livelihood recovery/rehabilitation (process of protecting and promoting livelihood of people recovering from emergencies, restoring productive assets).
Development Livelihood promotion (improving resilience of household livelihoods, diversification of livelihood strategies, improving access to markets).

Source: Adapted from Maxwell (1999a).

One of the main objectives of livelihood support in emergencies is, therefore, to protect the assets that are essential to people's livelihoods, and to support people's own priorities and strategies. The core principle of humanitarian action, that of humanity, implies the need to protect livelihood. Humanity is generally defined as: "to prevent and alleviate human suffering wherever it might be found. To protect life and health and ensure respect for the human being". Livelihood 'protection' can also be taken to have a broader meaning relating to upholding people's rights. A protection activity, in this sense, is any activity which aims to prevent or put a stop to a specific pattern of abuse and/or alleviates its immediate effects; to restore people's dignity and ensure adequate living conditions, and to foster an environment conducive to respect for the rights of individuals in accordance with the relevant bodies of law (Caverzasio, 2001).

The objectives of livelihood support may vary according to the stage and severity of an emergency. This is illustrated in table 1 which demonstrates that different types of livelihood support can be implemented at different stages of an emergency, and can be carried out at the same time as life saving interventions.

In development contexts, capacity building and working in partnership are also key objectives of livelihood support, which can include building the capacity of local institutions such as local NGOs, other forms of civil society, or government institutions. The appropriateness of this in emergency contexts depends on the nature of the emergency, as such objectives may compromise humanitarian principles in situations of internal conflict. Livelihood support may also include interventions to address the policies, institutions and processes that are part of the livelihoods framework. For example, advocacy to change national and international policies of states, donors and UN organisations.

A bike repair shop in Trinco (above) and a laundry shop in Kilnochchi (below), Sri Lanka, both supported by cash grants as part of an Oxfam livelihood activity rehabilitation project

Figure 3 illustrates how programme objectives and the sustainability of livelihoods are linked to stability of the context. Stability essentially means situations in which there is peace, basic respect for human rights, and that food security, malnutrition and mortality are at acceptable levels. In the most unstable situations, the main aim of emergency interventions is to save lives and if possible, livelihood protection. As stability increases, programmes may be able to build or recover assets as well as protect existing ones. Livelihoods will only become truly sustainable, however, if people have power in local, national and in international markets. An example where all objectives were combined simultaneously is Aceh (see Box 1).

2.3 An overview of livelihoods interventions in emergencies

Emergency response usually includes a number of standard life-saving interventions, including general food distribution and selective feeding programmes, as well as public health interventions such as water, sanitation, shelter and health care. The most common intervention to support livelihoods has been the distribution of seeds and tools, which has almost become a routine recovery intervention. However, using the livelihoods framework as the basis for interventions, and given the variety of livelihood systems that can be found in any context, there should be a far wider range of livelihood support interventions.

Table 2 provides a description and objectives that have been used in the past for different types of livelihood interventions. The interventions are grouped according to the Sphere minimum standards for food security: income and employment support, market support and production support. In reality, the grouping is not as clear cut as represented here and so multiple Sphere standards will apply to the same intervention (box 2). For example, the standard on access to markets will apply to most food security or livelihoods interventions.

Searching for bodies immediately post-tsunami was supported through Oxfam CFW programming in Aceh, Indonesia

The range of potential interventions in any particular emergency context is much wider than table 2 indicates, as each intervention must be designed to suit the local context, both in terms of the nature and severity of the emergency and the types of livelihoods affected. Arange of programming options should be considered based on an analysis of expressed needs by the affected population. Interventions that do not take account of local priorities rarely work (Sphere, 2004).

Livelihood interventions to address the failings of policies, institutions and processes are not included in the table, as these will be particular to the emergency context. Support for assets and strategies is often more effective if combined with policy and advocacy work to address the policies, institutions and processes that limit people's livelihood options. For example, agricultural support will often need to be accompanied by policy work on increasing access to land and land rights issues. Working in conflict may require advocacy on respect for International Humanitarian Law to stop warring parties destroying or undermining livelihood strategies and assets.

Box 1 Supporting livelihoods while saving lives in Aceh

In the first two weeks following the tsunami, many displaced families in Aceh wanted to return home. The proportion of internally displaced people (IDPs) who wanted to go home varied by location. Assistance was requested first for burying bodies, then for water and food. People then wanted to be able to rebuild houses and recover farmland, followed by livelihood recovery. At the same time, the vast majority of IDPs had lost everything and were depending on emergency relief to meet their immediate food and non-food needs

While implementing emergency water, sanitation, health and food distribution programmes, international agencies started CFW programmes almost immediately. The CFW programmes aimed to provide cash to meet immediate needs (such as food and kitchen utensils), stimulate markets, and ensure essential work activities. Work started with clearing roads and solid waste disposal. This allowed some people to return home immediately as they had road access. Once back in their home areas, further work was carried out on clearing waste, burying bodies, and later on, building houses. Subsequently, CFW was used to rehabilitate farms and rebuild fishing boats. Cash grants were provided to people who wanted to re-establish businesses and to purchase assets essential to their livelihoods. As well as emergency livelihoods programmes, work was initiated in the first month on land rights issues, and promoting sustainable access to markets for small scale timber producers.

