PPIW Poverty Series: Oxfam’s Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

sustainable livelihoodsOxfam is best known for its international work, providing humanitarian support in emergencies and longer-term development aid to tackle the root causes of poverty. The Sustainable Livelihoods Approach (or ‘SLA’) has played a key role in Oxfam’s work in tackling poverty in some of the poorest communities across the globe and was adopted in the 1990s by other international agencies.

More recently, Oxfam has adapted this ‘assets-based’ approach to its domestic work in the UK, from London to Glasgow and most recently in its anti-poverty programme in Wales.  So what is it, and why do we think it works?

The SLA aims to build a long-lasting route out of poverty.  Everyone suffers stresses and ‘shocks’ in their lives, but for some they are enough to tip the balance and lead to a life in poverty.  Shocks can range from the loss of a job (income), to a family bereavement (trauma), or onset of serious illness (impact on income, social networks). If a livelihood involves having the means of living, then a sustainable one ensures that a person can survive and recover from those shocks through resilience.

The SLA focuses on five sets of ‘assets’: human (skills, knowledge), financial (income, benefits, credit, savings), physical (buildings, transport links, work equipment), social (friends, family, networks), public (libraries, community centres, parks).  It works from the premise that everyone has at least some assets that they can build on. Rather than focusing on what the individual does not have, the SLA focuses on what they do have, using these assets as building blocks to create a sustainable route out of poverty.

This individual focus promotes a person-centred, ‘bottom-up’ approach.  In practical terms, this has meant in Oxfam’s most recent programme in Wales that funding could be used flexibly to provide whatever the actual solution is to a livelihood, as identified by the individual themselves.  Simply providing funding for a pair of work boots or smart office wear can – and has – made the difference in someone taking a job they might otherwise not have been able nor had the confidence to go for.

This is crucial; too often programmes tackling poverty are target driven, forcing a single one-size-fits-all solution (e.g. a qualification) onto as large a number of people as possible.  Whilst this approach may allow reporting of some impressive numbers, it lacks sustainable outcomes.  It fails to acknowledge that people experience poverty in different ways and will require different packages of support to lift them out of poverty and, crucially, keep them there.


In Wales, over the past three years, Oxfam’s Building Livelihoods and Strengthening Communities in Wales Project has helped over 1,100 people, with over 100 of those becoming ‘peer mentors’ and offering support within their own communities after the project came to an end.  Over three years, the return on investment, including the project’s social return as well as the fiscal and economic value it has created, has been £4.39 for every £1 spent.  This is no doubt in part down to the holistic view that comes as a result of using the SLA; over 300 participants improved their livelihoods measurably through using it, and even though increasing employment was not a formal target of the project, almost 100 participants also got a job.

Poverty remains a pervasive challenge in Wales.  A decade has passed, and relative poverty levels remain the same, with nearly a quarter of people living below the poverty line.  Oxfam believe that using the SLA in anti-poverty programmes and mainstream services could potentially make the difference and set Wales on a sustainable route out of poverty.

About the author: Oxfam is an international confederation of 17 organizations working in approximately 94 countries worldwide to find solutions to poverty and what it considers injustice around the world. In all Oxfam’s actions, the ultimate goal is to enable people to exercise their rights and manage their own lives. Oxfam works directly with communities and seeks to influence the powerful, to ensure that poor people can improve their lives and livelihoods and have a say in decisions that affect them. Each affiliate organization works together internationally to achieve a greater impact through collective efforts.


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