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Livelihoods analysis and identifying appropriate interventions (Special Supplement 3)

3.1 Livelihoods assessment and analysis in emergencies

The livelihoods framework provides a tool for analysing people's livelihoods and the impact of specific threats or shocks on livelihood vulnerability. Akey feature of livelihoods analysis is that it includes an analysis of household assets, strategies, priorities and goals at micro-level, and the policies, institutions and processes that affect livelihoods at national and international level (macro-level).

Asecond key feature is that it is participatory. The focus is on the needs and priorities as identified by the affected populations themselves. Assessments use participatory methods, such as PRA (participatory rural appraisal) or RRA (rapid rural appraisal) to find out what people's problems and priorities are (Carney et al, 1999, November). Participation is also one of the key minimum standards for disaster response:
"The disaster affected population actively participates in the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of the assistance programme"
(The Sphere project (2004). Common standard 1).

Participation in assessments is also essential to maintain and restore people's dignity. Common participatory methods used in emergencies, include key informant interviews, focus group interviews, wealth ranking, proportional piling, seasonal calendars, and timelines6.

The livelihoods framework in its entirety has rarely been used as the basis for emergency assessments. Emergency assessments may take a livelihoods approach, but often focus on the impact of a disaster on households' food security or household economy. The most common assessment method is Save the Children-UK's (SC-UK) household economy approach (HEA), and elements of this have been incorporated into the assessment methods of many others. All food security assessments have the same theoretical basis and have many common elements (see box 3)7. None of these assessment methods, however, refer explicitly to the livelihoods framework8 but focus on the impact of a disaster on livelihood assets and strategies, and rarely analyse risks and vulnerability.

There are important overlaps between household economy and livelihoods approaches to food security assessments, but also significant differences (see box 3). The Sphere food security minimum standard for assessment and analysis, contains the fundamental elements of an emergency food security assessment:
"Where people are at risk of food insecurity, programme decisions are based on a demonstrated understanding of how they normally access food, the impact of a disaster on current and future food insecurity, and hence the appropriate response."
(The Sphere project; assessment and analysis standard 1; food security)

Beneficiaries lining up to receive iron sheets (see picture further down article)

The increasing use of the term 'livelihoods' in emergency assessments has led to confusion as to what a livelihoods assessment actually is. Sometimes an emergency livelihoods assessment is seen as synonymous with food security or household economy assessment. In fact, it is only recently that household economy and food security assessments have started making explicit use of the livelihoods framework (see box 4 for examples). Such assessments increasingly consider all the livelihoods assets, as defined in the livelihoods framework, to define different wealth groups. However, there are few examples of emergency assessments that explicitly analyse policies, institutions and processes, how these determine peoples vulnerability and how they have been transformed by a disaster. One element of policies, institutions and processes that is receiving increased attention is markets. Another example is credit institutions, which were particularly important in tsunami affected countries and for populations affected by the earthquake in Pakistan. In emergency prone countries with long term livelihoods programmes or in protracted livelihoods crises, an analysis of the wider policy and institutional context is more common (see examples on assessments in Southern Africa and Somalia in box 4).


Box 3 Common elements and key differences between household economy assessments and livelihoods approaches to food security assessments

Household economy assessments/approach and livelihoods approaches to food security have a number of common elements:

  • A division of the affected population into different groups or areas according to common food and income sources and the risks to which they are exposed. These can be livelihood groups, livelihood zones, household economy zones.
  • A comparison of food and income sources for different livelihood (and wealth) groups before and after the disaster.
  • An analysis of the coping strategies used in terms of their impact on livelihoods, as well as the ability of livelihood group to meet their immediate food needs.

The household economy approach, in addition, divides people into different wealth groups within household economy or livelihood zones. It then considers access to food and basic goods and services, by investigating and quantifying the ways in which people get food and cash income, and their expenditure patterns.

Food security assessments have a narrower focus and are primarily concerned with access to food and the coping strategies that people use in response to food insecurity.

