An IFAD Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

Policy conclusions

While the diagrammatic representation of the SL framework is by no means the most important element in the SL Approach, it plays an important role as a "point of first entry" for development practitioners being exposed to the approach for the first time. It is also a vital tool for facilitators involved in supporting or training development practitioners. The framework used, and the key elements within it, shape people's perceptions of SL in the medium-term and it is therefore important that the framework used be as effective, and complete, as possible. The framework presented here attempts to develop on the original SL framework, make it more "people-centred", more complete in its coverage of key elements affecting people's livelihoods, and more expressive of the principle issues that the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach aims to address. In particular it provides users with a more accessible means of understanding and analysing policies, institutions and processes (the "PIP box") and emphasises the central importance of linkages between different elements in the framework. It thus aims to provide facilitators of Sustainable Livelihoods analysis with an improved set of tools to support this process.


Since December 2002, IFAD has organised a series of workshops to encourage IFAD staff and consultants to reflect on their experience in development work and on ways for them to implement the Strategic Framework for IFAD 2002-2006. These workshops have used the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach as a means of helping participants to analyse what they already do and ways in which they, and IFAD, could enhance their positive impacts on the livelihoods of the poor. Sustainable Livelihoods Approach was used as a "thematic guide" for these workshops. Participants, after "recreating" the SL framework, based on their own experience, then used it to organise and rationalise their experiences in development and clarify linkages that had not always been obvious to them before. The SL framework proved to be a relatively intuitive and easy tool to work with.

Issues relating to the SL Framework

During the course of these workshops, facilitators found that the way in which the framework was built up was extremely important: starting with the poor themselves and their livelihood assets was essential in getting people to engage in a "people-centred" analysis. However, the layout of the original SL framework did not "suggest" this approach and, in some cases, encouraged a "left-to-right" reading. The poor themselves tend to be easily lost within the livelihood pentagon and participants' attention in looking at the framework sometimes focuses more on the assets and other factors than on the poor themselves as people. The linkages between different elements in the framework - the lines connecting PIPs with vulnerability, and strategies with assets, vulnerability and PIPs - do not come across as important visual elements and are sometimes interpreted as being relatively unimportant when they are in fact essential to the understanding of sustainable livelihoods.

Partly because of the lack of salience given to the poor at the centre of the framework, important elements of their livelihoods, such as their aspirations for change and the opportunities that they perceive for change, are also left implicit when they often constitute a key element for identifying areas of intervention and entry points for facilitating change.

When the analysis focussed on that part of the framework dealing with policies, institutions and processes - the "PIP box" or "transforming structures and processes" - the help provided by the DFID framework also seemed to be limited. Since the Interagency Forum on Sustainable Livelihoods Approaches held in March, 2000, the attention of development practitioners has frequently been focussed to this particular area of the SLA . There is a widespread perception that much of the "added value" of the SLA lies in the linkages it makes between the livelihoods of the poor and the policies and institutions that either support or hinder them in achieving successful livelihood outcomes.

This interest has generated a considerable literature aimed at "unpacking the PIP box". However not all of this has been easily transferable into the workshop context and it is not always simple to analyse the PIP box in a way that helps workshop participants to quickly get to grips with the key issues involved and link them to other elements in the framework.

Early on in the development of the IFAD SL workshops, the facilitators adopted an approach to analysing policies and institutions based on the "hub model" (Hobley and Shields 2000). This proved to be a valuable tool for helping participants to focus less on the structures involved in generating and implementing policy and more on the relationships between them and the "end-users". But workshop participants often experienced some difficulty in fitting this analytical tool into the wider livelihoods framework.

  • These considerations encouraged the facilitators to consider how the original SL framework might be developed upon and improved to make some of these linkages clearer and, at the same time, address some of the other more common comments on, and criticisms of, the framework.
The "IFAD" SL Framework

The result of these efforts (shown below) incorporates several changes compared to the DFID SL framework.

Less "sequential"

The "horizontal" arrangement of the DFID framework suggest a sequential reading and makes the all-important linkages between the different elements in the framework less obvious and, apparently, of relatively less importance. By rearranging the framework, these linkages have been given greater salience and the relations between different elements have become more immediately apparent.

Placing the poor at the centre

Although the SLA has largely developed as a tool to aid the achievement of the poverty-focussed MDGs, the failure of the framework to highlight this sufficiently has frequently been commented on. The new framework attempts to address this by placing the poor literally at the centre of the diagram and arranging the other elements in the framework in relationship to them.

