This helpdesk report aims to outline the scope, impact and challenges associated with public works programmes (PWPs) in development and humanitarian contexts. PWPs have been implemented in a broad range of countries to help working-aged poor people to cope with economic shocks or chronic poverty (McCord, 2012b). The majority of PWPs are effective in terms of increasing food consumption (Filipski et al., 2016; McCord, 2012b; Zimmermann, 2012). PWPs which run for a longer period are more likely to stimulate asset accumulation which helps the beneficiaries to improve their livelihoods (Gehrke & Hartwig, 2018; Subbarao, Del Ninno, Andrews, & Rodríguez-Alas, 2012). Overall, PWPs do not lead to sustainable employment, even when training is provided. The scale of these programmes is constrained by finances and administrative capacity at the local level. The effectiveness of PWPs is undermined by fraud and corruption. Monitoring and evaluation of PWPs is curbed by the unavailability of baseline data, lack of clarity in terms of assessing the costs of PWPs and the difficulty of assessing the medium-term and long-term impact of these programmes, as well as the indirect effects of the intervention on the environment and the local economy (Ludi et al., 2016; Subbarao et al., 2012).
The following findings emerged from the literature review:
- The use of PWPs expanded after the 2007-8 financial crisis.
- There are three main types of PWPs: short-term programmes help participants to cope with economic shocks, longer-term programmes function as a social safety net for poor households and public works plus models provide training with the intent that beneficiaries will graduate out of poverty (Subbarao et al., 2012, p. 25).
- The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) is the largest PWP in the world.
- The scale of PWPs is curbed by constraints on budgets, capacity at local government level and private sector interest in labour-intensive projects (McCord, 2012b).
- PWPs in India, Ethiopia and South Africa enabled beneficiaries to stabilise their food consumption (Zimmerman, 2012, McCord, 2012b).
- Short-term PWPs generally do not allow participants to save but longer-term programmes in India, Ethiopia, Namibia, Sri Lanka and Sierra Leone resulted in asset accumulation or increased micro-business activity among participants.
- In South Africa and Namibia beneficiaries generally did not find employment after the PWP ended even when training was provided (McCord, 2012b; Odhiambo, Ashipala, & Mubiana, 2015).
- The wage rate should be at a level which is low enough to facilitate self-targeting but it should be sufficient to enable beneficiaries to save or accumulate assets (Gehrke & Hartwig, 2018).
- Only very large programmes like MGNREGS have a positive effect on the market rate for rural wages which increased by 4.3% (Berg, Bhattacharyya, Rajasekhar, & Manjula, 2018).
- There were positive spinoff benefits from public goods (produced by PWPs) such as land use projects and flood defences in India as well as for soil, water and conservation projects in Ethiopia (Filipski et al., 2016). However, Ludi et al. (2016) found that in the medium-term watersheds and dams built in Ethiopia and Kenya, respectively had minimal impact on improving livelihoods. There is limited evidence on the cost of corruption, the percentage of labour costs and labour markets in developing countries (Subbarao et al., 2012).
- There is a need for medium-term and long-term assessments (Ludi et al, 2016).
- Opportunity costs and indirect impact should be assessed (Subbarao et al., 2012).
- Baseline assessments are essential for measuring impact (Ludi et al, 2016).
- Data must be gathered regularly to facilitate effective monitoring and evaluation (McCord, 2018).
- Costs must be assessed in a consistent manner in order to permit comparisons across PWPs (McCord, 2012b) PWPs must be adapted to cater for women, especially by offering flexible working hours and providing childcare (Tanzarn & Gutierrez, 2015). There is also a need for gender-sensitive indicators. In South Africa, the PWP was expanded to include the provision of early childhood development mainly to provide employment opportunities for women. However, the programme has been successful in terms of providing training but not creating jobs (Parenzee, 2016).