A livelihoods approach to food security assessments considers the impact of coping strategies on people's ability to maintain their livelihoods, including the impact of a shock on assets. Since coping strategies are largely aimed at protecting livelihoods assets, they are not necessarily linked to maintaining or finding new food and income sources. For example, changes in livestock migration patterns with the aim of finding new pastures, or secure routes, to preserve livestock.


In many emergency assessments, it will not be possible to assess all elements of the livelihoods framework and carry out an in-depth analysis of the impact of a shock on people's food and income sources. However, emergencies in many populations are protracted or occur on a regular basis. In such circumstances, it is possible to build up a livelihoods analysis that includes all elements of the livelihoods framework and develop recommendations for policy and advocacy work, as well as the provision of assistance.

Box 4 Examples of the use of the livelihoods framework in household economy or food security assessments

An SC-UK assessment in Pakistan, in November 2005, used a combination of the sustainable livelihoods framework and the household economy approach to understand livelihood patterns before the earthquake, the impact of the earthquake on livelihood patterns, and to determine what was required to restore livelihoods. Affected households were divided into wealth groups based upon asset holdings, e.g. income, physical assets (shelter, livestock, land), human assets (education) and social assets (gifts, assistance from relatives, and credit). The assessment also included analysis of markets, the private sector (business and shops), credit institutions, social welfare (for pensioners), charity (zakat), and government compensation schemes.

Oxfam in Southern Africa has used the sustainable livelihoods framework to develop baselines for strategic planning, to identify indicators for monitoring the food security situation, and to develop future scenarios. In Malawi, an analysis of the vulnerability context included demography, environmental factors, infrastructure, the economy, the population's health status, as well as the prevalence and impact of HIV/AIDS. Government preparedness and response strategies, agricultural policies, land reform, the governments' strategic grain reserve, public works and social welfare programmes, and donor, UN and NGO policies and practices were also considered. In Oxfam's operational areas, the population were divided into livelihood zones and wealth groups. Livelihood assets (physical, financial, human and social) were considered for each wealth group.

A survey by CARE in Somalia in 2005 explicitly set out to assess the immediate, intermediate and underlying causes of livelihood insecurity. This encompassed all elements of the livelihoods framework. The assessment found that CARE had primarily focussed on addressing the immediate causes of livelihood failure through food aid, and that it was important to start addressing the intermediate causes, more connected to public service provision, through efforts to improve education, skills training, strengthening production systems, building community assets and upgrading the skills of local institutions. At the level of underlying causes, recommendations included addressing clan based marginalisation issues, such as access to land, as well as advocacy for addressing economic under development and governance.

Source: SC-UK (2005, November), SC-UK; Lefebvre (2004, September), Oxfam GB; Van den Boogaard and Ochepa Ekiru (2005, November), CARE Somalia.

Proportional piling in the Red Sea State, Sudan

Until recently, most emergency food security and household economy assessments have been biased towards food aid as a response. A number of agencies are adapting their assessment methodologies to better identify interventions other than food aid. For example, the World Food Programme (WFP) is carrying out a lengthy process of improving its emergency food security assessments and capacity to carry out such assessments. The first edition of WFP's emergency food security assessment handbook (WFP, 2005, June) is being piloted in 2005 and 2006. Response options range from different types of food aid programmes (general distribution, FFW, feeding programmes) to cash transfer programmes, market support programmes, to nutrition education and food fortification. The HEA is also being adapted to identify interventions other than food aid (see box 5). Oxfam's emergency food security assessment guidelines focus on identifying a range of interventions to both support livelihoods and save lives, including income and market support (cash transfers-cash grants, cash for work, vouchers), production support (livestock and agriculture), and food aid (Oxfam GB, 2003, August; Young et al, 2001). The guidelines are being revised to give better guidance on when commodity distribution or cash programmes are the most appropriate intervention.

