This paper presents key insights that emerge from the case studies conducted by the Pakistan research group of the Swiss National Center for Competence in Research (NCCR) North-South. The core study area is the marginalized and fragile highlands for the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) of Pakistan. The paper provides an exploratory analysis of the vulnerability of rural people to risks and shocks. The primary research questions for the paper are as follows; ‘what are the meanings of vulnerability and risk in different contexts?’ and ‘what is the potential of the concept of vulnerability and risk for the mitigation of negative consequences of global change’. Our focus is on what the NCCR (North-South) experience can contribute to the larger literature on vulnerability and risk; or, to be more precise, on sustainable livelihoods and household security. Furthermore, we examine what key lessons can be to Northwest Pakistan in particular and the fragile mountainous regions of transitional countries in general. Based on the generated insights, we argue that the inadequate or limited access to livelihood assets increases the defencelessness and exposure (or vulnerability) to shocks and stresses (risks). Restricted or lack of access to certain livelihood assets increases internal side vulnerability (defencelessness, insecurity) as well as the external side of risks, shocks, and stresses (such as negative income shocks, diseases, and natural hazards) to which an individual or household is subjected to.