Working for the Public Good

Public work programs are increasingly being seen as an effective way to increase social protection in Asia. Photo: ADB
Public work programs are increasingly being seen as an effective way to increase social protection in Asia. Photo: ADB

By Sri Wening Handayani

Public work programs can build much-needed infrastructure while helping lift people out of poverty and shield them from the effects of natural disasters and economic crises

Public work programs constitute a hugely important form of social assistance to the Asia and Pacific region and will remain so for the indefinite future. They are relevant because they combine income redistribution with physical infrastructure investment.

While public work programs exist in many countries and over long periods of time, few have made efforts to systematize and consolidate them into one central national program. The most prominent example of this is the India National Rural Guarantee Program, which provides 100 days of minimum-wage, unskilled manual labor every year to adult members of poor rural households.

Public work programs usually involve the creation of physical infrastructure; cash-for-work or food-for-work programs that emphasize the creation of employment; or job training, often called “workfare”, which involves skills acquisition, apprenticeship, and integration into the job market. Singapore is an example of a country in the region that has undertaken a successful workfare program.

Public work programs are an important part of social protection in countries that are responding to shocks such as financial crises and disaster relief and reconstruction.

Public work programs can create a safety net for the poor while at the same time producing a tangible infrastructure investment. Infrastructure programs that simultaneously provide job-training and safety net benefits must integrate certain standard features. These include high labor intensity; targeting of poor and vulnerable populations as a labor source; and consideration of the geographical proximity of infrastructure projects to the populations to be supported. Wage rates should promote self-selection of the poor and vulnerable, usually below the prevailing market wage for unskilled labor. This feature may be controversial, because low-wage workers who are not extremely poor may object to this type of targeting.

  The public service programs that also create a safety net for the poor.

How can we take these programs to the next level, in terms of increasing their impact on the social safety net?

For one, the programs can focus on inclusive participation, which may include providing child care, lighter tasks, and water collection points to facilitate the participation of women as well as outreach and geographical choice to promote participation of ethnic and excluded minorities. Work payments can also be channeled through the formal financial system to promote financial inclusiveness and incorporate links to skills upgrades for workers and training for government administrators.

To make public work programs more inclusive to women, a 2010 study from the Overseas Development Institution recommends the following:

  • promoting women’s participation through gender-based quotas or targeting mechanisms.
  • Incorporating innovative targeting methods to overcome the possible underrepresentation of women in standard methods. One example is to find targeting methods that help locate women living in extended family households, or women in polygamous marriages.
  • Paying equal wages for equal work.
  • Paying attention to the menu of community assets and infrastructure to give appropriate weight to those that yield benefits to women e.g., infrastructure projects that reduce the time that women spend fetching water or collecting wood for fuel.
  • Promoting female access to wages from public work programs by supporting the opening of bank accounts in females’ names or to which they have access.
  • Promoting projects that are close to homes to minimize travel time, exposure to crime and violence, and disruption of other household responsibilities, giving some priority to women on such projects; and promoting projects with flexible hours for the same reasons.

Given the durability of poverty, as well as the likely recurrence of economic crisis, price shocks, and natural disasters, a rational, conceptually comprehensive, systematic approach to public work programs is likely to have significant value in reducing vulnerability and creating sustained employment opportunities.