Public works: Policy expectations and programme realities
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.
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