Volcano icon

Involuntary resettlement, Impoverishment Risks,
and Sustainable Livelihoods

The Australasian Journal of Disaster
and Trauma Studies
ISSN:  1174-4707
Volume : 2002-2

Involuntary resettlement, Impoverishment Risks,
and Sustainable Livelihoods

Dr Christopher McDowell, Department of Anthropology, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia. Email: christopher.mcdowell@mq.edu.au
Keywords: sustainable livelihoods, reconstruction, institutions, impoverishment risks

Dr Christopher McDowell

Department of Anthropology,
Macquarie University,


Recent research on impoverishment risks arising out development-induced involuntary population displacement is improving our understanding of rural development processes more generally. Following comparative studies of the process of livelihood destruction and re-establishment dynamics among communities resettled as a result of planned development and war, this article develops a methodological framework for post-disaster reconstruction research. Combining recent Sustainable Livelihoods Research and the concept of Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction, it argues that a focus on institutions and sustainability will help shape research to better understand the impacts of disasters and induced-displacement processes on the livelihoods of affected populations.

Involuntary resettlement, Impoverishment Risks,
and Sustainable Livelihoods


This article outlines a research methodology to conduct and organise theory-led fieldwork on the socio-economic and cultural impacts of forced population displacement, involuntary resettlement and livelihood reconstruction. The methodology is derived from Michael Cernea's Impoverishment Risks and Reconstruction (IRR) model (Cernea, 1997), recent Sustainable Livelihoods (SL) research (McDowell and De Hann, 1997; Scoones, 1998 and comparative analysis of development-displacee and refugee resettlement dynamics (Cernea & McDowell, 2000). Developed as part of the authors ongoing research among villagers resettled as a consequence of the Pasak Jolasith Dam in Central Thailand, and completed Sustainable Livelihoods research in drought-prone areas of SW Ethiopia, the paper proposes a research methodology for exploring impoverishment risks and livelihood sustainability in post-disaster and other forced displacement situations.

Sustainable Livelihoods research suggests a number of ways of analysing and understanding rural development processes but with a consistent focus on poor households and the decisions people take about how to achieve successful sustainable livelihoods. The paper suggests that the concepts of sustainable livelihoods and impoverishment risks are compatible and appropriate when seeking to understand the impacts of disasters and forced displacement on the livelihoods of affected populations, and the process of post-disaster livelihood reconstruction. This is particularly the case where the main objective of research is to explain and assess the role of institutions, associations and other forms of social relationships in mediating people's access to and control over the resources necessary to rebuild livelihoods. It is argued that in the process of uprooting and resettlement, institutional arrangements are fundamentally altered, and new dynamics influence people's access to and control over resources. Displacement research, following natural disasters, conflict, or as a result of development projects has documented well the impacts of forced uprooting on institutional and livelihood processes. The methodology proposed in this paper aims to build on that work by improving what Albala-Bertrand (2000) terms emergency (short-term relief) and restitution (long-term social and physical reconstruction) compensatory responses through risk and livelihood analysis.

It is suggested that while there are important differences between the experiences of individuals and communities displaced by development projects, conflict or natural disasters, the recent gains made in research on development-induced displacement and refugee resettlement, have direct relevance for disaster-related research. The research methodology discussed in this paper sets out the key elements of recent approaches that might be tested in post-disaster reconstruction situations.

The methodology would guide fieldwork that examines impoverishment risks and reconstruction through a livelihoods focus, and analyses the responses of displaced and resettled populations to the key impoverishment risks identified by Michael Cernea, and the sustainability of those responses in a particular context. (A framework for analysis is set out in Figure 2). Cernea's IRR model is a theoretical model for involuntary resettlement that highlights the intrinsic risks that cause impoverishment through forced displacement, as well as the ways to counteract – eliminate or mitigate – such risks. According to Cernea, the key impoverishment risks and components for reconstruction of involuntary resettlers' livelihoods, are: landlessness, joblessness, homelessness, marginalisation, food insecurity, increased morbidity, loss of access to common property resources, and community disarticulation.

Community disarticulation is arguably the most complex part of the displacement and reconstruction process. The term is used here to refer to the tearing apart of social structures, interpersonal ties, and the enveloping social fabric as a result of forced resettlement. Cernea and McDowell have recently described the main elements of community disarticulation as the scattering of kinship groups and informal networks of mutual help. The unravelling of spatially and culturally based patterns of self-organisation, social interaction, and reciprocity represents loss of valuable social capital that compounds the loss of both natural and man-made capital (Cernea & McDowell, 2000:363-364).

