Module 3: Towards an application of livelihood approaches

3.3: Approaching livelihoods with a threefold focus

Doc 3.2. suggests to make a distinction between context and core of a livelihood system under investigation. Whether to approach first the core or the context of local livelihoods depends on the purpose and frame condition of an analysis. Yet, for the sake of didactic clarity the investigation in this document is guided by a threefold focus.

Focus I is on the four key elements in the context of a livelihood system. Focus II and III concentrate on the core of a livelihood system. While focus II is on the asset portfolio, focus III concentrates on the decision making space in which people develop and/or adapt their livelihood strategies and strive for outcomes with their own perception of inner and outer realities of their livelihoods. External support becomes meaningful, if they succeed in improving their livelihood strategies towards more sustainability.

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Focus I: Analysing the context of a livelihood system

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Focus I, represented graphically above, invites exploration of four crucial dimensions of the context of a livelihood system. Four key questions are used to address these dimensions.

Risks and Vulnerability: What renders people's livelihoods vulnerable?

Risks and shocks, adverse trends and seasonality have a bearing on people's livelihood. Yet, a livelihood becomes truly vulnerable when it lacks adequate coping or adapting capacities on the micro-level of livelihood. Compare Doc 1.5. The level of these capacities is explored with Focus II (asset portfolio) and Focus III (livelihood strategies). These two focuses help to clarify the following question: "Should the poverty reduction measures tackle an observed risk and reduce an assessed vulnerability in the context of poor people's livelihood, or should they target the core of livelihood and aim to increase people's coping capacity?"

Opportunities: What opportunities offer potential for improving livelihood?

Opportunities are as much part of the context of a livelihood as risks and threats. They may take the form of markets, credit facilities, education, social networks, etc. The task here, however, is to identify constraining reasons explaining why these opportunities are outside the reach of poor people's livelihood strategies.

Policies: How do policies support or constrain people's livelihood?

Exploration of the policy context and the way policies are implemented is crucial and highly livelihood specific. Do we address pastoralists, or urban slum dwellers, or marginal farmers? Are we inquiring into the effects of an overarching policy, such as pro poor growth, or of measures targeting poverty more directly, e.g., services like ration schemes? It can be beneficial to review both supporting and constraining policies.

Institutions: How do institutions favour or constrain livelihood?

In livelihood frameworks "institutions" embrace two important elements: on one hand, the rules and normative frame conditions that govern social interactions; on the other hand, the way that organisations operate in both the public and private sector, on the background of explicit and implicit values. Political participation, market systems, concepts of social orders (such as castes, clans, etc.) belong to this field of investigation.

The four questions above make the limitations of a single focus approach obvious. Effective poverty reduction measures emerge from a triangulation of the three focal approaches to livelihood. See Doc 3.4.

Focus II: Analysing the assets of a livelihood system


Assets constitute a crucial element of livelihood. Establishing an overview of the asset portfolio of a livelihood system generates important information regarding the poverty status of a household. Focus II deals with the following assets: (see: DFID Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets: Glossary (except political capital). Available at:

Human capital

Human capital represents the skills, knowledge, capacity to work and good health that together enable people to pursue different livelihood strategies and achieve their livelihood outcomes. (Human capital is important in its own right; health, knowledge and skills help create sustainable livelihoods. Human capital is also necessary to be able to make use of the other five types of assets.)

Social capital

Social capital is defined as the social resources upon which people draw in pursuit of their livelihood objectives. These social resources are developed through (1) interactions that increase people's ability to work together, (2) membership of more formalised groups governed by accepted rules and norms, (3) relationships of trust that facilitate co-operation, reduce transaction costs and can provide informal safety nets.

Natural capital

Natural capital is the term used for the natural resource stocks (e.g., land, water, forests, clean air, coastal resources) upon which people rely. The benefits of these stocks can be direct and and/or indirect, and they are tightly linked with property and user regimes.

Physical capital

Physical capital comprises the basic infrastructure and physical goods that support livelihoods. Infrastructure consists of changes made to the physical environment that help people to meet their basic needs and to be more productive.

Financial capital

Financial capital is defined as the financial resources that people use to achieve their livelihood outcomes. These are resources in the form of available stocks and regular inflows of money (for example, livestock and the related flow of income).

Political capital

Political capital is the power and capacity to influence political decision-making through formal and informal participation and/or access to political processes. It therefore includes the ability to represent oneself or others, the freedom and capacity to become collectively organised to claim rights and to negotiate access to resources and services. It also extends to the right to hold government and service providers accountable for quality and access.

Focus III: Analysing strategy development and decision-making in a livelihood


Livelihood strategies reflect the range and combinations of activities and choices that people make in order to achieve livelihood outcomes and goals.
Livelihood strategies evolve from implicit and/or explicit decision-making, which is informed by inner and outer realities of livelihood.
Livelihood strategies are diverse and in a constant process of change and adaptation.

The RLS Mandala offers a framework for structuring the exploration of decision-making in a livelihood system and for tracing material and non-material livelihood outcomes towards which people aim.

Understanding people’s livelihood strategies means to explore the role of factors and forces determining the use of their resources, for example, the role of gender-relations, of collective or family based value-orientations and of individual ambitions.


Livelihood strategies

Livelihoods are diverse and change over time. Livelihood strategies comprise the range and combination of activities and choices that people undertake and make in order to achieve their livelihood outcomes and objectives.

Livelihood outcomes

Livelihood outcomes are the achievements of livelihood strategies. DFID's SL framework lists five 'categories' of livelihood outcomes: (1) more income, (2) increased well-being, (3) reduced vulnerability, (4) improved food security, (5) more sustainable use of the natural resource base.

Yet, above all, through livelihood strategies people strive to give meaning to their lives, both individually and within the social unit to which individuals may belong. Livelihood ceases to be sustainable when it loses meaning.

Meaning has its vital roots in the inner realities of a livelihood system, in personal experience and orientations, in emotions and people's perceptions of themselves. These elements of inner reality of livelihood manifest themselves in the development of livelihood strategies and the outcomes aspired at.

Tracing and understanding decision making in favour of sustainable livelihood

In the present framework the RLS Mandala is integrated into a conceptual approach to the livelihood context with its extension into the macro sphere of livelihood. See Focus I. The framework further builds on the asset portfolio identified in Focus II, additionally attaching importance to the emotional base of a livelihood system.

Under the present Focus III the RLS Mandala mainly offers a heuristic tool for exploring and understanding the worldviews and reasoning that guide people in developing livelihood strategies to achieve livelihood outcomes.

It draws attention to the centre of decision-making where strategies evolve, influenced by gender relations and guided by three types of orientations: individual, family/household and collective orientations. It builds on the strong conviction that these orientations exert influence on the manner in which the identified resources are used and internal and external relationships are managed, including those with development agents!