Learn more about the sustainable livelihood approach

In the mind-1980s, two researchers, Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway, created what we know today as the sustainable livelihood approach (SLA). Their idea was to assess the various contexts of vulnerability and to create an improved infrastructure of developmental cooperation. Over time, their points evolved and it is believed that the more modern version, which is what we consider as sustainable livelihood emerged at the Earth Summit, which was held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, because the idea of everyone having an opportunity to earn a sustainable livelihood was propagated. 

Now, as per Chambers and Conway: 

“A livelihood comprises people, their capabilities, and their means of living, including food, income and assets. A livelihood is environmentally sustainable when it maintains or enhances the local and global assets on which livelihoods depend, and has net beneficial effects on other livelihoods. A livelihood is socially sustainable which can cope with and recover from stress and shocks, and provide for future generations.”

*Source: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248535825_Sustainable_rural_livelihoods_practical_concepts_for_the_21st_century

What are the 6 sustainable livelihoods principles?

It is important to get a proper understanding of the principles that define the sustainable livelihood approach before any action can be taken on them. At TRRAIN (Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India) our efforts and training programmes are designed in keeping with these principles and several other ideas that take inspiration from the same. 

  1. Assets and resources – It is important to understand that people’s livelihood is more often than not who they are, but also what they have. The livelihood of several people is often influenced by the assets and resources they possess. Now, these assets can be categorized into five types: 


  1. Human – skills and knowledge
  2. Social – networks and relationships that are built over time
  3. Natural – land or water-based resources
  4. Physical – any kind of infrastructure or machines
  5. Financial – money or savings


  1. Taking into context the vulnerability factor – It is just as essential to recognise that people’s livelihoods are shaped by the context in which they live. This could include all aspects, including socio-economic, political, environmental, and even cultural factors because an individual becomes vulnerable to all of these. If any intervention has to be designed to enhance livelihood sustainability, all these factors need to be understood and comprehended. 

  • A renovation of structures and processes – The third principle is focused on the urgent requirement to address underlying structures and processes that perpetuate inequalities and hinder sustainable livelihoods. This needs to be focused on specific groups and can range from those who come from impoverished backgrounds to those who have faced gender biases or are not accepted due to their physical disabilities. The principle involves promoting policies and inspiring interventions that enable marginalized groups to gain access to a range of resources, markets, as well as opportunities.


  1. Institutions and governance – There is no denying that the government, organisations that hold a position of authority, and local as well as international institutions have a role to play in improving the livelihood approach to sustainable development. All these play a role in shaping the access people have to resources, markets, as well as services. The emphasis of this principle lies in inclusive and participatory governance systems which will enable people to influence decision-making processes and also hold institutions accountable, should they not stand on the promises made. 


  1. Actual livelihood strategies – In life, people will opt for thousands of ways to earn a living, however, there are plenty of risks and uncertainties that are involved. However, when proper strategies are put into place, which can vary from diversifying income sources to accessing social safety nets, from migrating to trying and finding better opportunities to changing their core skills, there are better chances of earning a living. Understanding these strategies is necessary to design any interventions that could support the adaptive capacity and the resilience of people.


  1. Real-world sustainable livelihood outcomes – The notion behind all these principles is one; to achieve sustainable livelihood outcomes. The outcomes need to be such that they offer improved well-being while reducing vulnerability. There also needs to be an increase in resilience and improved empowerment, allowing each person to lead a better life. If the outcomes of these are positive, then it shows that the 5 previously mentioned principles have shown effect. 

The strengths and weaknesses of the sustainable livelihoods principles and approach 

As is with any set of principles or any approach for that matter, there are pros and cons and the same is applicable here:

The strengths include: 

  • The ability to provide a proper framework that allows for a proper understanding of the complexity that exists in rural livelihoods
  • The potential to give power to focused development initiatives
  • It highlights the need to consider multiple elements in the development process, including assets, strategies, and even outcomes


The weaknesses are: 

  • There is still a need to clarify the varying interpretations of the principles
  • There needs to be more research the address the gaps in knowledge 
  • There has to be an improved understanding of the dynamics that correlate trade-offs in livelihood interventions
  • There might not be factoring in vulnerability to external shocks and the impact of certain livelihood strategies on sustainability 

At TRRAIN, we have factored in these principles, however, our work at the ground level allows us to get a clearer understanding of what works and what does not. Through our training programmes, we have been able to equip thousands of persons with disabilities and women from marginalised sections of society to create a sustainable livelihood for themselves. 

When you donate to TRRAIN, you actually donate for sustainable livelihoods creation – you provide hope and the ability for people to lead a life of dignity. 



    Founded in 2011 by B.S. Nagesh, Trust for Retailers and Retail Associates of India (TRRAIN) is a 12A, 80G, public charitable trust that aims to catalyse a change in the retail industry by empowering people through retail and allied sectors in creating sustainable livelihoods for Persons with Disabilities and Young Women from marginalised backgrounds.

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