Box 5 Use of the Household Economy Approach to identify livelihoods interventions

The Household Economy Approach (HEA) examines household assets, food and cash income sources, and expenditure patterns of different wealth groups within livelihood zones. It is often associated with determining food aid needs. However, SC UK - and increasingly some of the national Vulnerability Assessment Committees (VAC) in Southern Africa - have also used HEA to plan or advocate for a wider range of livelihoods interventions. These include:

  • Cash transfers to meet essential food or non-food needs (including soap, education and healthcare costs), as part of national social protection policies. . Food price subsidies to increase household food access based on an assessment of the income levels of different wealth groups and their reliance on market purchase.
  • Cash - or food-for-work as an option for bridging food or nonfood deficits taking account of household labour availability and seasonal calendars.
  • Livestock de-stocking programmes based on an assessment of livestock holdings, their prices and the income needed to bridge predicted food- or non-food deficits.
  • The abolition of user fees for healthcare and education considering the affordability of those services to different wealth groups.
  • Using knowledge of the sequencing and viability of different coping mechanisms, different 'thresholds' for interventions can be set. The scale and timing of interventions can range from a minimal 'life-saving' objective to a broader 'livelihood support' objective. (The latter could be implemented before households are forced to resort to harmful coping strategies, such as using child labour or selling off draught animals).

Source: Michael O'Donnel, SC-UK.

3.2 Criteria for identifying appropriate interventions

Iron sheets supplied as part of a livelihood protection project to build livestock shelters in Pakistan post-earthquake.

The identification of appropriate interventions should be based on an analysis of the risks to livelihoods, who is most affected and how. A recent study of seven different emergency contexts in the Great Lakes region of Africa, however, showed that regardless of the context, the same interventions were implemented in each case, namely food distribution, feeding programmes and seeds and tools distributions. The emergency contexts included displaced populations, returnees, urban populations, and a rural population affected both by drought and conflict (Levine and Chastre, 2004, July). Similarly, a review of 2004 UN consolidated appeals, ranging from conflict in Darfur to floods in Bangladesh, found that the responses proposed were uniformly standardised. These were food aid from WFP, seeds and tools from the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), water, sanitation and nutrition from UNICEF, and health from the World Health Organisation (WHO) (referred to in Harvey, 2005, February).

In the Oxfam supported programme in Niger, vouchers could sometimes be exchanged for food or non food items in the local market

The realisation that the identification of emergency responses is rarely based on an analysis of needs has led some agencies, such as SC-UK, Oxfam and WFP, to develop specific criteria for decision making on interventions to address food crises. Table 3 summarises some of the criteria and other factors to take into account in deciding on different types of livelihoods interventions. Use of these criteria would undoubtedly lead to more appropriate programming than a standard response. However, using standard criteria risks restricting livelihoods analysis and moving it away from being 'people-centred'. If a livelihoods approach starts with people's livelihoods strategies and is based on people's own priorities, then necessarily interventions cannot be pre-determined. There are other difficulties with using the type of criteria in table 3 including (Overseas Development Institute, 2005, June):

