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Paradoxes in livelihood interventions: A synthesis of evidence from selected conflict-affected areas in Africa and Asia

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By Vagisha Gunasekara

Executive Summary

This synthesis paper is a product of a long-term research commitment to generate a body of evidence on the changing nature of people’s livelihoods in conflict affected areas. It knits together findings from eight case studies conducted in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uganda. These case studies, conducted using primarily qualitative research methods, are further juxtaposed with findings of the Secure Livelihoods Research Consortium (SLRC) panel surveys conducted in Nepal, Pakistan and Uganda.

This paper lays bare the realities of the livelihood options available for people living in conflict-affected areas. Going beyond explanations relating to a ‘lack of resources’, which is obvious in the aftermath of war and conflict, the studies probe into what people do to support themselves, and the factors that constrain their chances of directly accessing means of production or a living wage.

In order to illuminate the findings of the case studies, the paper juxtaposes the underlying logic of a particular development intervention – microfinance-driven entrepreneurship – with the livelihood realities of people living in conflict-affected areas. Although this intervention is applied cautiously by development agencies, it has been mainstreamed by some national governments in conflict-affected countries, particularly because of spending cuts to welfare programmes and other state sponsored livelihood development initiatives. Hence, there is a need to highlight the stark difference between the picture painted by theories of change in the finance driven, self-employment and entrepreneurship model of livelihoods development in conflict-affected areas, and people’s lived realities.

The case studies reveal that war and armed conflict significantly alter the organisation and structure of rural livelihoods. Violence and destruction of public infrastructure weaken the capacity of governments to ensure security, provide basic services and collect taxes. Conflicts disrupt production patterns, at times inducing a forced seizure of land from communities, displacing them from existing arrangements. Conditions of war and conflict also modify the functioning of socio-cultural structures upon which local economies are built, creating conditions in which assets are transferred to power brokers and their allies in a given locality. These dynamic factors, particularly in the absence of law and enforcement of property rights, disrupt trade and local markets, and change power relations at the local level. Furthermore, the physical and psychological impacts of violence, a lack of access to services, poor health, the effects of sexual- and gender based violence, disrupted education and reductions in job prospects intensify the disruption of ordinary lives. In the midst of these processes, ordinary people resort to ‘trying everything possible’ to make ends meet.

Even when ‘trying everything possible’ in Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Uganda, there are very limited options. Rather, there are four main livelihood strategies that are available to people living in conflict-affected areas:

  1. migrating for work, both within and outside the country

  2. self-employment, either in agriculture, other products, or petty trade

  3. casual waged labour in agriculture and/or non-agriculture sectors

  4. living off borrowings or debt.

This paper stresses that these should not be considered as ‘options’, and should instead be treated as last‑resort options for people in these regions to earn an income. These four livelihood strategies are referred to as ‘livelihood repertoires’ that are integral to the ‘churning’ of household incomes.

The livelihood repertoires should not be misunderstood as direct effects of war and conflict. While war and armed conflict disrupt existing economic, political and social structures, they also fuse with broader political economic transformations of countries in the global South. The case studies reveal the decline of rural economies, with surplus populations becoming landless or land-poor. Plummeting agricultural production and incomes are increasingly embedded in local social structures that lock communities into exploitative relationships with local elites or strongmen, who in turn control people’s access to land and labour. These are the very social structures that also grant people access to credit, which, over time, has developed into a mechanism through which households ‘roll’ their budgets. In such environments where a significant demand for credit exists, mainly for consumption smoothing, the terms of borrowing become increasingly exploitative.

Also at play are broader structural shifts, such as the appeal of consumerist lifestyles, which is a global trend. Allured by advertisements of the ‘good life’, promoted by mass and social media, people tend to consume more than previously, leading to increased household expenditure and diminished savings. These idealised lifestyles push young people away from rural areas towards the cities, as the latter gives the false hope of ‘making it’. However, the urban industrial and service sectors have limited scope to absorb migrant workers from rural areas. Increasingly stringent immigration policies – seen over much of the world – have made external migration almost impossible for many people. Taken together, these conditions make it very difficult for people in conflict-affected areas to earn a living, and produce a sense of hopelessness among young, rural men and women.

In conclusion, this paper offers several modest recommendations, intended not to solve, but to manage the ongoing crisis of livelihoods in conflict-affected areas. In order to improve the income prospects of individuals engaging in microfinance-driven self-employment, the paper recommends adopting the ‘4Ps’. It is recommended that implementing agencies pay attention to product, price, place and promotion. Taking into consideration current archaic ideas about what to produce and the market, the suggestion is to educate producers about the latest trends in the market, in order to build awareness about the various aspects of the supply chain. Local and community-driven financial institutions such as credit cooperatives are suggested as a less exploitative borrowing mechanism. Ensuring safe migration by implementing policies that put the migrant at the centre is also proposed. Lastly, the paper recommends bringing back long-term national planning in conflict-affected countries, and to use ‘big data’ to formulate highly localised and precise responses to livelihood insecurity and volatility