Public works programming refers to the provision of state-sponsored employment for the working age poor who are unable to support themselves due to under-productivity, seasonality of rural and urban livelihoods, or the inadequacy of market-based employment opportunities. It also aims to help vulnerable people and households cope with economic, environmental, or humanitarian shocks.
Public works programmes (PWPs) entail the payment of a wage (in cash, food, or voucher) by the state or an agent acting on its behalf, in return for the provision of labour, to reduce poverty and vulnerability, produce a (physical or social) asset or service, and improve employability (McCord, 2008: 1).
Experience shows that public works programmes are ‘an important safety net for addressing the poor’s vulnerability to shocks’ in low- and middle-income countries (Subbarrao et al., 2013: 2, 6). Popular for maintaining worker dignity and improving the status of vulnerable groups, the public and politicians tend to like PWPs’ potential to contribute to a productive economy and create public goods as well as build a community’s capacity (ibid.: 4–5).
PWPs’ ‘overall record of achievement is uneven’ (ibid.: 2), with mixed results pointing to the importance of design and implementation (GIZ, 2019: 8). The evidence shows limited impacts even in the short term, with very little evidence to show post-programme benefits in the medium- to longer term. A 2019 systematic review of the evidence in Africa and MENA region finds only a handful of studies reporting positive impacts on income and consumption (ibid.: 6). Half of those finding positive effects are of ‘the direct [short-term] income-effect of wages received rather than post-programme impacts’ (ibid.). There is no robust empirical evidence of PWPs’ generating medium to long-term sustainable extra employment, improved nutrition or education outcomes, or asset accumulation (ibid.). Also, there is very little evidence on the benefits of the public infrastructure (community assets) produced by PWPs (Gehrke & Hartwig, 2018: 111) or of skills developed ‘through training or on-the-job practice’ (GIZ, 2019: 8).
Transparency and accountability are particular concerns: PWPs ‘require strong checks and balances against possible error, fraud, and corruption’ (Subbarrao et al., 2013: 7).
Beierl, S., & Grimm, M. (2017). Do public works programmes work? A systematic review of the evidence in Africa and the MENA region. Passau, Germany: University of Passau.
This comprehensive systematic review highlights how little is known about the effectiveness of PWPs and especially about the impact of the assets that are created through these programmes. The main lessons from this review are summarised in a policy brief.
Gehrke, E., & Hartwig, R. (2018). Productive effects of public works programs: What do we know? What should we know? World Development, 107(C), 111–124.
This paper seeks to identify the benefits of PWPs, identifying four mechanisms ‘through which PWPs could strengthen the productive capacity of poor households beyond the effects of cash transfers’. Reviewing the available empirical evidence from PWPs in developing countries, the authors conclude that PWPs ‘are only preferable over alternative interventions if they generate substantial investments among the target group, if there is clear evidence that private-sector wages are below equilibrium wages, or if the public infrastructure generated in PWPs has substantial growth effects’ (p. 111).
Subbarao, K., del Ninno, C., Andrews, C., & Rodríguez-Alas, C. (2013). Public works as a safety net: Design, evidence, and implementation. Washington, DC: World Bank.
This book provides a comprehensive overview of public works programmes as a safety net instrument, and their impacts. It reviews programme design features and implementation methods, and presents a compendium of operational and how-to knowledge, combining technical expertise with ongoing country experiences.
McCord, A., & Paul, M. H. (2019). An introduction to MGNREGA innovations and their potential for India–Africa linkages on public employment programming (Working Paper).
McCord, A. (2018). Linking social protection to sustainable employment: Current practices and future directions. Manila: Australian Aid, Social Protection for Employment Community, & GIZ.
Ismail, Z. (2018). Designing, implementing and evaluating public works programmes (K4D Helpdesk Report). Birmingham: University of Birmingham.
Del Ninno, C., Subbarao, K., & Milazzo, A. (2009). How to make public works work: A review of the experiences (Social Protection Discussion Paper 0905). Washington, DC: World Bank.
McCord, A. (2008). A typology for public works programming. London: ODI.
Conference/seminar/webinar: Do public works programmes work? Design and implementation features for success. (2019). GIZ. (1hr:40)