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Public Works

June 23, 2014


Why Public Works Programs?

  • Public Works programs reduce poor households’ vulnerability during covariate and idiosyncratic shocks
  • Public Works programs help alleviate chronic poverty in rural and urban settings
  • Public Works programs can serve as a bridge to permanent employment
  • By generating infrastructure and social services, public works programs have an array of secondary benefits that makes them more attractive than other safety nets programs
  • Public Works programs can have important spillover benefits such as environmental benefits, maternal and child benefits, increasing social cohesion, etc. 


Public works programs are social protection instruments used in diverse country circumstances, in low- and middle-income countries, with the dual objectives of providing temporary employment and generating or maintaining labor-intensive infrastructural projects and social services.

Public works programs have historically played an important role as countercyclical interventions to address seasonal and short-term unemployment. In recent times, the role of public works has broadened.

Public works are now being used increasingly across the developing world as an essential part of the social protection toolkit to respond to risk and persistent poverty. 

The primary objectives of these programs are: 

  • Mitigation of covariate shocks (unexpected and seasonal)
  • Mitigation of idiosyncratic shocks in response to temporary or structural job crisis
  • Poverty relief
  • As a bridge to permanent employment

In the last decade, public works programs have become one of the preferred instruments to address temporary work shortages brought on by a slack agricultural season or after a shock, providing assistance in both post-disaster and post-conflict situations. The public works programs launched in response to the macroeconomic crisis in East Asia in 1997 and in Latin America in 2002, and those established after the 2005 tsunami that affected many Asian countries, are all examples of programs set up to mitigate the negative effects of a shock among the most vulnerable populations.

Recently, the triple wave of food, finance, and fuel crises of 2007–09, drove a strong global push for public works programs. In most cases - including in Djibouti, Latvia, Liberia, Nepal, and Sierra Leone—these public works programs were established from scratch, often drawing on available capacity and related experiences in safety net operations. Elsewhere—as in Cambodia, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda—existing large-scale programs were recalibrated and scaled up. A striking feature of this response was the customization of public works programs to a variety of contexts, including low-income, middle-income, and fragile settings.

In the last 10 years the World Bank alone supported more than 80 public works operations in about 45 countries. Most of the Bank contributions have concentrated in low-income and fragile states in Africa.

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