Specific highlighting of key "processes"


Making the spiritual aspects of livelihoods more explicit

Particularly during workshops held for regional counterparts and consultants of IFAD, many participants felt that the SL framework was rather "impersonal" - it tended to imply that people's livelihoods were made up of a sum of different assets, people's access to those assets and influencing factors that affect that access. Experienced field workers emphasised how the spiritual aspects of people's lives is of essential importance and can affect their will and drive to act. In some cases, participants wanted to include "religious" or "spiritual" assets in the livelihood framework. In a workshop in India , the framework was developed by participants in the form of a nine-tiered mandala that linked individuals to the universe, emphasising the importance of this spiritual aspect of people's lives.


A set of fundamental social "processes" - gender, age, class (or caste) and ethnic group - are placed immediately around the poor. These have been made more explicit than in the original DFID framework as they are factors that influence the relations of the poor with everything else in the framework. They also highlight the importance of a clear definition of who, or what, is being placed at the centre of the framework.

Incorporating "personal" assets

An additional group of livelihood assets - "personal" assets - have been added to the 5 contained in the original SL framework. As the name suggests, this reminds us of the more personal factors that may affect the choices of individuals and households regarding their livelihoods. It is intended to emphasise people's internal motivations, their will to act and promote change (for themselves or others), their drive to assert their rights, and the spiritual side of their lives. It also incorporates their desire to engage in political activity (while "social" assets includes the mechanisms by which they may be able to articulate that activity), responding to a widespread concern among training participants. "Human" assets might also include some of these "personal" assets: however, from experience in SL training, it is clear that the health and education aspects of human assets tend to obscure these other extremely important features of people's livelihoods, therefore justifying an additional heading.

Figure 1 : An Alternative Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

Figure 1 : An Alternative Sustainable Livelihoods Framework
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Incorporating the "hub model" for analysing policies and institutions

In the original SL framework, the "PIP box", or "transforming structures and processes", has often represented a problematic area in terms of communicating the key elements of the SL framework to new "users". The new framework has attempted to address this problem by "unpacking" the "PIP box", using the "hub model" of institutional analysis to represent the two basic levels of institution with which the poor, and agencies such as IFAD, interact - "service delivery" agencies and "enabling" agencies - and identifying the poor, with their range of livelihood assets, as the "users" of these institutions.


Unpacking the "PIP" Box

During workshops on Sustainable Livelihoods for IFAD staff and consultants, participants were asked to use the "hub model" of institutional analysis to analyse a case study concerning stakeholders and institutions concerned with forest policy reform. The process of distinguishing between "enablers", "service providers" and "users", considering what relationships exist between these different groups and what factors influence those relationships helped participants to appreciate the complexities surrounding policies and institutions and identify ways in which they might be "addressed" and influenced.


Service providers can include everything from national-level departments whose task is to implement policy measures to the community-level operators with whom the poor are likely to have direct contact in their day-to-day lives. Enabling agencies can range from the highest national-level policy making bodies, to local administrations whose decisions on priorities and strategies in dealing with poverty might facilitate or hinder the work of those responsible for implementation.

The "hub model" focuses on institutional roles, and the relationships between different institutions and the poor. Institutional functions, characteristics and structures (normally at the centre of institutional analysis) are clearly important but are only part of the picture - whatever institution is placed into this "hub model" needs to be described in detail, but it is other features that are liable to be most important from the point of view of development practitioners - the way in which institutions work together and work with the poor, and the way in which the policy decisions of enabling agencies reflect the needs and priorities of the poor, and are translated into services delivered to the poor.

Unpacking "processes"

In the original DFID framework, "processes" include such diverse elements as policies, legislation, the formal and informal rules governing institutions such as markets, organisations and tenure arrangements, culture and power relations defined by gender, age, ethnicity, caste and class. The grouping of such diverse elements often presents new users of the SL framework with significant problems, particularly as many of the elements grouped under this heading are relatively abstract and difficult to link to concrete influences on the livelihoods of the poor.

In the new framework, these processes are "unpacked". First of all, key aspects such as gender, age, class, ethnicity and ability are given greater salience, and placed at the centre, to reflect the fact that they can influence everything at all levels within the framework. Secondly, policies are incorporated into the analysis of the agencies and institutions that produce them - they are a key element in the relations between enabling agencies and both service providers and service users (the poor). Thirdly, other elements that have strong influences, particularly on the ways in which the poor interact with institutions, are identified as "influences" within the "hub". These elements - broadly defined as markets, politics (differentiated from policies), rules and norms - are placed here as they both influence relations with these institutions and can themselves be changed or influenced by positive action of enabling institutions or service providers.