While these components of impoverishment were developed in relation to involuntary resettlement induced by planned development processes, evidence suggests that the same risks – though in different combinations, and with different intensities - are critical in other domains of forced displacement. A recent volume by Cernea and McDowell (2000), for example, offers a multidimensional comparative analysis of the resettlement and reconstruction experiences of resettlers uprooted by development projects and refugees fleeing conflict. This articles argues there are important similarities in the risks refugees and resettlers face when seeking to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, and further develops Cernea's work by proposing a research methodology that examines impoverishment risks with particular emphasis on the sustainability of livelihood strategies. Sustainability in this formulation has three main components: first, a sustainable improvement in livelihoods measured by the reduction in poverty, and livelihood enhancement; second, ecological sustainability; and third, sustainability in the sense of resilience to future shocks and stresses.

The research methodology presented here integrates the notion of livelihood strategies and the mediating role of institutions. It proposes collecting data to identify what livelihood resources are required for the pursuing of different livelihood strategies by forcibly uprooted populations, and investigating what are the implications of those livelihood strategies for individual households and resettled communities as a whole. The paper argues that such a 'livelihood strategy' elaboration of the IRR Model has the potential to add further to Cernea's important work on impoverishment risks directly associated with involuntary resettlement, responses to risk, and livelihood re-establishment, and extends this work to disaster-related displacement.

Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: Strategies and Outcomes

Sustainable Livelihoods research and the SL Analytical Framework (Scoones, 1998) were not developed with disasters, displacement and resettlement in mind. The SL Analytical Framework (Fig. 1) evolved as a tool to guide research in Africa and Asia to explore existing and alternative routes to sustainable livelihoods for poor people in contrasting agro-ecological settings. The main focus of the Framework was to understand “what is a sustainable livelihood in a given setting”, and why is it that some households achieve adequate livelihoods when others fail? It is suggested that through the integration of elements of SL research with the IRR model, a new research framework can be developed that enables researchers interested in post-disaster reconstruction, to account for changes to the basic material and social, tangible and intangible assets that people have in their possession, and to track the impact of these changes on their livelihood strategies. In terms of disaster response, resettlement policy and operational strategies, research would identify where investments to promote livelihoods should be focused in light of the risks people confront, the assets they lose and the trade-offs they make in pursuing livelihood strategies. Central to SL research is the identification of the key conditions for improvement in sustainable livelihoods, and an analysis of which institutions (exogenous, endogenous, formal and informal) mediate people's access to and control over the resources necessary to pursue those strategies in the reconstruction phase.

The Sustainable Rural Livelihoods Approach evolved out of a series of projects undertaken by the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) in the UK over the past five years and was largely funded by the UK Government's Department for International Development (DFID). SL research in emerged, in part, in reaction to the post-Rio Summit (1992) consensus which promoted the ideal of the 'community management of natural resources' as a prerequisite to achieving sustainability. It was widely felt among development scholars and social scientists that this consensus was based on a misplaced assumption that rural areas of developing countries were made up of homogenous communities that could, if properly supported, successfully regulate the relationship between a population and the environment in a way that achieved the objectives of sustainable development. Throughout much of the 1980s and 1990s, sustainable development policies advocated the transfer of resource management to community-based institutions charged with maintaining equilibrium in the relation between a rural population and the environment. Faith in community management was underpinned by the belief that where fundamental change occurred - leading to, for example, the breakdown of traditional authority – resulting disequilibrium would be brought back into balance through the same self-regulating community structures.

As community managed sustainable development projects failed to achieve their stated objectives, however, such an organic model of community underpinned by structural-functionalist ideas was increasingly criticised, and the notion of coherent social structures regulating equilibrium was questioned. Research on community-based management turned instead to better understanding dynamics and change in rural communities through issues such as social difference (especially gender as a crosscutting area of social difference) and of social heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. The notion of power and inequality was introduced, particularly in relation to the role of institutions shaping unequal power relations. Influenced by the work of Anthony Giddens and others, ideas about agency, and the way behaviour of individuals shapes the world made for important insights. Researchers who were doubtful of the equilibrium model, re-emphasised the importance of history, and change over time in social structures fundamentally shaping the people-environment relationship.

This ongoing questioning of community-based sustainable development did not necessarily deny the existence of communities, but it did question the dynamics of outcomes. The IDS and other research teams sought to uncover what was impeding practical efforts at sustainable development, and attention turned to the role and function of institutions as regularised patterns of behaviour (not solely community level organisations) in the context of dynamic change. Such a focus placed actors, rural farmers, women and leaders, at the centre of the analysis of rural development processes and the people-environment relationship. New questions were asked: how do different people gain access to different resources at different times, what do they do with that access, who is barred entry and who sets the rules; and what are the implications of this for the management of the environment and the pursuit of sustainability? The work recognised that institutions can be advantageous, functioning as gates opening onto opportunities for some in the community, but equally institutions can be oppressive, denying agency and access for certain members of the community.

