A Good Life for All

Sufficiency Economy versus the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach

Stack of pebble stones by a stream in a forest

I recently contributed a chapter to a volume exploring Sufficiency Economy (SE), in which I endeavored to refine SE as a development approach for sustainable livelihoods and community empowerment. To do so, I compared SE to the Sustainable Livelihood Approach (SLA), a framework put forth by the British Department for International Development (DFID) in the late 1990s, when the SE model was similarly being formalized in Thailand. Both share common ground as holistic, people-centered development approaches that focus on sustainable livelihoods, though differences emerge due to their analytical versus philosophical characteristics.

For those not familiar with SLA, it’s based on the ideas of development practitioners Robert Chambers and Gordon Conway (1992), who conceive of livelihoods as comprising people, their capabilities (what a person is capable of doing and being), and their means of living (including food, income, and assets). Chambers and Conway’s goals for developing livelihoods include enhancing capabilities, improving equity (equal distribution of assets, capabilities, and opportunities), and increasing sustainability.

According to DFID’s guidance sheets, livelihoods are sustainable when they can recover from stress and shock, are not dependent on external support, maintain the long-term productivity of natural resources, and do not compromise the livelihoods of others. DFID adapted these ideas into an operational framework to help practitioners support livelihood activities with the ultimate aim of eliminating poverty in poorer countries.

With their focus on sustainable livelihoods, both SLA and SE are holistic, people-centered development approaches. That means people—rather than resources or governments or economies—are at the heart of development activities, and priority is placed on people’s own goals and how best to realize them.

They are holistic in that they are non-sectoral, applicable across geographic region and social group. They are also holistic in that they recognize multiple livelihood outcomes (such as becoming self-sufficient in food production, limiting labor migration, or recovering from a tsunami) as well as multiple, diversified livelihood strategies (such as market and subsistence activities, borrowing, social networking, changing consumption practices, technical innovation, and so on).

This sort of development approach, endeavoring to enhance people’s multi-dimensional livelihoods, can have a direct and immediate impact on wellbeing. This is even more needed now that the development industry is turning its attention to good governance, climate change, and other macro issues, which, though certainly important, are not amenable to household- and community-level projects that can respond quickly when survival is at stake.

These two models diverge, however, in terms of their core characteristics, and hence, their strengths. SLA is fundamentally an analytical framework. As such, it is a useful tool for understanding the nature and dynamics of sustainable livelihoods, especially how they are affected by their larger contexts.

In particular, SLA delves deeply into the vulnerability context: the trends, shocks, and seasonality over which people have limited or no control. Shocks, such as natural disasters, civil conflict, crop failure, and other health or economic shocks can destroy assets, force people to abandon their homes, and otherwise leave them in dire circumstances. Trends are more predictable changes in population, resources, governance, health, technology, and so on. Trends may not always be negative—they may create favorable conditions and opportunities, but livelihoods must be flexible enough and have sufficient institutional support to be able to adapt to these changes. Finally, seasonal variation in prices, employment opportunities, food availability, and the like can be a tremendous source of hardship for those struggling to achieve livelihood security.

SE draws attention to these dynamics with its condition of self-immunity; however, it could go much further in terms of urging analysis of specific contexts. Understanding these vulnerabilities as well as the resources necessary to address them is vital to ensuring wellbeing for individuals and society as a whole, and it is in this area that SLA excels.

In contrast, SE is essentially a philosophical framework that finds its strength in the mental and moral conditions necessary to create sustainable livelihoods. All the analysis in the world will make no difference if individuals cannot commit to a change in thinking about what will bring true wellbeing.

Dominating the global economy is the belief that a high material living standard indicates a high quality of life, and material possessions have quickly become global symbols of success. This trend is most evident in Bangkok, but it is also apparent in rural areas where TVs, cell phones, and other modern consumption goods are privileged over building materials, fish ponds, or other investments in the homestead that would increase self-sufficiency. In order to resist such counterproductive habits and norms, individuals must cultivate internal fortitude to imagine and construct an alternative way of life.

Divergent conceptions of development that challenge the hegemony of global capitalism may emerge from religious or cultural beliefs and ethics or the realities of alternative economies. Thai social critic Sulak Sivaraksa advocates “true development” from a Buddhist perspective:

Development must aim at the reduction of craving, the avoidance of violence, and the development of spirit rather than of material things. . . . The goal of increasing the quality of life is understood differently. From the materialist standpoint, when there are more desires, there can be further development. From the Buddhist standpoint, when there are fewer desires, there can be further development. (1990:171)

While not necessarily explicitly Buddhist, SE facilitates this attitude adjustment with its insistence on moderation and reasonableness, which can be interpreted from a Buddhist perspective. Moderation is the quintessential Buddhist notion of the Middle Way, the path of neither extreme asceticism nor extreme luxury.

Of course, moderation is not an exclusively Buddhist notion; it is found in economies all around the world that value frugality—economizing or minimizing the means to a certain end. For example, economic anthropologists Gudeman and Rivera (1990) observed in Columbia that in contrast with profit-driven capitalists, swidden agriculturalists aim to “sustain” rather than “gain.” Gudeman and Rivera theorize that subsistence-based economies strive to achieve a level of production sufficient for the continual reproduction of their system; anything left over (the surplus) is considered progress.

The question remains: what should be done with that surplus to generate genuine and lasting wellbeing for individuals, society, and nature? That’s where SE’s condition of reasonableness comes into play.

Reasonableness should not be confused with the narrow neoclassical economic conception of rationality. The enlightenment era “Economic Man” model based on the neoclassical theory of methodological individualism presents an atomistic individual using instrumental or means-to-ends rationality, calculating choices of comparable value to arrive at the optimal outcome: maximization of self-interests, whether for profit or some other form of satisfaction.

SE’s reasonableness also has to do with making choices, but it more broadly involves analyzing reasons and potential actions and grasping the immediate and distant consequences of those actions. Reasonable choices are made possible by wisdom, embodying not only accumulated knowledge, but the insight to put it to judicious use, as well as integrity, meaning virtuous or ethical behavior including honesty, diligence, and non-exploitation. Thus, reasonableness informed by wisdom and integrity will help make decisions about how best to use surplus for the larger social good.

SE’s philosophical approach provides individuals with the mental and moral orientations and skills that are needed to create deep and lasting change, and that will make it more successful than SLA in the long run. However both offer strengths that are necessary to produce wellbeing through livelihood development.

*A version of this post was originally published as Essen, Juliana (2013). “Strengthening Sufficiency: Empowering Community Development via Sustainable Livelihoods, Interdependent Selves, and Community Economies,” in Exploring Sufficiency Economy, edited by Seri Phongphit. Bangkok: King Prajadhipok Institute.

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