Understanding the diversity and complexity of livelihoods in the Global South

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Fiona Nunan is Professor of Environment and Development at the International Development Department. She is the lead editor of the Routledge Handbook on Livelihoods in the Global South, with co-editors being Clare Barnes and Sukanya Krishnamurthy of the University of Edinburgh. Fiona’s research area is concerned with how local resource users collaborate with government and others in natural resource governance.

New edited volume on livelihoods in the Global South provides an essential resource for students and researchers.

25 years on from the publication of Ian Scoones’ seminal working paper on ‘Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: A Framework for Analysis’ seems an appropriate time to reflect on insights and lessons learnt from livelihoods analysis. Back in 1998, a strong focus on poverty elimination and wide acceptance that a broader interpretation of poverty is essential, going beyond the economics-income perspective, led to global adoption of a livelihoods approach in international development interventions and research.

The UK Department for International Development (DFID) embraced sustainable livelihoods in its policies and programming, as did many non-governmental organisations, such as CARE International and the Red Cross. Literature on ‘livelihoods’ is, however, very diffuse, found in several disciplines and takes diverse angles and perspectives. What then can be learnt from 25 years of research and practice on livelihoods analysis and programming?

The Routledge Handbook on Livelihoods in the Global South

The Routledge Handbook on Livelihoods in the Global South responds to this challenging question, bringing  together cutting edge reviews of related concepts, research methods and literature on how livelihoods are negotiated and generated.

Introduction: key concepts

The first section of the book begins with a critical review of the concept of livelihoods, informed by analysis of how thinking and practice has evolved in relation to poverty and wellbeing, noting advocacy for greater recognition of the political context of livelihoods. Politics and power affect all aspects of livelihoods in all contexts, with several later chapters taking up this recognition in an analysis of power and a review of the political context of livelihoods in Africa.

The Introduction section introduces and reviews the Capability Approach, how diverse institutions mediate livelihoods, how social and power differentials affect the context and experience of vulnerability and resilience, the centrality of ‘social capital’ to livelihoods and what ‘rights-based approaches’ can bring to sustainable livelihoods thinking and analysis.

Researching livelihoods

The second section provides readers with a selection of methods used to research livelihoods. It recognises the diversity of approaches that have been used to investigate livelihoods; from quantitative methods to measure livelihood assets to longitudinal qualitative methods to generate understanding of the depth, richness and evolution of livelihoods. Researching livelihoods has particularly been associated with participatory methods, so several chapters take up this perspective, from participatory rural appraisal to participatory video and how the use of participatory Global Positioning System research can generate data on spatial knowledge and mobilities.

Negotiating livelihoods

Securing adequate livelihoods is challenging in many respects, as reflected in Part 2 of the volume. The influence of power is particularly critical in shaping livelihoods, including in relation to gender relations, disability, national politics and social movements. Education is critical to negotiating livelihoods in many contexts, as is an understanding of how age, gender and social responsibilities affect the livelihoods of youth and children. The development and maintenance of livelihoods are  influenced by government policies and regulations, particularly in relation to livelihoods associated with the ‘informal sector’, such as street vending and waste picking.

Generating livelihoods

Part 3 provides examples of strategies and mechanisms through which livelihoods are generated, with many reflecting the original rural focus of the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach. These include environmental income, forest-dependent livelihoods, agriculture, fisheries, pastoralism and artisanal mining. Of course, many livelihoods are pursued within a more urban setting, and a review of the informal waste sector in India reveals a diversity of experiences and dimensions of livelihoods. Such diversity of livelihoods in the informal and formal sectors suggests a need for spatial planning in cities that is enabling for the generation of livelihoods.

Enabling livelihoods

Multiple mechanisms and factors support livelihoods; from migration for better jobs and income-generation to the provision of remittances and access to credit. Migration to support livelihoods takes many forms, with associated remittances supporting entrepreneurship, education, poverty reduction and agricultural development. Access to financial services is also important for enabling livelihoods, with mobile money and access to microfinance being of particular importance in countries of the Global South. Livelihoods can also be ‘enabled’ when people and economies have better access to markets and when transport needs are addressed.

Contextualising livelihoods

In the final section, the wider contexts of livelihoods are investigated, from policies and programmes that provide targeted social protection, to participation in collective structures, such as producer organisations, savings and credit groups, and water user committees. The wider context of livelihoods can also, unfortunately, include disasters, conflict and climate change. In contrast, the wider context can also include diverse beliefs and practice including religion and the reform of land tenure, including privatisation, marketisation and dispossession.

Another 25 years for livelihoods analyses?

What this book demonstrates is that taking a livelihoods perspective remains relevant to understanding how people are living their lives, the constraints they face and how they respond in the face of adversity and challenges. At this midway point to the Sustainable Development Goals of 2030, the book serves as an essential reminder of the diversity and complexity of livelihoods, and of how, in consequence, diverse and multifaceted policies and interventions are needed to better enable and support livelihoods. The centrality of power and politics in providing a more enabling environment for effective and sustainable livelihoods must be recognised and acted on.

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