Markets are explicitly mentioned because of the importance that they play in determining how the poor are able to convert the resources at their disposal into livelihood assets. The specific inclusion of markets as a key influence is also important because they are liable to play a particularly important role in determining the opportunities for improved livelihood strategies that the poor can generate, and the extent to which they are likely to be able to realise aspirations (Dorward et al., 2003). Politics - the network of power relations within society, whether formally or informally represented - need to be distinguished from "policies" - the decisions regarding objectives, distribution of resources and priorities made by "enabling agencies". Culture includes a broad range of "rules of the game", social and cultural norms that are likely to strongly influence how the poor are able to interact with the institutions that affect their livelihoods. Rights are introduced as they represent an increasingly important set of demands that the poor can make on their institutional environment but can be recognised to varying degrees depending on the political and social structure of a particular country. All of these influences may be difficult for the poor themselves to take action on, but they are not immutable and need to be distinguished from those elements that represent the "vulnerability" context, which is difficult or impossible to change and must be "coped" with instead.

Highlighting the linkages with the "vulnerability" context

The new framework also makes the relationship between the "vulnerability" context and the other elements in the framework clearer and more explicit. If the poor are able to access the livelihood assets they require and are adequately supported by service providers and enabling agencies, and if they are able to make markets, politics, rules and norms work to their advantage, then it should help them to cope with those elements of their vulnerability context which they can do little to change. The representation of the vulnerability context as "all-embracing" for the poor, but mediated by the interplay of the other elements in their livelihoods, emphasises the responsibility of development interventions to help the poor to cope with vulnerability factors.

Introducing aspirations and opportunities

The inclusion of the aspirations of the poor, and the opportunities that they are able to pursue, encourages users of the SL framework to focus on the hopes of the poor themselves and their capacity to take advantage of opportunities rather than making assumptions about what options and opportunities may exist within a given livelihoods system. This encourages a people-centred analysis and an understanding of the strengths of the poor that can be built on through the development process.

Actions instead of strategies

The terms "strategies" seems to imply that the poor have choices regarding what they do to realise their aspirations, take advantage of opportunities and cope with vulnerability. This term is replaced by "actions" in order to emphasise that they may or may not represent choices and that they may or may not have positive, or intended, outcomes.

Emphasising the "feedback" from strategies and outcomes to other livelihood elements

The change in the overall structure of the framework also allows strategies and livelihood outcomes to become more "integrated" into the framework as a whole. This emphasises the importance of the "feedback" between:

    • strategies adopted by the poor;
    • the livelihood outcomes they achieve;
    • and the assets, institutions and influences that affect their livelihood options

For example, the strategies forced on the poor, either because of their vulnerability or as a result of the poor support they receive from service providers and enabling agencies, may have direct negative impacts on the sustainability of their livelihoods systems as a whole.

Uses of the new framework

Clearly no framework can be all-inclusive and this version of the framework is not intended to be used "as it stands" in every situation. Like the original SL Framework, this alternative does not provide ready-made solutions and is only as useful as the detailed analysis, discussion and adaptation that goes into it.

This version of the SL framework has been developed above all with a view to providing an added tool for facilitators in helping development practitioners to analyse their practice, the conditions in which they intervene and the courses of action open to them.

It may also prove useful to practitioners by helping them to understand the factors they need to take into account when identifying entry points for development activities, but it is not intended as a field tool. Elements in it may provide field workers with added assistance in structuring enquiries into local conditions, analysing situations and identifying possible entry points for development interventions, but it must be supported by appropriate tools and methods for working in the field.

As a guide to the analysis of development situations, the "unpacking" of transforming structures and processes - the "PIP box" - should assist practitioners in addressing them in practical terms. The hub model provides a generic means of analysing institutions that is both adaptable to different situations but at the same time allows practitioners to look at the different aspects of institutions on which interventions might focus.


DFID. Sustainable Livelihoods Guidance Sheets. DFID, London, U.K.

Dorward, A., N.Poole, J.Morrisson, J.Kydde and I.Urey (2003). Markets, Institutions and Technology: Missing Links in Livelihoods Analysis. Development Policy Review, 2003, 21(3): 319-332.

Hobley, M.and D.Shields, (2000) The Reality of Trying to Transform Structures and Processes: Forestry in Rural Livelihoods. ODI Sustainable Livelihoods Working Paper 132. ODI, London , U.K.

Shields, D. Unpublished Training materials for Institutional Analysis. IFAD, Rome .

Authors: Julian Hamilton-Peach and Philip Townsley