Building on these findings, a group of IDS researchers formulated the Environmental Entitlements Approach informed by the work of Amartya Sen on endowments, entitlements and capabilities. Sen famously wanted to know why people starve in times of plenty, and reached the conclusion that systems can legally allow people to starve. One of the reason this happens, Sen argued, is because closed, undemocratic governments deny people knowledge about their rights (their 'endowments') and therefore access to their rights, and disallow them the opportunity to transform those endowments into entitlements.

The Environmental Entitlements Group at the IDS adapted Sen's ideas about 'endowments' and 'entitlements' to 'provide a dynamic perspective on the role of institutions in people-environment relations' (Leach, Mearns & Scoones,1997:29). Leach et al. (1997) proposed a framework for understanding the institutional dynamics of environmental change which, rather than focusing on narrowly defined community-level organisations, demanded attention to those, 'institutional arrangements – including those of an informal nature – that are of central importance to the well-being of those social groups often marginalised by so-called community-level interventions' (Leach et al., 1997:29)

From 1997 onwards, the IDS research group that formed the Sustainable Livelihoods Programme, incorporated these ideas about the ways in which capabilities are mediated by institutions into its own SL conceptual approach. In particular it accepted the Environmental Entitlements position that institutions should not be restricted to those defined by accepted rules, and the wider definition opened the door to investigating the important interaction between rules and practice, and between structure and agency, and processes of marginalisation.

SL research differentiated the notion of 'sustainable livelihoods' from most definitions of poverty, well being or equity in the sense that sustainable livelihoods included key concerns with dynamic processes, livelihood systems, incorporating social institutions, and vulnerability or resistance. Sustainable livelihoods therefore marks a move away from static measurements of livelihoods derived from calculations of absolute (positive or normative) levels of poverty and well-being, towards a concern with how poor people make a living, and whether their livelihoods are secure or vulnerable over time.

The SL researchers, clearly influenced by Sen, and Environmental Entitlements, framed their conceptual approach through a research question, and formulated a framework for analysis:

Given a particular context (of policy setting, politics, history, agroecology and socio-economic conditions), what combinations of livelihood resources (different types of capital) result in the ability to follow what combination of livelihood strategies (agricultural intensification/extensification, livelihood diversification and migration) with what outcomes? Of particular interest in this framework are the institutional processes (embedded in a matrix of formal and informal institutions and organisations) which mediate the ability to carry out such strategies and achieve (or not) such outcomes (Scoones, 1998:3)

Fig 1. Sustainable rural livelihoods: a framework for analysis
Source: (Scoones, 1998:4)

As can be seen from the Framework above (Fig.1), the SL Approach to understanding livelihood processes suggests a research agenda, which takes account of the various capitals; livelihood resources; institutions; livelihood strategies; and outcomes; and is concerned with both process and outcome, in the context of sustainability. Methodologically, the framework demands information gathered through a variety of methods in several disciplinary areas. Key methodologies are likely to be formal traditional surveys, historical and participatory methods combined together to shape the collection, analysis and evaluation of data leading to an understanding of livelihood complexity.

Forced Displacement, Resettlement and Sustainable Livelihoods

Resettlement, Risks and Sustainable Livelihoods: Common Concerns

This paper suggests that the SL approach to understanding rural development processes and livelihood strategies could usefully be applied to situations of forced or involuntary resettlement following disasters or the construction of development projects. The methodology proposed here identifies three main synergies between Cernea's conceptualisation of displacement-related impoverishment risks and reconstruction, and the IDS/SLP conceptualisation of sustainable livelihoods, namely: impoverishment processes, institutions and livelihood strategies. This section draws out those similarities as a basis for proposed 'impoverishment risk and sustainable livelihoods' research methodology in post-disaster settings. The article also explores important divergences between the IRR Model and SL Approach.

Impoverishment not Poverty

Cernea's IRR Model shares with the SL Approach developed at the IDS, and in a number of respects develops further, a dynamic and processual understanding of livelihoods. The IRR Model is explicitly concerned with impoverishment as a multi-faceted dynamic process. Through the deconstruction of the concept of impoverishment, Cernea advances the notion of 'cumulated deprivation' (Cernea, 1997) that can only be understood from a combination of economic, social, cultural and indeed psychological perspectives.

