Chair of Development Economics
Public works programmes in developing countries – challenges, implementation issues and impacts

Public works programmes in developing countries – challenges, implementation issues and impacts

How to ensure that public works programmes achieve what they promise?

Public works programmes are popular among governments and donors alike. Their specific appeal has to do with the fact that they are assumed not only to offer direct welfare benefits to the workers on those programmes through employment creation but also to have a range of other outcomes with the potential to contribute to both household productivity and broader economic growth, without raising concerns regarding dependency and fiscal un-sustainability that cash-transfer-based social protection provokes. Public works programmes are expected to yield these positive impacts through three main vectors: first, through the wage that is paid (either in cash or in kind) for working on a public works site which, depending on the employment duration and predictability may have a more or less significant insurance function; second through the assets created; and third, through skills conveyed (either through on-the-job experience or through specific training components). Based on such expectations, public works programmes were being implemented in 94 developing countries in 2014, 30 thereof in low income countries, according to the World Bank’s “The State of Social Safety Nets 2015” report.

Under the term “public works programme”, a wide range of interventions are lumped together that differ in their more specific objectives, their design and implementation contexts. On the one hand, they are implemented as short-term humanitarian interventions, for example, in (post-) conflict settings. The most recent prominent example is the large-scale Cash for Work Programme in Syria’s neighbourhood that is funded by the German Government. On the other hand, public works programmes are also implemented as medium- to long-term instruments in contexts of wide-spread chronic poverty, e.g., in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Given their continued popularity among donors and governments one might expect that the available evidence empirically substantiates the intuitive appeal of public works programmes. Unfortunately, the empirical reality check is sobering: They have been rarely rigorously studied and the limited evidence that exists is far from encouraging. To make sure that the substantial amount of public money that is spent on public works programmes is spent well, it is high time to learn more about what works best when, where, how and why. This is precisely what the research project “How to ensure that public works programmes achieve what they promise?” sets out to do. The project receives financial support from GIZ for the period from October 2016 until the end of 2017. The research is undertaken by Prof. Michael Grimm and Stefan Beierl. The field work will take place primarily in Malawi where they cooperate with the local staff, in particular Ralf Radermacher, of GIZ’ social protection programme.

The concrete research contributions of the project will be as follows. As a first step, stock of what is known at this point is taken systematically, with a particular focus on Sub-Saharan Africa. In a separate review, an account of the knowledge that exists to date about effective maintenance arrangements in public works programmes is given. Building on the existing evidence and knowledge gaps the project addresses two specific problems using Malawi as a study case. Firstly, by evaluating a forthcoming public works pilot of GIZ’s social protection programme in Malawi, it is analysed whether and how the impacts of public works programmes can be enhanced when strong focus is placed on capacity development at all levels. Secondly, in contrast to most of the existing studies (which are mainly concerned with short-term effects), the medium-term effects of public works are investigated by analysing available panel data from Malawi.

The University of Passau also published a press release  and the newspaper Passauer Neue Presse conducted an interview with Prof. Grimm about this project (both in German only).