Table 3 Criteria for decision-making on interventions to address food crises
Type of intervention Criteria Common emergency context Advantages Disadvantages
General food distribution People are cut off from normal sources of food. Lack of food availability. Alternative ways of increasing access to food would take too long. Acute emergencies. Large scale emergencies. Displacement. Most readily available resource. Tied food aid takes a long time to reach destination. High logistics requirements. Can undermine markets and production if food is locally available.
Food for work (FFW) Lack of access to food. Lack of food availability. Labour potential. Infrastructure damaged. Security and access. Target population should not suffer acute food insecurity or high levels of malnutrition. Slow-onset or recovery stage of crisis. Chronic food insecurity. Easier to target than free food distribution. Restores community assets as well as providing food. Small scale. Not everyone can work.
Cash grants Food available and markets functioning. Risk of inflationary pressure is low. Early stages of emergency or rehabilitation. Cost efficient. Choice for beneficiaries. Quick way of meeting basic needs. Stimulates markets. Risk of inflation. Cash may not be spent on intended programme objectives. Difficult to monitor. Difficult to target.
Cash for work (CFW) Food available and markets functioning. Food insecurity result of loss of income, assets or employment. Risk of inflationary pressure is low. Security and access. Recovery phase. Chronic food insecurity. Choice. Creates community infrastructure. Stimulates markets. Stimulates recovery Easy to target. Small scale. Not everyone can work. May interfere with livelihood strategies. High management requirements.
Vouchers Essential commodities can be brought in by traders. Opportunities to make agreements with traders. Food availability and functioning markets. Usually second phase response in acute emergencies. Promotes purchase of local products. Can specify commodities. Commodity vouchers protect from inflation. Easy to monitor. Risk of forgery. May create parallel economy. May need regular adjustment to protect from inflation.
Microfinance Functioning markets and banks. Stable economy (no hyper-inflation). Skilled workforce. Recovery stage of emergency. Relatively secure context. Home based populations or returnees. Can be sustainable. High management costs. Risk of default on loans.
Market infrastructure Food insecurity is result of fragmented markets. Both emergency and development contexts. Can bring about long lasting change in people's access to markets. Needs in-depth market analysis. Often done badly as part of FFW or CFW if focus is on providing food or cash.
Monetisation and subsidised sales Local food prices volatile. Targeted at areas that face food deficits. Affected population still has some purchasing power. Direct distribution not possible because of insecurity. Early stage of emergency. No targeting. Potential for quick impact on large population. Can have negative impact on markets if done when criteria are not met.
Seeds and tools Food insecurity due to reduction or loss in crop production. Affected households lack seeds and tools. Lack of availability of seeds and tools. The lack of seeds/tools limits production. Local knowledge. Recovery stage or protracted emergencies. Re-establishes crop production. Strengthens agricultural systems in the longer term. Requires knowledge of local seeds. Imported seeds may not be used.
Livestock support Sales causes collapse in market prices. Deaths result from lack of pasture and/or water. Livestock disease. Restrictions to livestock movements. Local knowledge. Depends on type of intervention but some livestock intervention can be implemented at all stages. In line with people's own priorities, and thus likely to get high levels of community participation. Can usually only be done on small scale.

Sources: Levine and Chastre (2004, July), Jaspars et al (2002, August), Creti and Jaspars, Eds (2006).

The Great Lakes study referred to earlier (p) notes that there were several constraints to food security that were rarely, if at all, addressed. These included access to land, access to markets, freedom of movement, exclusion of certain ethnic groups from access to land, lack of access to credit and loans, loss of productive assets, loss of employment opportunities and labour, as well as high costs of social services. Interventions to address these issues are not easily included in a table of criteria.

3.3 An in-depth livelihoods analysis in Darfur

An in-depth livelihoods analysis, using all elements of the livelihoods framework in an emergency, was carried out by Tufts University (Young et al, 2005, June)9. The purpose of the study was to investigate the effects of the current conflict and humanitarian crisis on livelihoods of selected communities in Darfur. Whilst using the adapted livelihoods framework as the basic analytical tool for the research, the study focussed on labour migration, livestock production and trade, and communities' links with central and eastern Sudan and with Libya. This case study presents some of the key findings related to the livelihoods framework in order to illustrate the kinds of recommendations that may be generated by using the framework.

Livelihood goals, strategies and assets were investigated at the level of the household and the community. Policies, institutions and processes, were analysed by reviewing the salient political, social and economic features of the evolving conflict, and looking at how these have affected livelihoods (macro level).

Policies, institutions and processes

There are a number of national and local processes that have contributed to the current conflict in Darfur between the Government of Sudan (GoS), its local militia (the Janjaweed) and the opposition movements (the Sudan Liberation Movement (SLA/M) and the Justice and Equality Movement (JEM)). These include:

The marginalisation has led directly to the creation of opposition movements. Within Darfur, certain groups feel they have been further marginalised, in particular Arab progovernment groups. In addition, a history of drought and famine has led to pressure on, and competition for, local resources.

At local level, the marginalisation and neglect of Darfur has contributed to:

Legislation on land tenure could pose difficulties for those wanting to return to their land of origin after a period of displacement10. In Darfur, many land holdings are, in reality, governed by tribal customs and practices.

