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Chapter 9.4 Livelihoods and DRR

Sustainable livelihoods approaches

Photo: ODI

A livelihood is regarded as sustainable when it can cope with, and recover from, external shocks and stresses, and maintain or expand its asset base. Successful livelihood strategies should lead to a variety of economic and non-economic benefits, including greater income and more economically sustainable livelihoods; increased well-being (comprising non-material elements, such as self-esteem, sense of control and inclusion, personal safety, community participation and political enfranchisement and maintenance of cultural heritage); better access to services such as health, water, power and education; reduced vulnerability to external trends, shocks and seasonality; improved nutrition and food security; and more sustainable use of natural resources.

9.4.1 Concepts and frameworks

Sustainable livelihoods concepts, frameworks and definitions vary,+See K. Hussein, Livelihoods Approaches Compared: A Multi-agency Review of Current Practice (London: Department for International Development, 2002), but many are derived from DFID’s sustainable livelihoods framework,+DFID, Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets (London: Department for International Development, 1999), which has been very influential and widely used and adapted. Generally, they identify the following as key and interconnected elements:

  • Vulnerability context. Vulnerability frames the environment in which poor people live, is responsible for many of the hardships they face and has a direct impact on their assets and the livelihood options open to them. Their vulnerability can be the result of long-term trends and stresses (demographic, economic, political, environmental), shorter-term shocks (epidemics, natural hazards, conflict) or seasonal changes in prices, production, food availability, employment opportunities and health. These can be enduring sources of hardship, destroying people’s livelihood assets or forcing them to dispose of assets as part of coping or survival strategies.
  • Assets, capabilities, capital. These are the wide range of resources which poor people possess or have access to and use to gain a livelihood. Livelihood assets can be broken down into several different categories, commonly described as different forms of ‘capital’: human, social, natural, physical, financial and political.
  • Livelihood strategies. These are the ways in which poor and vulnerable people deploy their assets and capabilities to improve their livelihoods (for consumption, production, processing, exchange and income-earning activities).
  • Policies, institutions and processes. These are the institutions, organisations, policies, legislation and power relationships that provide the enabling environment for livelihoods, development and DRR. They have great influence on vulnerable people’s access to assets and resources, and hence on their choice of livelihood strategies. These forces operate at all levels, from the household to the international arena, and in private as well as public spheres.

Livelihoods approaches identify the extent and nature of poor people’s livelihood assets, and their vulnerability to hazards as well as other external forces. From this it should be possible to identify entry points for protecting assets that are most at risk or that could be most valuable in a crisis. They also give insights into the factors influencing people’s choice of livelihood strategy, and why they are willing to tolerate hazards and risk.

Livelihoods thinking has also contributed to our understanding of resilience. Figure 9.1 (Livelihoods and resilience in the context of food security) is an example of a recent framework, derived and adapted from earlier sustainable livelihoods models, that links livelihoods and resilience in the context of food security. Figure 9.2 (Components of resilient livelihoods) is another recent model with an alternative perspective of what resilient livelihoods consist of.

Figure 9.1 Livelihoods and resilience in the context of food security

ODI 2015

Livelihoods and resilience in the context of food security.

T. Frankenberger et al., Enhancing Resilience to Food Security Shocks (Tucson, AZ: TANGO International, 2012),, p. 3.


Figure 9.2 Components of resilient livelihoods

ODI 2015

Components of resilient livelihoods

Christian Aid, Thriving, Resilient Livelihoods: Christian Aid’s Approach (London: Christian Aid, 2012),, p. 2.

9.4.2 Assessments

Sustainable livelihoods analysis (or assessment) is used to consider people’s vulnerability to the impact of shocks and stresses, the nature and effectiveness of their livelihood strategies in protecting and improving livelihoods, and the various actions that can be taken to increase their resilience. Sustainable livelihoods models and frameworks can be used in combination with other appraisal tools to design assessments or create checklists of issues to be considered. Alternatively, other types of analysis can be adapted to take account of livelihoods issues, or the findings from assessments that have already been carried out can be re-examined from a livelihoods perspective. By integrating different types of assessment, it is possible to obtain a more complete view of people’s situations and needs, and from this to design more holistic programmes to help them become more resilient.

