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Student number: 1355795

Module: 7SSG5107 Environment, Livelihoods and Development in the South

Essay title: To what extent does the livelihoods framework assist us in
assessing differences in the types of livelihoods in rural and urban areas in
the Global South?
Due date: 10 January 2014
Student number: 1355795
Word count: 2995

This essay aims to evaluate the sustainable livelihoods framework, specifically

its worth in contributing to a better understanding of rural and urban livelihoods in the
Global South. I will begin with an introduction to the sustainable livelihoods
framework followed by a brief history of the development of livelihoods thinking. The
definition of key terms such as “rural”, “urban”, “Global South”, “household” and
“sustainability” will also be discussed. Subsequently, I will compare the application of
the livelihoods framework in rural and urban contexts as well as its limitations.

What is sustainable livelihoods framework?

Popularised in the 1990s, livelihoods approaches recognise that people often
make a living through a combination of activities than through a single job
(Chambers, 1995). Livelihood opportunities available in a village, town, city, region or
country are constrained by its macro- and micro-economic, political, social and
environmental contexts (Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). In addition, an individual or
household’s livelihood strategies and outcomes is limited by the tangible and
intangible assets they own or have access to (Chambers and Conway, 1992).
Applicable at a range of different scales, livelihoods analysis enables academics and
policymakers to gain a better grasp of the diverse and complex local realities people,
particularly the poor, secure a living (Scoones, 1998).
Most international development agencies adopted Robert Chambers and
Gordon Conway’s (1992) definition of sustainable livelihoods:

“A livelihood comprises the capabilities, assets (stores, resources, claims and

access) and activities required for a means of living: a livelihood is sustainable
when it can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or
enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood

Student number: 1355795

opportunities for the next generation; and which contributes net benefits to
other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the short and long term.”

The three themes of capability, equity and sustainability are central to

Chambers and Conway (1992)’s conceptualisation of sustainable livelihoods. They
are both a mean and an end to sustainable livelihoods. A household’s capabilities
provide the means for its members to gain livelihoods. Equitable distribution of
resources and access is a mean to eliminate discrimination towards the end goal of
securing adequate, decent livelihoods for everyone. Striving for sustainable
stewardship of environmental resources as an end safeguards the means for future
generations to obtain livelihoods.
However, different development agencies have modified Chambers and
Conway’s definition to suit their organisation’s agenda. For example, the UK
Department for International Development (DFID)’s version does not require
sustainable livelihoods to produce net benefits for others as it was deemed an
impractical requirement (Carney et al, 1999). On top of that, the DFID (1999)
believed the asset pentagon, made up of human, social, physical, financial and
natural capitals, is the most important aspect in a sustainable livelihoods framework.

Source: DFID (1999)

Student number: 1355795

Development of livelihoods approaches

Solesbury (2003) believed the concept of sustainable livelihoods first emerged
in the Bruntland Commission Report in 1987. However, Scoones (2009) pointed out
that livelihoods thinking have surfaced over half a century ago. For instance, the
Rhodes-Livingstone Institute had brought together experts from the fields of
anthropology, economics and ecology to study rural development challenges in then
Northern Rhodesia, now Zambia (Scoones, 2009). Unfortunately, the domination of
mono-disciplinary thinking and neo-liberal economists post-World War II in
international development agencies as well as national governments crowded out
cross-disciplinary livelihoods perspectives. Nevertheless, some researchers in the
social sciences continued to study livelihoods in the fields of village studies,
household economics, agro-ecosystem analysis, political ecology and more
(Scoones, 2009).
Livelihood approaches became mainstream when it was adopted by Oxfam in
1993, CARE in 1994, the United Nations Development Programme in 1995 and the
newly established DFID in 1997 (Carney et al, 1999). Later on, the World Bank, the
Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the Canadian
International Development Agency also incorporated livelihood analysis into their
policies and programmes (Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). Most of these agencies
adopted a sustainable livelihoods framework similar to DFID’s with slight variations
and a heavy focus on capital assets. Scoones (2009) has critiqued development
practitioners’ overwhelming focus on the capitals in the asset pentagon have
confined discussions within economic analysis, at the expense of neglecting larger
questions of power and politics.