Cernea's conceptualisation of impoverishment emerged out of his own and others research into the impacts of rapid change brought about by forced displacement and involuntary resettlement. It challenges researchers to map the 'variables of impoverishment' (Cernea, 2000:19) and understand the ways in which those variables are interlinked, and influence one another in ways that lead to livelihood reconstruction or further impoverishment, or both. Such analysis leads to a complex understanding of impoverishment that shares with the SL Approach a focus on dynamic processes, livelihood systems, and vulnerability. It directs research beyond the narrowly economistic to examine, for example, hypothesised linkages between the experience of resettlement with weakening social cohesion, or inequality and increased morbidity and mortality.

Livelihoods and Reconstruction

Whilst a dynamic understanding of impoverishment processes is at the core of Cernea's IRR Model, so to is the notion of reconstruction or development and the transforming of impoverishment into the actuality of reconstruction. SL research is concerned with livelihood strategies as outcomes. Sustainability in the livelihoods discourse does not infer stagnation (the sustaining of present livelihoods without change) but rather infers livelihood strategies that lift people out poverty, enable them to cope with future shocks and stresses, and in a manner that enhances the natural resource base. Both the IRR Model and SL Approach demand a detailed understanding of the linkages between impoverishment process and livelihood re-establishment and sustainability under given conditions.


Both SL research and IRR Model regard institutional processes as central to livelihoods. While acknowledging the complexity of recreating community structures, Cernea writes that 'enabling the rebirth of community institutions is paramount for successful resettlement and livelihood reconstruction' (Cernea, 1997:41). SL research emphasises that while institutions undoubtedly play a positive role in community reconstruction, institutions and management by community structures can also be constraining and exclusive. Institutions and associations can function to further marginalise some households, families or groups in a community, and are not, as recently observed in Mali, 'guarantors of rights for more marginal groups' (Brock & Coulibaly, 1999:152).

Cernea (2000) does not fall back on a romantic vision of homogenous social entities, he acknowledges that institutions are socially embedded and function in the context of social, economic and power inequalities. He makes the point that past resettlement policies and practices, driven by indiscriminate cost-benefit analysis, served to intensify inequality and marginalisation within resettled communities and hindered the livelihood re-establishment process. Cernea argues that the clear differential impacts of resettlement must be recognised and accounted for in resettlement operations. Specifically, that resettled communities should receive compensation for losses enhanced by growth-supporting investments in a legal context that identifies and upholds the rights and entitlements of people displaced by state or private sector imposed displacement.

While such a rights-driven, and development-driven resettlement is some way off, and resettlement operations continue to be shaped by the 'economics of compensation' rather than the 'economic of recovery' (Cernea, 1999), more equitable compensation and development intervention will depend for their success on community-level institutional involvement. Disaster and development-induced displacement, resettlement and associated impoverishment risks will fundamentally change institutional arrangements at the community level and the challenge of reconstruction will place additional pressures on social institutions, and open opportunities for investment in those institutions that play a pivotal role in livelihood re-establishment. Cernea's IRR Model, in common with SL research demands a close analysis of this institutional dynamism, and the research framework suggested in this paper may be one way of accessing that complexity in the field.

Risks: Becoming Poor and Staying Poor

The forced uprooting and resettling of populations is a particular and dramatic example of rapid social change, however, research suggests there are combinations of factors and processes that are common to involuntary resettlement domains whether the initial displacement was caused by conflict, planned development or natural disasters. There are particularly close parallels between the experiences of disaster-affected and development-affected populations.

In common with many disaster-affected populations, for people displaced by development projects, the possibility or dream of return is forever removed. Houses, land and familiar environments are lost beneath rising waters, dismantled or built over. The sense of belonging is shattered as attachments to land and place are severed. Thayer Scudder, Elizabeth Colson and others have recognised that involuntary resettlement is stressful in unique ways, and that stress has wide implications over a number of generations.

The expectation that whole communities can be transplanted to a new location and that permanent and sustainable lives, livelihoods and communities can be rebuilt in a short space of time, is true for both development and disaster affected populations. Populations relocated by disasters or uprooted by government actions are not alone in having to farm inferior or marginal lands, they are not alone in living in sub-standard housing with few government services, often in conflict with the host population and local government, and without international recognition of their plight. However, displaced and resettled communities are forced to do so in a situation in which past securities have been removed, and vulnerability suddenly and externally imposed.

Certainly there are differences between displacement domains, the experience of being uprooted in a city to make way for a new road, is different in important ways to the experience of being displaced and resettled by a dam in a remote mountainous area or made homeless through a volcanoes eruption. The commitment of governments, private corporations and other agencies to resettlement varies from country to country, and project to project. As does the legal and protective framework in which displacement and resettlement occur.

