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Sustainable Livelihoods: Taking Agrarian Political Economy Seriously

Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development

My book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development, has just been published by Practical Action Publishing and Fernwood. It appears in the ‘short books for big ideas’ agrarian and peasant studies series, and tries to offer a readable overview of the key debates, as well as suggesting important new directions. Being short, accessible and on a massive topic that I know quite a bit about, it was very difficult to write, and took quite a while to come to fruition. You can buy it here for a bit of discount at under £10.

It’s based on years of work, much of it in Zimbabwe. Over the past few decades, livelihoods perspectives have become increasingly central to discussions of rural development. They have offered a way of integrating sectoral concerns and rooting development in the specifics of different settings, being centred on understandings of what people do to make a living in diverse circumstances and differentiated social contexts. This has been at the centre of work on livelihoods after land reform in Zimbabwe, as well as my long-term work that preceded this. As I mention in the acknowledgements, the book would not have happened without that experience, and the conversations and interactions with many in Zimbabwe over the past 30 years.

From classic studies of seasonality, livelihood change and vulnerability in the 1980s and 90s, to the presentation of more synthetic frameworks in the 1990s, first from. Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway’s classic IDS discussion paper of 1992 that was followed by my 1998 paper 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. But the underlying arguments of livelihoods analyses still have relevance, this short book argues. The message 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. As Henry Bernstein of SOAS, University of London comments, the book “makes a potent argument for reinstating an expansive perspective on livelihoods, informed by the political economy of agrarian change, at the centre of current concerns with overcoming rural inequality and poverty”.

In his review, Simon Batterbury of the University of Melbourne observes: “Nurturing sustainable livelihoods for the poor is not just about recognising their exceptional skill at making a living, which includes diversifying livelihoods, jumping scales, and nesting home places within productive networks, but also mitigating their vulnerability to land grabs, drought and floods, natural disasters, corporate greed and venal politics”. Drawing on critical agrarian and environmental studies, some new questions are posed that challenge and extend earlier livelihoods frameworks.

Four dimensions of a new politics of livelihoods are suggested: a politics of interests, individuals, knowledge and ecology. Together, these suggest new ways of conceptualizing rural and agrarian issues, with profound implications for thinking and action. As Tony Bebbington of Clark University in the US comments, the book “places livelihood thinking in context, explores its applications, explains its limits and – perhaps most important of all – persuades the reader that being political and being practical are absolutely not mutually exclusive options in development, whether writing about it or working within it”.

You can read more comments about the book, check out the table of contents and buy it for a discounted price for a limited time here. I hope it proves useful to researchers, practitioners and students, and helps to revive livelihoods thinking and approaches, in a new more politically oriented guise, for a new generation of research, policy and practice. Let me know what you think!

 

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

 

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