Before moving on to compare the sustainable livelihoods framework’s
usefulness in analysing rural and urban livelihoods in the Global South, I would like
to define the key terms. The definition of “urban” differs depending on country.
Farrington et al (2002) noted that the urban populace could be defined by population
thresholds, population density, percentage of population engaged in non-agricultural
production or administrative boundaries. They mentioned that most of the rural
population living in settlements in China and India could be classified as “urban”
according to Swedish or Peruvian standards. Furthermore, peri-urban areas, where

Student number: 1355795

rural and urban activities converge (DPU, 2001), are often neglected in discussions
of rural-urban differences. Clearly, the lines separating rural from urban remain
vague (Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). For this essay’s purpose, urban areas refer
to localities with high population density.
Meanwhile, the “Global South” includes low- and middle-income countries in
Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2013).
Although the term “Global South” is geographically imprecise as some of these
countries are at the north of the equator, Mitlin and Satterthwaite (2013) considered
it a better alternative than “developing countries” or the “Third World”. As they have
aptly questioned: the so-called developed countries are advanced by whose and
what standards? The term “Third World”, which implied inferiority to the First World
and Second World, is also inappropriate. Here, the poor is used to refer to low-
income groups (Mitlin and Satterthwaite, 2013) but poverty is understood to be more
than income-poor, it can include “other dimensions of deprivation such as physical
illness, isolation, vulnerability and powerless” (Chambers, 1995, p.175).
The term “household” remains contested in the academia. Chant (1998)
cautioned against treating household as a single-dimensional, fixed unit. Household
members can be bounded by blood ties, marriage, friendship or other forms of social
relationships. They may or may not live together and a household’s conditions
change over lifecycle (Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). Rigg (2006) added that the
term “household” also masked intra-household inequality and conflict. Most
livelihoods analysis focused on the household but Scoones (1998) highlighted that
different scale of analysis is essential to evaluate the net livelihoods effects at
different levels.
Sustainability is supposed to be a core theme in the livelihoods framework but it
remains difficult to define. DFID (1999) proposed that sustainability has many
dimensions: environmental, economic, social and institutional. Environmental
sustainability usually involves conserving natural resource for future generations.
Economic sustainability refers to achieving a baseline level of economic welfare;
social sustainability meant maximising social equity while institutional sustainability
concerns ensuring institutions remain functional over the long term (DFID, 1999).
Scoones (1998) remarked that achieving sustainable livelihoods inevitably involves
trade-offs, which must be addressed and negotiated in any intervention process.

Student number: 1355795

Rural and urban livelihoods in the Global South

The sustainable livelihoods framework was originally developed with a rural
focus (Chambers and Conway, 1992; Scoones, 1998; DFID, 1999). Subsequently, it
has also been used to analyse urban livelihoods (Carney et al, 1999; Rakodi with
Lloyd-Jones, 2002; Farrington et al, 2002). I will attempt to use the framework to
compare the differences and similarities in vulnerability context, capital assets and
livelihood strategies in rural and urban areas in the Global South. Existing research
and relevant case studies will be used to back up the analysis but readers must keep
in mind that the Global South covers incredibly diverse regions. Broad trends
discussed here remain generalised assumptions. The purpose of the framework,
after all, is meant to help us comprehend messy, local realities.

Vulnerability context
Short-terms shocks and long-term stress can have adverse impacts on
livelihoods. Potential sudden shocks that affect all livelihoods include wars,
persecution, floods, droughts, fires, accidents and epidemics (Chambers and
Conway, 1992). Poor but coping households in rural or urban areas can also fall into
a downward spiral of vulnerability and deprivation due to death of a family member,
loss of a job or assets, or persistent health problems. Global financial crises tend to
have a disproportionate negative impact on urban areas (Farrington et al, 2002).
Additionally, urban inhabitants in informal settlements are susceptible to the risk of
eviction and their homes being torn down by local authorities.
Possible stresses that impact both rural and urban residents include population
growth, a decline in work opportunities, low wages, physical disabilities and
indebtedness (Chambers and Conway, 1992). However, rural livelihoods are
particularly vulnerable to seasonality, diminishing agricultural yields and
disappearing common property resources. In comparison, urban poor living in
informal settlements with poor sanitation, near industrial facilities or dumpsites are
more susceptible to diseases (Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). In addition, it should
be noted that vulnerability varies for different social groups. While cities normally
provide more employment opportunities for women, they tend to remain underpaid.
And despite joining the labour force, many are still responsible for performing
household chores (Farrington et al, 2002). In urban areas, new migrants, members
of a lower social class or an ethnic minority are also prone to discrimination and

