Last week a short article of mine – Sustainable rural livelihoods and the SDGs – was published in an excellent new edition of the International Policy Centre for Inclusive Growth’s (IPC-IG) journal, Policy in Focus. Along with a number of other articles – including ones on poverty, labour, migration, gender and land access– it made the case for rural poverty issues to be central to discussions around the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
To go beyond the siloed, box-ticking of too much activity around the SDGs, an integrated approach is needed. I made the case for a politically-informed livelihoods perspective linking across goals. This could draw on the sustainable livelihoods approaches that became central to rural development debates in the 1990s, but learn lessons from their limitations.
This is an argument I have also made recently in a lecture at Sussex (available here) and in an IDS podcast conversation with my colleague, Marina Apgar. The podcast discusses the book Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development (a 20 percent discount on the paperback is available via this link, using the code SLRD20), which makes the case that linking sustainable livelihoods approaches with critical agrarian political economy can move the debate forward.
These are the themes picked up in the Policy in Focus article, an edited excerpt of which follows (for the full piece, including references, check out the issue here):
Negotiating pathways to sustainable development
“The emergence of the SDGs as an overarching approach to development, agreed across the United Nations system, suggests that a grounded and integrative approach is urgently needed if implementation is to deliver the type of radical transformations envisaged. Sustainable rural development will not be realised if policymakers and practitioners proceed goal by goal, target by target, governed by elaborate monitoring and evaluation (M&E) and impact protocols. Instead, a return to a more integrated approach is required, allowing debates to occur about synergies, connections and trade-offs across the SDGs.
Achieving sustainability across environmental, economic and social spheres is centrally about political negotiation between different actors and interests. The pathways that emerge, and the directions that social and technical innovation takes, necessarily involve some people winning, while others lose out. What is ‘best’ for a particular place cannot be decided through technocratic diktat but must emerge through inclusive, participatory deliberation that allows for dissent, disagreement and inevitable conflict. Such processes must involve political negotiations, and require people and institutions, at local, national and global levels, to broker, facilitate and allow all voices to be heard, and alternative pathways to sustainable development to be uncovered and realised.
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 short book, Sustainable Livelihoods and Rural Development, 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 and 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 across the SDGs, when seeking to link rural livelihoods with the political economy of agrarian change in any setting.
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.
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. For these reasons, a wider political economy perspective is essential for any effective livelihoods analysis, and indeed any assessment of SDG interactions.
Making political economy central to the SDGs
It is essential to rescue the SDGs from a graveyard of technocratic-bureaucratic approaches, where goal-specific indicators, monitoring and impact assessment take over, locked into a sectoral view of the world, where the politics of interactions, connections and negotiations are ignored.
This requires new ways of thinking and working, and a revived livelihoods approach, rooted in an understanding of political economy can offer a way forward. By examining diverse pathways of change in a particular area, the contests between SDGs come to the fore, with winners and losers identified. Asking the six questions highlighted earlier shows how accumulation by some affects others, and how benefits and their distribution are contested over time.
Only with such an analysis can we get to the heart of the politics of the SDGs, and establish the platforms that are required for real transformative change. This will require new integrative institutions, with new people with new skills of more integrative analysis and practice. Reinventing, revitalising and resuscitating sustainable livelihoods approaches, but adapting and extending them for new demands, presents an urgent challenge for rural development and the SDGs.”