Livelihoods analysis and agrarian political economy: a new podcast

At the end of last year, I had a great week at PLAAS (Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies) at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town discussing with a great cohort of post-grad students working on agrarian change issues in the region. The question of how ‘livelihoods approaches’ – including the ‘sustainable livelihoods framework’ – fitted into such studies and whether it could be integrated with an agrarian political economy perspective came up again and again.

Emerging from these discussions, I recorded a podcast with Ruth Hall and Boa Monjane, now out in the Agrarian Politics series. You can listen to it via the link below. This blog offers some context.

The continuing relevance of livelihoods approaches

From classic studies of seasonality, livelihood change and vulnerability in the 1980s and 90s, to the presentation of more synthetic frameworks, first in Robert Chambers’ and Gordon Conway’s classic IDS discussion paper of 1991, which was followed by my 1998 paper (now 25 years old!) that proposed a Sustainable Livelihoods Framework, based on work on-going at the time with colleagues in Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Mali, and led by Jeremy Swift.

These perspectives contributed to a major change in aid programming and funding approaches, and many agencies adopted various forms of a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’. There followed multiple responses: huge numbers of studies, consultancies, trainings and communications efforts, as the interest in livelihoods approaches took hold.

But what has happened since? ‘Livelihoods’ is no longer the buzzword. The fickle faddism of development has been taken over by others since. Even at IDS, where much of the thinking that led to the approach originated, ‘sustainable livelihoods’ barely appears in the curriculum. Most of our students have never even heard of the approach and not read the papers and books associated with it. This may not matter as the same ideas are being invented in new guises, but sometimes genealogies of ideas are important and we can all learn from past debates.

In my view, the underlying arguments of livelihoods analyses still have relevance, perhaps more so as the interconnections between different ways of making a living are increasingly important, as I discussed in a 2009 paper and reinforced in an excellent new edited collection Livelihoods in the Global South.

The message of the ‘small book’ – Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development (now available open access in English, and also translated into multiple languages, see below) – is clear: livelihoods approaches are an essential lens on questions of rural development, poverty and wellbeing, but these need to be situated in a better understanding of the political economy of agrarian change.

Power and political economy: extending the livelihoods approach

Some of the very legitimate critiques of the early versions of the sustainable livelihoods framework – and particularly the versions that were adapted for use by development agencies – focused on the lack of attention to politics, power and political economy. Some argued that the approach was too deterministic and too technocratic and contestation, dispute and patterns of winners and losers were not made clear. Politics of course appeared in discussions of the ‘institutions and organisations’ acting as mediating between resources and activities, and so affecting outcomes; but in many of the more operational applications, this element became side-lined in favour of a rather mechanistic institutional or policy design focus, rather than attention to the contestations around access and control, as originally intended.

The ‘small book’ therefore aimed to link the original framework with a wider concern with agrarian political economy, making politics, power and control central. The result was an extended framework diagram, articulating key questions in agrarian political economy. Following Henry Bernstein (and his superb book in the same ‘small books for big ideas’ series – Class Dynamics of Agrarian Change), four core questions are asked:

  • Who owns what (or who has access to what)? This relates to questions of property and ownership of livelihood assets and resources.
  • Who does what? This relates to the social divisions of labour, the distinctions between those employing and employed, as well as to divisions based on gender and age.
  • Who gets what? This relates to questions of income and assets, and patterns of accumulation over time, and so to processes of social and economic differentiation.
  • What do they do with it? This relates to the array of livelihood strategies and their consequences as reflected in patterns of consumption, social reproduction, savings and investment.

In addition to these four, we can add two more, both focused on the social and ecological challenges that characterise contemporary societies:

  • How do social classes and groups in society and within the State interact with each other? This focuses on the social relations, institutions and forms of domination in society and between citizens and the State as they affect livelihoods.
  • How are changes in politics shaped by dynamic ecologies and vice versa? This relates to questions of political ecology, and to how environmental dynamics influence livelihoods. These in turn are shaped by livelihood activities through patterns of resource access and entitlement.

Taken together, these six questions – all central to critical agrarian and environmental studies – provide an excellent starting point for any analysis when seeking to link rural livelihoods with the political economy of agrarian change in any setting. The ‘extended livelihoods framework’ offers a way into such an analysis.

Long-term, historical patterns of structurally-defined relations of power between social groups are central, as are processes of economic and political control by the state and other powerful actors, together with differential patterns of production, accumulation, investment and reproduction across society. Such an analysis allows analysis to move beyond mere empirical description of multiple cases to explanations rooted in understandings of wider structural relations, patterns and processes.

A differentiated and longitudinal approach

Taking a differentiated view of rural livelihoods in any context, we see that rural dwellers may be farmers, workers, traders, brokers, transporters, carers and others, with links spread across the urban–rural divide. Classes are not unitary, naturalised or static. Given this diversity of hybrid livelihood strategies and class identities, accumulation—and, therefore, social differentiation and class formation—takes place through a complex, relational dynamic over time.

Indeed, only with a longitudinal perspective, rooted in an understanding of the political economy of agrarian change, can longer-term trajectories of livelihoods be discerned. Rural livelihoods are not isolated and independent, amenable to narrow development interventions, but tied to what is happening elsewhere, both locally and more broadly.

As we discuss in the podcast, a wider political economy perspective is therefore essential for any effective livelihoods analysis, and indeed for any development intervention. And it’s for this reason that I think livelihoods analysis – allied and integrated with other perspectives – remains important today.

You can read the short book in different languages, which are available via the following links (a Chinese version is coming soon…):

English: (including OPEN ACCESS)






This blog was written by Ian Scoones and first appeared on Zimbabweland

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