However, research across displacement/resettlement domains can benefit from Cernea's identification of the key risks that cause impoverishment through involuntary displacement. Cernea does not suggest that resettlement processes play out in isolation from the wider historical, political, economic, social and cultural context. Rather, in proposing that there are distinct and identifiable processes in involuntary resettlement that account for the onset and unfolding of impoverishment, the research challenge is to explore the involuntary resettlement dynamic in terms of its own logic, but also in the broader context.

Critically, it is this identification of risks inherent in involuntary resettlement situations that cause impoverishment, which adds a necessary analytical and methodological dimension to SL research. The SL Approach developed by the IDS, developed a framework for analysis that did not set out to identify the causes of poverty, but rather assumed poverty as a given and research was directed at understanding how poor households try and often fail to overcome their impoverishment. A 'poor household' focus, however, is not the same as focusing on impoverishment as a dynamic process and on its own will not produce data that reveals the kind of linkages between impoverishment sub-processes which are such an important feature of involuntary resettlement dynamics.


While sustainable livelihoods research is primarily not concerned with why people become poor, but rather why poor people remain poor, this article has suggested that insights from SL research are valuable for post-disaster research because they focus attention on:

Fig.2 Forced Displacement, Sustainable Livelihoods and Impoverishment Risks
– A Revised Framework for Analysis

For these reasons, the SL Approach to understanding rural livelihoods can enhance research into disaster-related impoverishment risks and livelihood reconstruction in involuntary resettlement situations. Figure 2 presents a revised framework for analysing 'Forced Displacement, Sustainable Livelihoods and Impoverishment Risks'. It should be cautioned, however, that the application of the Framework in field research will be complex, demanding the integration of research at many levels using a range of methodologies. Livelihoods research needs to take into account the spatial pattering of resources and their management, the temporal dynamics of land-use and livelihood systems over time, and the relationship between processes taking place at different scales from macro to micro. However, this paper argues that where impoverishment risks direct livelihoods research, in other words, where known causes of impoverishment direct the investigation of livelihood processes and outcomes in resettlement situations, research in the field may be simplified, and more directly relevant to policy making and operational decisions.

Impoverishment risks-led livelihoods research would focus not on poor households as a given category, but rather on the sub-processes of impoverishment. Research would seek to explain, why households become poor, why they stay poor in post-disaster resettlement situations, and why the risks associated with involuntary resettlement and disaster-related displacement demand targeted responses from governments, financing institutions and community organisations with the achievement of sustainable livelihoods as the key objective.


Albala-Bertrand, J.M. (2000) 'Responses to complex humanitarian emergencies and natural disasters: An analytical comparison', in Third World Quarterly, 21 (2), pp 215-227.

Brock, K. and Coulibaly, N. (1999) Sustainable Livelihoods in Rural Mali, IDS Research Report No.35, Sussex, UK.

Cernea, M.M. (1997) The Risks and Reconstruction Model for Resettling Displaced Populations, World Development, 25 (10), 1569-1588

Cernea, M.M. and McDowell, C. (eds) (2000) Risks and Reconstruction: Experiences of Resettlers and Refugees', Washington, D.C.: World Bank Publications

Leach, M., Mearns, R. and Scoones, I. (1997) Environment Entitlements: A Framework for Understanding the Institutional Dynamics of Environmental Change, IDS Discussion Paper No.359, Sussex, UK.

McDowell, C. and De Hann, A. (1997) Migration and Sustainable Livelihoods, IDS Working Paper No.65, Sussex, UK.

Sen, A. (1984) Rights and Capabilities, in Sen, A. Resources, Values and Development, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 307-324.

Scoones, I. (1998) Sustainable Rural Livelihoods: A Framework for Analysis, IDS Working Paper No.72, June 1998, Sussex, UK.


A Smith © 2002. The author assigns to the Australasian Journal of Disaster and Trauma Studies at Massey University a non-exclusive licence to use this document for personal use and in courses of instruction provided that the article is used in full and this copyright statement is reproduced. The authors also grant a non-exclusive licence to Massey University to publish this document in full on the World Wide Web and for the document to be published on mirrors on the World Wide Web. Any other usage is prohibited without the express permission of the author.

| Home | Current | Back Issues | Reports | Conferences | Books | Links | Information |

Comments to
Massey University, New Zealand
URL: http://www.massey.ac.nz/~trauma/

Last changed November 26, 2002
Copyright © 2002 Massey University