Life skills for the 21st century – do we have what it takes?

Sonja Belete is the DVV International Regional Director for the East and Horn of Africa. South African by origin, she began her studies and career in South Africa and has worked throughout Southern Africa as Reflect Coordinator for ActionAid. Later she worked as Coordinator of the Sustainable Livelihoods Programmes of Care International and the UNDP. Her passion remains development programmes and her expertise lies in the fields of adult education, sustainable livelihoods and governance.


 Years ago I attended a training on the Sustainable Livelihoods Framework and for the first time had a clear conceptual understanding of the relationship and interdependence between capabilities (competencies, skills, knowledge), access to resources, and how using the combination of these (capabilities and resources) to carry out different forms of livelihood activities can lead to a sustainable livelihood – or not… I also learned about the political/institutional, social, economic and physical environment and their influences at different levels (from local to national) on a person’s ability to conduct livelihood activities and withstand shocks and stresses. Of course the training gave me the capacity to conduct sustainable livelihoods assessments, advocate to influence policies, train others; but its actual benefit went far beyond my career and assisted me to look at my own life, my own capabilities, access to resources and the environment I live in. It made me aware that I should have my own livelihood strategy with contingency plans, the ability to anticipate the future, read the signs of my environment and build my own capacities to ensure I have a sustainable livelihood – far beyond just having a salary, but also living a healthy and fulfilling life.

This still holds true today and I believe will also in the future. It seems most of us are quite good at acquiring the competencies and skills we require in the workplace. We plan for, pay for and attend different forms of education and training, but we seldom consider the social, individual and reflective skills that are also needed to manage our day to day lives, so-called life skills. For most of my generation, it seems life skills have been acquired and developed in a very informal manner – somehow on the way. Nowadays, it forms part of many school and adult learning curricula and children, youth and adults can attend different forms of training to develop life skills such as communication, negotiation, critical thinking, problem solving, etc.

There are so many definitions of life skills, but I quite like the simple statement that “Life Skills refer to the skills you need to make the most out of your life.” Madhu Singh (UNESCO Institute for Education, Hamburg) stated that, more than the definition, it is important to ask how life skills exist in diverse life situations and how they affect the empowerment of people. Thinking about the 21st century, it seems the only thing we can be sure of is the dynamic shifts in our societies and the fact that pressing and difficult situations demand that we mobilise skills, abilities and the creative problem solving potential in all of us. Tracing the timeline of my own life skill development, I realise that indeed the contextual factor is true and that I developed and used different life skills at different times depending on what my environment demanded from me. Every year when I visit my home country I am faced with technological changes (new parking meters, strange machines to buy movie tickets from, etc.) that baffle me, but I pride myself in the fact that I can manoeuvre my way through Addis Ababa traffic, I can find a plumber or electrician in Ethiopia without the use of the yellow pages or an online directory and I can buy my weekly vegetables using Amharic (local language).

I pondered further and realised that beyond the contextual factor, it is important to ask whether my acquired life skills actually empowered me and enabled me to improve and make the most of my life. Did the fact that I am a woman have an influence in the kind of life skills I needed and acquired or does one size fit all?
Research has shown that life skills are developed as a result of constructive processing of information, impressions, encounters and experiences, both individual and social that is a part of one’s daily life and work. The social dimensions are particularly important because they condition life itself. The political, institutional, economic, gender and other domains have a further influence on the kind of life skills needed.

Reading through recent research on skills for women in leadership positions, I could not believe that we are still faced with so many stereotypes. Apparently women in leadership positions should take personal responsibility to reach their goals by investing in themselves in the following areas (amongst others):

  • Acquire skills to become more confident and assertive;
  • Become aware of communication rituals;
  • Learn negotiation techniques;
  • Invest in technical competence, cultural and emotional intelligence, etc.

My initial reaction was that this reads a bit like the advice from women’s magazines from 1960/70 that recommended wives treat their husbands in certain ways, e.g. when they come home from work, wait for them at the door, have a warm meal prepared, etc. Then I remembered two key issues:

  • A sustainable livelihood is not only about my capabilities and access to resources, but also about the environment I live and operate in and how I can read, influence and manage that environment.
  • Life skills are contextual and you need to develop what is necessary for a specific time and context.

So, yes, maybe women do a few things differently (communicate differently, negotiate differently) and maybe for some time we have to develop additional life skills to access opportunities in an environment that is not as equal as we would like it to be. At the same time, we may have some competencies and life skills that can actually contribute to the current shifts and dynamics we are experiencing.

My “Note to Self” was, finally:

  • Out of the so-called 10 skills for the future workforce, it seems I have relevant competence in most of them (yes, I can make sense of things; I think I have novel and adaptive thinking, cross-cultural competence, etc.). I also have gaps in new media literacy (I refuse to open a Facebook account).
  • As a woman I may operate in the same and/or different ways than my male counterparts, but using the life skills I already have, I can negotiate more space for myself and other women (in the workplace and society).
  • Perhaps the most important life skill is the ability and willingness to learn!
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