Livelihoods in Darfur before the conflict

Burnt grain from granaries torched by the Janjaweed in Dafur

Livelihoods in Darfur consist of a combination of farming, pastoralism, and a variety of income generating activities such as labour migration, remittances, collection of natural resources (firewood, fodder, wild foods), and trade. Other activities specific to different livelihoods groups include the production of tombac (chewing tobacco), artisanry, and a range of illegal activities (smuggling, brewing, banditry, prostitution).

Impact of conflict on livelihood assets

The conflict has had both direct and indirect effects on livelihoods. Attacks by militia have been associated with destruction of household and community assets. Financial assets, mainly livestock, have been looted. Lost physical assets include loss of farms, homes, and other household possessions. Human capital has been undermined by violent deaths, and social capital by attacks on groups and families causing large scale displacement and loss of social networks. A large proportion of the population of Darfur has been displaced. IDPs compete for very few income earning opportunities. Natural resources were lost when wells were destroyed, surface water contaminated, fruit trees destroyed, and land became occupied.

Impact on livelihood strategies

Men in rebel held areas of Darfur describe their livelihood strategies before the crisis

Insecurity restricts the mobility of all groups. IDPs are cut off from their normal livelihood strategies, and rural populations fear to travel to markets or to cultivate. IDPs are trapped within besieged towns. IDPs risk attack or rape if they venture beyond the town boundary to look for firewood, collect fodder, or wild foods. All services and markets are in areas controlled by the government and cannot be reached without fear of rape or attack. Limited mobility affects livelihood strategies of all groups in Darfur including cultivation, livestock migration, trade and access to markets for buyers and sellers, remittances.

Study recommendations

The livelihoods crisis needs to be addressed at national, international and state level, and by a number of different actors at each of these levels. Recommendations ranged from measures to improve security and governance and increased communication between migrants and their families, to issues around access to cooking fuel and the risk of violence towards women collecting firewood. Seeds and tools fairs, increasing the size of food ration to allow for trading, and providing credit to small traders were also recommended as the situation stabilises.

Key reading

Jaspars and Shoham (2002, December). A critical review of approaches to assessing and monitoring livelihoods in situations of chronic conflict and political instability. ODI working paper 191.

Levine, S. and Chastre, C. (2004, July). Missing the point. An analysis of food security interventions in the Great Lakes. An HPN network paper. ODI.

SC-UK (2000). The Household Economy Approach. A resource manual for practitioners.

Young, H, S. Jaspars, R. Brown, J. Frize and H. Khogali (2001). Food security assessments in emergencies: a livelihoods approach. ODI HPN Network Papers 36. ODI, London.

WFP (2005, June). Emergency Food Security Assessment Handbook.


Show footnotes

6For further information on these methods see MacCracken, Petty and Conway (1988). Also, various agency food security assessment guidelines, for example, SC-UK's Manual for Household Economy Assessments.

7Methods include: Oxfam's livelihoods approach to food security assessments, ICRC's economic security assessments, CARE's livelihood security approach, ACF's food security assessment approach, MSF's analytical framework for assessing stages of food insecurity (Oxfam, 2001, November) and WFP's new emergency food security assessment approach (WFP, 2005, June).

8Oxfam's draft guidelines discuss the sustainable livelihoods framework in the first chapter, but subsequent chapters do not link the information needs to the framework. This will be addressed in the next draft.

9See research summary in Field Exchange 27. Livelihoods under siege in Dafur. March 2006.

10Following the 1974 Civil Transactions Act, all land is effectively owned by the state, although the right to use it may belong to a private party through usufruct rights. The state can reclaim property from the holder of usufruct rights if the latter has failed to exploit the property according to the conditions of the grant. Rights terminate upon total destruction or expropriation of the property.

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Reference this page

Susanne Jaspars (2006). Livelihoods analysis and identifying appropriate interventions (Special Supplement 3). Supplement 3: From food crisis to fair trade, March 2006. p12.