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At the heart of HEA is a detailed accounting of how people get by from year to year and the connections with other people and places that enable them to do so. This is called the baseline and is a set of data on food, income, expenditure and assets for each of (usually) four wealth groups: very poor, poor, middle and better-off. The data relates to a defined 12-month period or 'reference' year.

How is a baseline used?

An HEA baseline can be used on its own for a number of programming purposes: identifying possible livelihood interventions, targeting, creation of expenditure baskets for use as thresholds. 

It also provides the baseline data for outcome (or scenario) analysis which models the impact of change on household access to food and cash.   

What is involved in doing a baseline?

A full HEA baseline takes about four weeks and requires a team of about eight people, led by at least one experienced HEA practitioner. This includes a week of training, two weeks of field work and a week of data entry and analysis

The field work includes: 

    • discussions with key informants at district/regional level
    • interviews in 8-12 villages per livelihood zone: in each village:
      • ​a community focus group interview to determine wealth groups
      • ​interviews with representatives of each wealth group to quantify households’ sources of food and income, and their patterns of expenditure. 

A baseline assessment has three components:


  1. ​Livelihood zoning
  2. Wealth breakdown
  3. Analysis of livelihood strategies for each of the identified wealth groups.

Step 1: Livelihood zoning

A livelihood zone is an area within which people share basically the same patterns of access to food (that is, they grow the same crops, or keep the same types of livestock), and have the same access to markets

Zoning involves the preparation of maps, together with analyses of the options for obtaining food and income within each zone and the marketing networks that determine the patterns of exchange between zones. 

Step 2: Wealth breakdown

While geography tends to define a household's options for obtaining food and income, the ability to exploit those options and to survive in a crisis is determined largely by wealth. In other words, what people have by way of land, capital and livestock, together with their educational status and access to political and social networks, determines the ways in which they will be able to get food and cash, or how they will respond to sudden or long-term change.

To capture these variations, HEA characterises typical households within each zone according to different wealth groups. In the field, wealth categories are defined through interviews with community key informants. 'Poor' and 'better-off' are thus relative to local rather than external standards.

Often, these standards are predictable along general livelihood lines: landholding size, labour availability and draught power define wealth in a poor agricultural economy; land quality and access to fishing equipment in agro-fishing communities; the size of herds in pastoral economies.

Step 3: Analysis of livelihood strategies


Having grouped households according to where they live and their wealth, the next step is to examine patterns of food and cash income and patterns of ​expenditure over a defined reference period. This gives a baseline picture of exactly how households get the food they eat and the cash they need, and how they spend their money.

There are many approaches to livelihood analysis which describe how people acquire food and cash. The difference with HEA is that it provides quantitative information; information is gathered on how much food or cash households gain from a particular source, and on how much they spend on certain items and basic services over the defined period.

As well as providing an acute perspective on household operations and constraints, quantification is needed to allow a new situation (positive or negative) to be judged in terms of its likely effect on livelihoods. This is outcome analysis, the second part of the HEA framework.​​​​​

How to do a baseline assessment

See the relevant chapters from the Practitioners' Guide to HEA:

Livelihood zoning - Chapter 2 of the HEA Practitioners' Guide

​​Baseline assessment - Chapter 3 of the HEA Practitioners' Guide