Where do people fit into livelihoods and economic recovery?


In February 2021, the Geneva Centre of Humanitarian Studies and the Graduate Institute of Geneva convened participants for the Diploma of Advanced Studies (DAS) in Humanitarian Action. Stephanie Buell, Policy & Practice Advisor at the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) in London, reflects on the content of her lecture given under the Recovery & Resilience module of the course, entitled “Where do people fit into livelihoods and economic recovery?” The research findings referenced below are drawn from the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC).

Poor households have a chronic lack of certitude in their lives. This is particularly acute in contexts of fragility and conflict. Evidence from the Secure Livelihood Research Consortium (SLRC) shows that even long after the official end of a conflict, households continue to experience food insecurity, indebtedness and a high number of shocks. These shocks are most often livestock and crop disease, inflation and price hikes, land disputes, or sudden health problems and accidents. For example, in Swat, Pakistan, we found that 80 per cent of the 2,000+ households surveyed had experienced at least one kind of shock between survey waves. This makes keeping household livelihoods stable and predictable a difficult task, especially as the main source of income is still often from own cultivation or livestock – which we know is prone to be affected by shocks.

Pakistan Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, Lower Dir district. View of Swat river near Kamala village. Photo credit: ICRC/Didier Revol.

This enduring instability and associated uncertainty mean that when people make economic decisions, they do so with a different vision of risk.

Let me explain.

In internationally led humanitarian programmes (which are axed on Western neo-liberal assumptions and concepts), we view risk through a cost-benefit lens. We estimate the costs of something upfront (often, accurately so: think of programme budgets, procurement plans, etc.) and then we try and work out the probability of a successful result, or payoff. The main issue is that we lack information about this payoff –  the outcome –  and so this presents a certain level of risk. Programmes will often refer to this as “project delivery risks” because there are certain unknowns about whether the project will be delivered on target.

This way of understanding risk, however, doesn’t hold true everywhere, often particularly with communities and the constituents of our humanitarian programmes. When uncertainty is part of the daily fabric of people’s lives, the costs or likely consequences of something cannot always be known upfront. As the data on household shocks shows, there are fewer certainties, so people living in these contexts cannot have this balance-sheet type of thinking about cost and benefit.

An example might be useful – and bear in mind that the lived reality of different individuals and households will vary considerably.

Let’s take the case of a person living in a village in South Sudan who has directly been affected by conflict. This individual provides one of the main incomes for their household: they try their best to put food on the table, pay school fees for the children and medical bills for their parents. They plan how to spend their income in advance, but have very little control over one of their revenue sources, as it’s casual labour and the wage is not regular or easy to predict. One day, an elderly household member gets sick and has to see a doctor, accompanied by the individual in question. The hospital is within walking distance and access is not an issue. However, what they do not know, is whether the right medication will be in stock following the doctor’s assessment; and how safe the road will be at night if the appointment takes a long time and they have to walk back after dark. They don’t know if they’ll be asked to pay an extra fee or bribe for treatment, making the appointment cost more than planned.

Risk is constant because people living in contexts like the one described above do not have a great deal of control over these various uncertainties. This can make having a stable livelihood particularly difficult. As such, naturally, people adapt their economic behaviour to their specific context.

Yet, the type of behaviour that livelihoods recovery activities expect from people does not align with this. Programmes view risks in a less nuanced way, as a straightforward cost-benefit analysis, which is not always possible. As such, these programmes and activities can often ask too much of the people they are trying to support. They may ask people to take on even more risk, when this is something they cannot afford to do, resulting in the exacerbation of existing fluctuations and instability (Gunasekara, 2020).

Programmes that attempt to help secure people’s livelihoods during or after conflict need to be more aware of the day-to-day realities of people lives and their efforts to earn a living, including the ways in which they understand and view risk and uncertainty. It may sound obvious, but one way of doing this is to pay greater attention to existing resilience within communities, in particular in social connections and networks that often help households keep afloat economically and dominate the ways in which markets work. This, paired with adaptive and flexible programming, can go a long way.