Student number: 1355795

regularly lack access to public services. Many of them end up deriving their
livelihoods from the informal sector such as through petty trading, recycling, begging
and prostitution. Rakodi with Lloyd-Jones (2002) commented that informal activities
usually provide low financial returns except for moneylenders, pimps and drug

Generally, human capital, social capital and physical capital are equally
important to both urban and rural households and communities. Natural capital is
perceived to be more significant for rural livelihoods while financial capital is far more
crucial to secure urban livelihoods. Apart from being used to gain livelihoods,
tangible and intangible assets can also be used to make one’s life more meaningful
or to challenge unequal power structures and processes (Bebbington, 1999).
Regrettably, mainstream livelihoods analyses have been largely focused on its
instrumental aspect (Scoones, 2009).

i) Human capital
Human capital refers to the labour resources available to households (Rakodi,
1999). Education qualifications, skills and health status of household members
determine the quality of human capital available while the quantity of labour
resources available depends on a household lifecycle and dependency ratio (Rakodi
with Lloyd-Jones, 2002). As children in a young household grow up, the number of
labour resources increases. In contrast, the human capital of a household declines
when its members age or become sick and no longer have the means to make a
Households in urban areas generally have better access to education and
healthcare compare with remote rural areas. Still, some urban poor may not be able
to afford to send their children to schools or hospitals as such services are not
always provided for free by governments. Furthermore, Guha Sapir (1996, as cited in
Farrington et al, 2002) found that in South Asian cities, households tend to spend
more on healthcare for boys and men. In a cholera epidemic in Bangladesh, girls
and women were only sent to hospitals when the disease was more serious.

Student number: 1355795

ii) Social capital

Social capital includes social relations, networks, connections as well as
systems of patronage that people rely on to secure livelihoods (DFID, 1999).
Previous studies have confirmed that it is of paramount importance in most villages
but research on the significance of social capital in cities remains lacking (Rakodi,
2002). It is especially important as a “resource of last resort” for the poor (DFID,
1999). Even though social connections could be more fluid in cities, Farrington et al
(2002) suggested that social capital is essential to both urban and rural households.
For instance, rural relatives may supply urban families with food, medicine or
childcare and in turn, rely on urban families for additional income.

iii) Physical capital

Physical capital refers to basic infrastructure that people access to pursue their
livelihoods, including housing, transport, water and power supply, drainage and
access to information (DFID, 1999). Compared with their urban counterparts, the
rural poor usually lack access to clean water and electricity, public transport and as a
result lack access to education and healthcare as well. In Sarawak, Malaysia,
indigenous communities such as the Penans rely on loggers to send their children to
schools due to the lack of transport options. Some of these loggers had exploited the
advantage to rape the girls (Then and Ling, 2009).
For the urban poor, land is scarce in cities and housing is costlier so most end
up in informal settlements. The quality and location of housing is also link to financial
capital (availability of jobs), human capital (health status) and social capital (support
networks). Farrington et al (2002) highlighted that to apply for government
assistance or jobs, individuals need a fixed address. Thus without secure housing,
their livelihood opportunities and public services would be reduced. Citing Benjamin
and Amis (1999), they added that even informal moneylenders would only lend
money to those who own their houses. Consequently, tenants from informal
settlements can only go to pawnbrokers for credit.

iv) Natural capital

Land, rivers and forests are among some of the natural capital from which rural
households derived their livelihoods (Rakodi, 1999). Access to common property
resources and subsistence agriculture enable rural dwellers to obtain food, water

