Public Works

Over the last two decades my work has largely focussed on examining the role that public works can and do play as tools for social protection. Having experienced some excellently conceptualised and implemented programmes, and then some which fell far short of their anticipated impact I started exploring the factors that lead to more and less successful programme design. This work was taken forward initially in Southern Africa, working out of SALDRU, in the School of Economics at the University of Cape Town, with under the legendary – and much missed – late Professor Francis Wilson and the visionary Professor Murray Leibbrandt, and later, with Professor Rachel Slater in the Social Protection team at ODI.

Realising that as social protection instruments Public Works Programmes did not enjoy a similar level of scrutiny as the potential alternative response to poverty, cash transfers, I have worked over the last two decades to promote critical enquiry and learning about their potential and shortcomings.

The main conceptual and empirical findings of my first decade working on PWP are presented in my book, Public Works and Social Protection in sub-Saharan Africa: Do public works work for the poor? which raises some of the key challenges and dilemmas in using PWP as a tool for social protection. It is based on my PhD – but don’t let that put you off… While at ODI I also worked with Rachel Slater on the first attempted empirical overview of public works programmes across Sub Saharan Africa.

In collaboration with Mikael Lieuw Kie Song and Mito Tsukamoto of the Employment Policy Department I have recently completed a history of PWP in the ILO based on original research in the ILO archive, which revealed a century long relationship between the organisation and the promotion of large scale PWP as a key instrument for promoting macroeconomic destabilisation – offering an interesting lesson for demand stimulus programming today, and also highlighting the more negligible role of smaller and less ambitiously financed interventions

I have also worked with Mito and Maikel on several other ILO initiatives, including a chapter on the potentially transformative role of employment intensive investment in the 2020 ILO Global Employment Policy Review.

Key reads

PWP in Africa

Public Works as a Response to Labour Market Failure in South Africa. CSSR Working Paper no 19. SALDRU 2002.

Unemployment has been rising in South Africa for the last three decades, leading to official unemployment rates of 26.4% (37% if the broad definition is used). This implies a jobless total of 7 million, with more than 40% of the rural population unemployed, and the development of a growing pool of workers who are excluded from the labour market. The South African economy is facing labour market failure, with labour supply increasingly outstripping demand. If the economy continues on its current growth path this problem of labour market failure will intensify and the employment situation will continue to deteriorate. The severe levels of unemployment resulting from this market failure are a particular problem in South Africa given the role unemployment plays in exacerbating poverty and inequality in an already highly unequal and segmented society, and the uneven incidence of unemployment among racial groups. A Public Works programming offers a response to both poverty and unemployment, while also addressing the linked national priority issue of asset creation. This paper discusses the option of state intervention through public works, reviewing the South African response in the context of global public works experience. The paper examines both project based public works programming, which forms the dominant policy response in South Africa, and the option of large-scale labour intensification of state expenditure, and examines the employment creation and cost implications of each, drawing on a case study from KwaZulu Natal. The paper concludes that public works interventions in South Africa to date have been relatively limited in scope and impact, and that the potential exists for far greater job creation and poverty alleviation through both the labour intensification of public spending, and the rationalization of the project based approach.

An Overview of the Performance and Potential of PWP in South Africa. CSSR Working Paper no 49. CSSR, 2003.

In this paper simple models are used to estimate the impact and fiscal feasibility of ‘expanded’ public works programmes using the limited data available. The employment creation potential of a R1.2 billion investment in labour intensive construction over three-years is found to represent a maximum of 0.5% of unemployed workdays per annum. The cost to the fiscus of an expanded public works programme able to offer part time employment to a significant number of workers (3.2 million) is found to be between R17 and R28 billion per annum

Public Works Policy Expectations and Programme Reality. CSSR Working Paper no 79.  CSSR. 2004.

This paper explores the ability of public works programmes (PWPs) to promote employment and reduce poverty. Public works are a key component of the current social protection framework in South Africa, constituting the only significant form of social support for the able-bodied working age unemployed, and are ascribed considerable potential in terms of addressing the central challenges of unemployment and poverty. Despite this policy prominence, the targeting of public works programmes and their micro-economic and labour market impacts have not been studied systematically in South Africa, rendering evidence-based policy development in this area problematic. This paper attempts to provide some initial responses to these questions in order to establish an evidence base for future policy development, and to identify some of the key policy lessons arising, drawing evidence from two case studies, the Gundo Lashu programme in Limpopo, and the Zibambele programme in KwaZulu Natal. The paper also reviews the policy context, and the characterisation of the unemployment problem in the policy discourse. The paper concludes that while PWPs can offer a partial response to the problems of poverty and unemployment if appropriately designed, the gap between policy expectation and programme reality is significant, and that PWPs cannot offer an adequate social protection response to the growing problem of the working age poor. The paper asserts that there is a need to recognise that PWPs can have only a limited role in the context of entrenched and structural unemployment, and that supply-side interventions are of limited value in response to poverty and unemployment among the low-skilled, given ongoing structural shifts in the South African economy and the delinking of economic growth and employment.

Economic Impact of PWP

Economy-wide Impacts of Labour Intensification of Infrastructure Expenditure in South Africa.  CSSR Working Paper, no 93.  CSSR, 2004.

This paper examines the performance of public works in addressing both micro and macroeconomic policy objectives relating to growth, employment and poverty reduction in South Africa. The microeconomic analysis suggests that while participation in a public works programme may contribute to a reduction in the depth of poverty, with improvements in participation in education and nutrition, and have positive psychosocial benefits, the impact of a short-term programme may not be significant in terms of a reduction in headcount poverty or improvements in asset ownership (material or financial). In this case the public works programme income may function essentially as a temporary wage shock, since the insurance function of the transfer is limited by the short duration of the employment period. From a macroeconomic perspective, a social accounting matrix (SAM) is used to estimate the impact of shifting R3 billion expenditure from machine to labour based infrastructure provision over a one year period. The SAM indicates that the impact would be to increase employment by 1%, the income of the poorest quintile by 2% (if employment were exclusively targeted to this group) and GDP by 0.1%. While these are positive outcomes, they are not significant in terms of South Africa’s overall economic and employment performance. The conclusion is drawn that from both a macro and microeconomic perspective, there is reason to be cautious about the potential of a national public works programme based on shifting the labour intensity of infrastructure provision, and offering short-term employment opportunities, to have a significant impact on poverty, employment or growth.