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Empowering Communities for Sustainable Livelihoods

Communities face unprecedented challenges to their livelihoods, their identities, their institutions, and their sense of place in the evolving global village. Will communities be able to cope with continued economic and ecological crises? Traditional approaches that promote high rates of economic growth have not led to sustained or evenly distributed benefits. What the world requires is a fundamental and far-reaching change in the attitudes and behaviour of its citizens, governments and corporations if it is going to provide for a sustainable future. At the community level, IISD has focused on achieving a deeper understanding of community processes and livelihoods systems, particularly in developing countries.

Sustainable livelihoods

While in many developed countries the concept of a single wage earner in a career job is largely unquestioned, for most families in developing countries the situation is markedly different. Livelihood structures are complex, usually revolving around the incomes, skills and services of all members of the family in an effort to reduce the risks associated with living near subsistence. A family may survive by sending its children to sell goods on the street, while the father earns a small wage at a factory and also drives a taxi, and the mother grows food in an urban garden. Livelihoods are rarely limited to one secure job in a wage-based economy.

Through its work in five African countries, IISD has developed a framework for understanding sustainable livelihoods. Achieving sustainable livelihoods requires the integration of local knowledge and community strengths with contemporary science, appropriate technology, enabling policies, effective and transparent governance structures, education and training, and credit and investment.

Sustainable Livelihoods Framework

The sustainable livelihoods approach is an integrated development method, which brings individual approaches together to achieve sustainable development. It involves an assessment of community assets, adaptive strategies and technologies contributing to livelihood systems, and the analysis of cross-sectoral policies and investment requirements to enhance livelihoods.

IISD's Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

IISD defines a 'livelihood' as the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and access) and activities required for a means of living. A livelihood is sustainable if it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain and enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation.

IISD's entry point to the sustainable livelihoods approach for sustainable development is the community's strengths, which for drought mitigation are their adaptive strategies. This approach acknowledges that communities are both subjects and objects of change and that they have much strength and much knowledge about their own situation. It puts strong emphasis on the question of sustainability in economics, environmental and social well-being of people, governance and policy as well as their linkages. It uses empowerment rather than welfare, improves the productivity of existing livelihood systems and creates new opportunities sustainably. As part of the empowerment of a community, the sustainable livelihoods approach allows for the development of indicators to measure improvements in livelihood systems and the sustainability of these systems.

© 1999 International Institute for Sustainable Development

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