Section 7: Programming in Emergencies


Livelihoods in emergencies

In a disaster, the entire population may have been exposed to the same shock, but the impact it has on people’s lives and livelihoods will vary depending on the social, geographic, economic and political processes influencing and interfacing with the particular event. Key variables explaining differences in impact include people’s class, occupation, caste, ethnicity, gender, health status, age, the nature and extent of their social networks, their asset base prior to the hazard or their power relative to other groups. All people living in poverty and exclusion are vulnerable. Any disaster disproportionately affects those affected by poverty, impacting their lives and livelihoods.

Disasters generally result in the loss of lives, homes and assets, and the disruption of livelihoods and social services provision, sometimes with long-term consequences. The impact on livelihoods might include the destruction of food stocks, standing crops, the death of livestock or the destruction of tools (e.g. handlooms, shops, farming implements, boats and nets etc). A ‘livelihood’ comprises the capabilities, assets and activities required for a means of living. Assets are not only human, natural, physical and financial, but also social and political.

Disasters also have the potential to further skew power relations against the most vulnerable people, as they lose their assets and income opportunities and further sink into poverty and debt. Therefore a key principle of investment is equity not equality. In a community devastated by a disaster almost all families will be affected. But in the rehabilitation process, it is most often the powerful people who grab the external resources and poor and vulnerable families are left out. As such, more resources should be allocated to the poorest and most vulnerable families rather than to a slightly better off family. In addition, with appropriate assistance and policy change, disasters provide an opportunity to establish sustainable livelihood options for the most vulnerable people, based on substantial changes in the pre-disaster power dynamics. It is this last possibility which is the goal of all livelihood interventions of ActionAid in the post-disaster context.

Sustainable livelihoods are those “which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, maintain or enhance its capabilities and assets, and provide sustainable livelihood opportunities for the next generation; and which contribute net benefits to other livelihoods at the local and global levels and in the short and long term,” (Chambers and Conway, 1992). This concept also includes: “lifestyles and workstyles that do not deplete the social and environmental capital of economies”. Source: IISD Word Watch Glossary

Guiding principles

  • Focus on diversification of livelihoods in the programme response.

  • Define minimum threshold levels of investments for disaster-affected people to make their livelihoods profitable/economically viable (e.g. 10 goats/cows could be one unit, not two cows which would not be viable). This should be calculated based on the local context, skills and market. Those who are the poorest should benefit from a larger share of the investment, which might include supporting access to markets; capital investments and capacity building etc, so that they can achieve an equity of income with those better off.

  • Backwards and forwards linkages (linking supply of inputs, production and end-product processes including marketing) are essential for successful livelihood interventions. Livelihood programme design should be informed by a thorough analysis of local context, resource and capacities, and with the active engagement of the affected communities at all stages. Tools such as wealth and wellbeing ranking, as well as matrix ranking, may be appropriate for selecting families to receive livelihoods assistance.

  • Strengthen women’s leadership and capacities so they are empowered and can reduce their unpaid care work (e.g. invest in land owned by women and increase the productivity of the land). We need to ensure that there is adequate focus on the following seven areas of intervention:

    • improvement in women’s food security

      • number of meals per day

    • active participation of women in collective action (and solidarity with women who can’t join the groups)

      • number of women who are members of groups

    • improved access to basic services

      • number of women who access agricultural extension services

      • number of women who access basic services including childcare, health, education

    • improved access to and control over productive resources (individual and collective) for women

      • number of women who have access to land

      • number of women who have access to livestock

    • increased intake of sustainable agricultural practices

      • reduction in use of external inputs

      • water conservation/sustainable water management

      • diversification of crops and livelihoods

      • improved access to markets

    • enhanced contributions by women to household revenues (and control over these resources)

      • number of women who can decide what to do with their production

      • number of women who have a say in household spending/revenue decisions

    • optimised time and resources spent in care and reproductive activities by women – policies and interventions must recognise women’s paid and unpaid work, including unpaid care work

      • time spent in care activities – recognised or paid for

      • time spent in unpaid work – recognised or paid for

      • time spent on leisure.

    • Livelihood diversification must be culturally acceptable, environmentally sustainable, technologically feasible and economically viable.

