The term "livelihood" means how people make their living: how they reliably earn money and get food to meet their family’s basic needs. Livelihoods are central to how people get by in normal, nonemergency times, but they are also a key part of how people cope in disasters and how people recover afterward.
Emergencies often threaten the way people make a living. For example, cyclones or hurricanes can ruin the crops of farmers, droughts can kill the livestock that herders depend on, and livelihoods are often strategically targeted for destruction during conflicts. Loss of livelihoods can cause hunger, migration, and an inability to access basic necessities like health care.
Strategies for holding onto their assets and onto their means of making a living help people to better face emergencies. Assets not only mean money, but things like tools for farming or fishing, livestock, wells or irrigation systems, social networks, political voice, and education or skills. People need their livelihoods to stay alive through emergencies, and they depend on the incomes and goods they produce to help them rebuild following an emergency.
What Oxfam is doing
Because livelihoods are so central to how emergencies impact people's lives, Oxfam America puts particular emphasis on them in our humanitarian work. Our goal is to help people find sustainable ways to make a living. The frequent recurrence of emergencies among the same groups of people, complex political situations, and high levels of poverty and social exclusion can make this extremely challenging.
Oxfam helps poor people in emergency-prone areas to strengthen their livelihoods so they can better withstand emergencies. We work with them during crises to maintain income and access basic needs like food. And we help them rebuild their livelihoods following a disaster.
We place particular emphasis on supporting women's livelihoods during emergencies. Although we consider the different needs of women and men in all our humanitarian work and promote equity between women and men in all we do, Oxfam recognizes that women in many cultures carry the bulk of the responsibility for providing the resources to meet household needs. At the same time, they often do not play a role equal to men's in making decisions about humanitarian aid. We believe that extra attention to women's livelihoods will benefit all members of a household and that this is a practical way to increase women's status within the communities we work with.
Our humanitarian livelihoods work takes on different shapes depending on the region and the emergency. Examples include livestock feeding, treatment, and distributions; cash- and food-for-work projects that support activities such as pond rehabilitation and land clearance; seed, fertilizer, and tool distributions for households and community gardens; cash distributions; cereal banks; and market support interventions.
For example, Oxfam works closely with herding communities in southern Ethiopia. Herders, also known as pastoralists, rely on their livestock to provide the majority of their food and income. But these herders live in very dry regions that are subject to frequent drought. Oxfam maintains a drought early warning system that collects monthly information on a variety of indicators, including animal health, livestock sales, food available in households, price of grain, and more. This helps us intervene before an emergency occurs to help people protect their livestock. In a case like this, depending on the need, we will provide assistance in the form of fodder for animals, treatment against disease, and water for livestock (and for humans). If the drought is serious and additional help is needed, we might offer cash-for-work activities, where we provide a temporary income to community members in exchange for their labor on a variety of projects to benefit the community. This could be a project that clears thorny bushes from grazing lands to increase the amount of pasture available to animals. After the rains return, Oxfam can help the herders restore their herds to pre-emergency numbers through animal distributions.
Other specific examples of Oxfam's humanitarian livelihoods work are the following:
- Providing community gardens in the face of drought and economic meltdown in Zimbabwe;
- Supporting small producers following Hurricane Stan;
- Reducing the impact of floods on livelihoods in Cambodia;
- Supporting women market vendors in Sudan;
- Giving training and small animals to women impacted by the earthquake in Pisco, Peru;
- Building cereal banks to provide sustainable sources of seed and food in Gambia;
- Providing emergency food and seed due to conflict in Guinea-Bissau;
- Providing cash-for-work activities for families affected by extreme cold in Afghanistan;
- Helping people recover their livelihoods after the 2007 earthquake in Pakistan;
- Supporting fishermen in Louisiana following Hurricane Katrina.