Student number: 1355795

and accommodation without financial income. Consequently, the loss of common

property resources due to rapid deforestation, urbanisation and pollution has a
negative impact on rural livelihoods, particularly indigenous people.
In comparison, direct access to natural capital is less relevant to urban dwellers
unless they engaged in urban agriculture (Farrington et al, 2002). Nonetheless,
urban populations remain dependant on natural resources such as water, energy
and food. Due to lack of access to water supply, some of the urban poor may still
use rivers for washing and drinking. In addition, Satterthwaite (2000) pointed out that
many urban centres thrive on processing and marketing agricultural produce such as
the production of silk cocoon near Bangalore, India. As a result, fluctuations in
agricultural yield would have a knock-on effect on downstream industries and
livelihoods reliant on these sectors.

v) Financial capital
Financial capital includes cash income, savings, credit and liquid assets such
as livestock and jewellery. It is arguably the most important resource for urban
residents as they rely on it to secure accommodation, food, water, sanitation and
more (Farrington et al, 2002). But in both urban and rural areas, credit can be hard to
access for low-income groups. Research have shown that urban informal settlers
could be charged up to 30% interest per annum in Latin America and South Asia
(Rutherford, 1999).

vi) Political capital?

Political capital determines access to decision-making and is highly gendered
(Rakodi, 2002). DFID (1999) subsumed it under social capital but Farrington et al
(2002) thinks it deserves a category of its own in the analysis of livelihoods assets.
While privileged groups with links to officials and politicians may abuse it to obtain
resources meant for the poor, marginalised individuals and households in both urban
and rural areas need it to assert their rights and challenge unjust power structures
and institutions.
Scoones (2009) argued against including political capital as just one category
in the livelihoods assets. He contested that analysis of power and politics is needed
in different aspects of the livelihoods framework including the vulnerability context,
transforming structures and processes as well as access to assets. But with

Student number: 1355795

development practitioners’ disproportionate focus on the asset pentagon, I think it is

important to include political capital to remind them of the importance of analysing
how unequal distribution of power among different social groups and gender further
disenfranchise already marginalised communities.

Livelihood strategies
Households in rural and urban areas devise a variety of strategies to utilise the
livelihoods assets available to them to cope with shocks and stress as well as to
enhance their livelihoods outcomes (Farrington et al, 2002). Similar to the
vulnerability context, Rakodi (1999) wrote that households’ strategies are influenced
by gender division of labour, lifecycle as well as their wider political, social, cultural,
economic and natural environments. On top of that, they are also shaped by
individuals’ personal ambitions.
Scoones (1998) reported that rural inhabitants generally rely on three
livelihoods strategies: agricultural intensification or extension, diversification and
migration. The second and third options are also available to urban populations.
Rigg (2006) observed that in Southeast Asia, youths are migrating from villages to
urban areas and foreign countries in search of more and better employment
opportunities. However, Farrington et al (2002) noted that the urban poor would also
migrate or commute to work in peri-urban or rural areas if there were seasonal
agricultural work available. Citing Brook and Davila (2000), they highlighted that a
quarter of the female labour force and nearly 14% of the male labourers in
Karnataka, a state in southwest India derived their income from agricultural activities.
Indeed, agricultural activities can act as safety valves for the urban poor when
jobs are loss during economic crises. At the same time, off-farm activities become a
buffer for the rural poor should demand for agricultural labour fall. Diversification can
be a strategy of accumulation for the rich, a strategy of consolidation for the middle
class but for the poor, it is usually a strategy of survival (Rigg, 2006).

There remain limitations in the real-life applications of the sustainable
livelihoods framework as international agencies often focus on local level power
dynamics at the expense of neglecting wider structures of inequality (Scoones,
2009). It also remains difficult to gauge the sustainability of livelihoods. Despite that,

Student number: 1355795

it has contributed to a better understanding of rural and urban poverty as well as

highlight rural-urban linkages. I think the framework is still a useful tool to analyse
local livelihoods in diverse regions in the Global South. From the vulnerability
context, livelihoods assets to strategies, it could help researchers and policymakers
to gain a better understanding of the impact of global forces, national policies and
local authorities on rural, peri-urban and urban areas. And hopefully from there,
devise better policies and interventions for the poor and marginalised.

Student number: 1355795


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