There are many similarities between sustainable livelihoods assessments, vulnerability and capacity assessments (VCAs) and methods used to explore the nature and impacts of climate change: they cover many of the same issues and tend to use similar data-gathering tools (see Table 9.1: Tools for assessing hazard-induced vulnerability in sustainable livelihoods analysis). It is not difficult to incorporate a livelihoods perspective in VCAs or a vulnerability perspective in sustainable livelihoods assessments, whether they are carried out for research or project baseline studies. VCAs often consider hazard threats, vulnerabilities, the assets that households and communities possess for pursuing their livelihood strategies and the social networks and institutions that can support this. The Household Economy Approach (HEA), which is widely used in food security programming, investigates vulnerability through livelihoods analysis (see Case Study 14.7: Monitoring household food security). Power relations and politics, at local as well as higher levels, are important issues which often do not receive sufficient attention in livelihoods assessments.

Table 9.1 Tools for assessing hazard-induced vulnerability in sustainable livelihoods analysis

 Methods  Application to vulnerability
Secondary data collection (reports, research, statistics, etc.) Contextual information on a variety of issues including external shocks and stresses likely to affect livelihoods (e.g. rainfall and temperature trends, location and features of natural hazards), health (morbidity and mortality), prices, resource stocks – to complement but not replace primary data
Environmental checklists Questions to gain information about environmental conditions and concerns, revealing the relationship between the poor and their environment (e.g. what role do environmental resources play in livelihoods; how do environmental hazards, degradation and changes affect livelihoods, and vice versa?)
Sample surveys Quantitative data on household economies (income, costs etc.), livelihood assets and strategies
Interviews (individuals, households, community groups, key informants), focus groups Information from different perspectives (communities, other local stakeholders, external experts) on events and trends that cause livelihood stress, differential vulnerability and the effectiveness of adaptive behaviour
Individual and household case studies Data on different livelihood experiences and resilience to environmental hazards and other shocks
Timelines Historical occurrence and profiles of longer-term events or trends (e.g. floods, droughts, epidemics, local environmental trends and cycles)
Seasonal calendars Describe seasonal events and trends, identifying vulnerability context, livelihood assets and strategies (e.g. rainfall, food levels at different times of the year, crop planting and harvesting schedules, food prices, changes in health status)
Preference, matrix and wealth ranking Reveal vulnerability of different groups’ livelihood assets to shocks and stresses and strategies against this
Mapping Identify physical and environmental features (including hazards), land use, natural and social resources (assets/capital)
Venn diagrams and other institutional appraisal/mapping methods Social capital, relations between groups, institutional and policy environment
C. Benson and J. Twigg, Tools for Mainstreaming Disaster Risk Reduction: Guidance Notes for Development Organisations (Geneva: ProVention Consortium, 2007), Guidance Note 10: Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches,, p. 7.

A number of agencies are developing tools and frameworks specifically to integrate DRR, livelihoods and social protection, conceptually or in programme design (see Box 9.2 for examples).

Box 9.2 Tools for integrating DRR, livelihoods and social protection

  • M. Ovadiya and C. Costella, Building Resilience to Disasters and Climate Change through Social Protection: Synthesis Note (Washington DC: World Bank 2013),
  • K. Pasteur, From Vulnerability to Resilience: A Framework for Analysis and Action To Build Community Resilience (Rugby: Practical Action Publishing, 2011),
  • K. Vincent and T. Cull, Adaptive Social Protection: Making Concepts a Reality. Guidance Notes for Practitioners (Brighton: Institute of Development Studies, 2012),