Source: S. Jaspars.


Box 2 Minimum standards for food security in emergencies

Standard 1 - General food security
People have access to adequate and appropriate food and nonfood items in a manner that ensures their survival, prevents erosion of assets, and upholds their dignity

Standard 2 - Primary production
Primary production mechanisms are protected and supported

Standard 3 - Income and employment
Where income generation and employment are feasible livelihood strategies, people have access to appropriate income earning opportunities, which generate fair remuneration and contribute towards food security without jeopardizing the resources upon which livelihoods are based.

Standard 4 - Access to markets
People's safe access to market goods and services as producers, consumers and traders is protected and promoted

Source: The Sphere Project (2004).

Table 2 Description and objectives of different livelihood support interventions
Intervention Description Objectives
Food aid    
General distribution Free distribution of a combination of food commodities to the affected population as a whole. If the population is cut off from their food supply or suffers abnormally high rates of malnutrition, food rations should meet nutritional needs. Income and employment To meet immediate food needs of populations cut off from their normal sources of food.
To protect or recover livelihoods by preventing the sale of assets, or allowing households to spend time on productive activities that will restore livelihoods. Income and employment
Income and employment    
Food for work (FFW) Public works programmes where workers are paid in food aid. The food ration is often calculated to be less than the daily wage rate for an area. The rationale for this is that the poorest self-select. To provide food aid as income support for the poor or unemployed.
To rehabilitate infrastructure, e.g. roads, schools, irrigation systems etc.
Cash for work (CFW) Beneficiaries are paid in cash to work on public works or community schemes. Commonly these are to improve roads and water sources. The programme targets the poorest or most food insecure. To provide income to meet basic food and non-food needs and provide income support.
To rebuild community assets.
To stimulate the local economy.
Cash grants The provision of money to targeted households or communities, either as emergency relief to meet their basic needs for food and non-food items, or as a grant to buy assets essential for the recovery of their livelihoods. To meet basic food and non-food needs.
To recover livelihoods through the purchase of essential assets or re-establish business.
To cancel credit debts.
To stimulate the local economy.
Micro-finance The provision of financial services to vulnerable but economically active individuals and households. This can be loans, remittance services, loan rescheduling, insurance, etc. To restart local economies through enterprise and employment creation.
To increase economic self-sufficiency.
Market support    
Commodity vouchers Vouchers distributed to emergency- affected populations which can be exchanged for fixed quantity of named commodities from certified traders either at distribution outlets, markets or special relief shops. To provide income support and meet basic needs.
To provide production support; in case of seed vouchers.
To support traders/retailers and stimulate markets.
Cash vouchers Cash vouchers have a fixed cash value and can be exchanged for a range of items up to this value, from special shops or traders. To provide income support.
To recover livelihoods.
To stimulate markets and trade.
Monetisation and subsidised sales Putting large quantities of food aid grain on to the market or subsidised sale through specified outlets. To improve access to staple foods for consumers.
To ensure that prices are kept within normal boundaries.
To improve traders' access to commodities.
Market infrastructure For example, transport and feeder roads. Some of this may be done through cash or food for work programmes. To improve physical access to markets for producers.
De-stocking Purchase of livestock when there is pressure on water and pasture and prices are falling, at above prevailing market prices. Animals can be slaughtered and meat distributed as part of the relief effort. To protect income and terms of trade for pastoralists.
To prevent collapse in livestock market.
Production support    
Agricultural support Agricultural support programmes usually involve some form of seed distribution in conjunction with inputs to help plant and harvest crops e.g. tools, pesticide spray. To help re-establish crop production.
Livestock support This can take a variety of forms. Early in a food crisis, interventions include provision of water, fodder, veterinary care, livestock offtake/de-stocking (when animals are at increased risk of dying). After the acute stage of crisis, interventions may include restocking. To prevent loss of livestock through sales or death.
To assist in herd recovery.
Fishing support Distribution of fishing tools to improve catch (nets, boats, cages). To increase ability of people to fish as a source of food and income.

Source: Jaspars et al (2002, August), Oxfam GB (2003, August), Creti and Jaspars, Eds (2006).

Key reading

Collinson (2003, February). Power, livelihoods and conflict: case studies in political economy analysis for humanitarian action. HPG report 13. ODI.

DfID (1999). Sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets. www.livelihoods.org Sphere Project (2004). Humanitarian Charter and Minimum Standards in Disaster Response, Oxford: Oxfam Publishing

Lautze and Raven-Roberts (2003, September). The vulnerability context; is there something wrong with this picture? (Embedding vulnerability in livelihoods models; a work in progress). UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, Rome.


4The text on livelihoods principles is an adaptation of that provided by DfID in their sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets (section 1). DfID (1999).

5Much of the description of the different types of assets has been taken from the DfID sustainable livelihoods guidance sheets. Section 2. DfID (1999).

Imported from FEX website


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