    • Support/build co-operatives/federations/links between producers to enhance people’s ability for collective bargaining and access to and influence over markets. Build capacity of people to understand local legal frameworks related to the livelihoods/trades they are pursuing; to negotiate with markets and manage their production themselves. Ensure institutional processes are established to enable collective procurement and marketing.

    • Ensure livelihood interventions conform to the laws and policies of the country in which they are being implemented.

Addressing immediate needs of disaster-affected communities

  • Design community based food-for-work and cash-for-work schemes. Cash-for-work normally works where sufficient food is available in the local markets. In the case of a lack of food in local markets, food-for-work is more appropriate. Consider cash – or combine cash with material support. Undertake a security analysis for any large-scale cash transfers. All food kits should adhere to Sphere nutritional standards.

    The affected community members – especially the women representatives decide on:

    • the types of activities that they would undertake

    • the food combinations

    • from where to procure the food and supervise the procurement

    • day-to-day monitoring of activities

    • management of the food distribution/cash payment

    • cash transfer for the most vulnerable community members

  • The community – especially women – will also identify:

    • the most vulnerable individuals/families

    • agreed cash transfer/food transfer mechanisms

    • ensuring lists and coverage of the programme are reviewed at regular intervals.

Livelihood analysis and designing interventions

  • Make use of available livelihood analysis from the perspective of people living in poverty and exclusion and affected by disaster, particularly women. It is also critical to understand the context that they live in such as dry zones and conflict areas; and technical areas such as market analysis.

  • Adopt, where possible, a household and local economic approach to understand all aspects of livelihood systems. For example, consider four internally cohesive strands for lasting impact:

    • each household’s capacity and livelihood needs;

    • community infrastructure and local markets that condition livelihood recovery;

    • governance and environmental sustainability that affects livelihood security; and

    • the power analysis within the household and community that informs livelihood options.

  • Understand the policy and legal environment, which may enable or limit people’s livelihood recovery – and develop advocacy and campaigning strategies around it.

  • Develop a livelihood programme based on the minimum level of investment required for people to generate income and meet the needs of their household.

  • Consider the differential impact of a disaster due to pre-disaster inequality in society. Utilise economic recovery as a means to address vulnerabilities, especially among ethnic minorities and women. When designing a livelihood programme, meeting the immediate needs of people living in poverty and affected by disasters is fundamental, but programmes must also strategically link to longer term recovery of livelihoods.

  • Addressing disaster-related traumas through psychosocial initiatives is a pre-condition to livelihood recovery. Experience from the Asian tsunami response and cyclones Sidr and Aila suggest that people’s ability to re-start their livelihood has greatly depended on their mental wellbeing, as well as their physical wellbeing. Always involve communities and local experts in deciding which varieties and species of seeds or livestock are used in any intervention – and understand and address people’s capacity for restocking (not just distributing). Integrating local knowledge and experience with scientific innovation is crucial to designing an effective livelihoods programme.

  • Promote campaigns to secure resilient livelihoods, and ensure that they are co-ordinated with the state agencies that provide support services to agriculture and livestock.

Livelihood programme design is fundamentally driven by the principles outlined in this section. Programmes will greatly vary according to the context, but it is essential to recognise that the provision of livelihoods and support for communities to recover is the responsibility of the state. However, the role of civil society and agencies like ActionAid is to facilitate the process to enable communities to assert their rights.

  1. Ensuring immediate needs are addressed

    E.g. cash transfers, cash for work, food for work, food for assets.

  2. Livelihood analysis conducted to identify livelihood options

    Analysis may assess knowledge, skills and expertise; raw materials available; production process; markets; women’s perspective and equity of support to address inequity in society. Alternative livelihoods – research and promote livelihoods that are resilient to disasters and climate change. See climate change guidelines here.

  3. Initiate appropriate livelihoods support

    E.g. farm-based livelihood (restart agriculture through tools, seeds for farmers and capital, boats and nets for fishermen, restocking livestock, seed distribution, agricultural loans, training etc). Non-agricultural livelihoods (ensure that affected communities have the skills and access to capital and material support for business and wage earning).

  4. Facilitate the creation of co-operatives so that communities can negotiate a fair price with markets

    E.g. capacity building to manage co-operatives, collective procurement of materials and marketing.

  5. Mobilise and federate communities, and foster alliances with stakeholders to assert rights

    E.g. link with government, private sector etc. to carry out advocacy and support policy on access and control over natural, financial and technological resources.

Further Reading


Food security