Thursday, November 17, 2011

Livelihoods of low-income families

- Some reflections on micro-enterprises as a livelihood option

After working with over 100 families on livelihood issues, engaged in different micro-enterprises, we are now looking at how do these micro-enterprises become sustainable livelihoods while enhancing the quality and life of the people we work with. A few thoughts about our approach, about what are we hope to achieve, and about what we want to promote through these micro-enterprises.

Let us remind ourselves once again about the nature of the enterprises the families are engaged in. While, 'enterprises' or 'businesses' are administered to earn profit to increase the wealth of their owners, our surveys have shown, what these women do are neither 'enterprises' nor 'businesses' in the classical sense of the terms.
- They are subsistence activities which mostly help in their survival (or meeting their daily needs, if all goes well). We call it 'livelihood activity'.
- The capital is very small in most cases.
- They are mostly conducted among family members and friends within the neighbourhood.
- They are based on 'trust' and 'hope', rather than 'records' or 'business projections'.
- They are more trade-based, rather than skill-based.
- They are integral part of the person's personal life. For instance, the workers are mostly family members, the resources are mostly family-based, the dependents are mostly family members, and the whole purpose is to add to the family's kitty - money for education of children, life-style expenditure of spouse (such as drinking alcohol, jewellery, clothes, etc.), or social occasions expenditure. This can be contrasted to businesses/ enterprises where workers may be hired, resources are raised from the market and profits increase the wealth of the share-holders.

These distinctions have very important implications for our training and approach. What we are addressing through these livelihood initiatives are not business issues, but more of family and community (or neighbourhood) issues. Adopting mainstream business strategies and models for these will fall short as the context is very different. While the market is the parameter for the scope, functioning and purpose of the business, the family relationships, the neighbourhood linkages, the development state of the community in which the woman lives are all issues which will affect her livelihood.

Just to give an example, if a proprietor of a big business, say a large retail chain, falls ill, the business does not get affected instantly. But in case of a subsistence livelihood, the whole livelihood collapses. If family members/ neighbours are fighting in the proprietor's family, his/her client base need not get affected. But if the family members/ neighbours of a person running a livelihood activity are not in good terms, it can greatly affect the person's business as client base is largely local. If the economy of an area drops either due to disasters/ general economic downturn, it need not affect the big business, because it can always shift its market or bear losses briefly, while that is not the case for subsistence livelihoods which will collapse.

A key to the subsistence kind of livelihoods is the family & neighbourhood relationships and environment. The focus has shifted from the market to the home and neighbourhood. What we are saying here is that, if the person is doing well on the home front and the neighbourhood in terms of relationships and stability, then it provides an enabling environment for the livelihood activities to take place. We know this because many of the livelihood activities which fail are because there was no family support, or there was a health or some other emergency in the family, or the neighbourhood was not able to provide enough income for the activity. How can our approach then address this reality?
I see it at two levels:
i) Address the relationships part of the livelihood (the family, the neighbourhood), with an emphasis on values in relation to self, close family, extended family and the community.
ii) Address the needs part of the neghbourhood which can be addressed through the livelihood, again with an emphasis on values such as leading a better life, improving social conditions, peace, etc.

How do we translate this in our trainings? How does this affect our methodology of training? How does the current EDP, EAP, follow-up trainings address this reality? Some food for thought...

- Naveen I. Thomas