A new perspective on rural-urban livelihoods in the face of environmental change

Environmental factors are contributing to the growth in mobile, translocal or diversified livelihoods, but they don’t account for the whole story. A range of environmental, social, political, economic and cultural changes, often occurring at the macro level, have contributed to the uptake of rural–urban livelihoods over time. These include economic decline, improved technical and infrastructural connectivity between rural and urban people and places, and the changing expectations and aspirations of women and young people. The latest paper from the Research and Evidence Facility, authored by Caitlin Sturridge, explores the relationship between environmental change and the way people move and adapt their livelihoods, seeking to challenge some of the common assumptions about mobility and what livelihoods look like, and add nuance to the narrative. The research is part of Caitlin’s PhD, and draws from the perspectives and lived experiences of those involved in rural-urban livelihoods in Laikipia County, Kenya.

The report highlights the following findings:

  1. Movements that occur in contexts of environmental change are not inherently forced, but occur out of complex combinations of both necessity and choice. This diverges from the popular image of the protracted ‘environmental refugee’ moving permanently across national borders or from rural to urban settings. Rather than being a unidirectional or one-time decision that is made, people facing resource scarcity are engaged in bi-directional flows of internal movements between rural and urban settings and enduring connections are maintained between migrants and non-migrants spread across different locations.
  2. Movements – whether daily mobility or long-distance migrations – can represent an important livelihood option for the growing numbers of households affected by natural resource scarcity. Interventions should support – rather than seek to thwart – these movements, and in contexts where opportunities for safe and legal mobility are constrained, seek to expand the political space and economic opportunities for moving.
  3. Access to and outcomes of mobile and diversified livelihoods are, however, mixed, uneven and often unequal. Some households may be unwilling or unable to engage in mobile livelihoods in the first place and, when they do, outcomes range from destitution to survival to improvements in wellbeing. While some diversification may lead to sustainable futures for mobile people and their social networks, others may be less durable. This raises questions about the sustainability of rural-urban livelihoods that emerge out of necessity (rather than choice or preference), that create or exacerbate existing inequalities or that place additional strain on those involved.
  4. Contemporary livelihoods and economies have become increasingly relational and collective – spread across multiple activities and individuals in both rural and urban settings. In this context, policy and programmes should consider the potential for interventions that target a particular person or area to have wider repercussions that can be both positive and negative. For example, support for migrants in cities may have wider repercussions for connected family members, communities or places elsewhere including in rural areas. At the same time, care should also be taken to avoid using livelihood labels and categories that overlook this diversity, particularly those that treat rural and urban dwellers as entirely distinct populations.

Moving in contexts of environmental change: a rural-urban livelihoods perspective from Laikipia, Kenya

Click below to read the full report


Author: Caitlin Sturridge

Research Coordinator for the Research and Evidence Facility, based at Sahan.

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