The politics of social protection: why are public works programmes so popular with governments and donors?

Working and discussion papers
September 2012

This Background Note is an initial exploration of the political economy of adopting public works programmes (PWPs) to promote social protection and employment in low-income countries and fragile states. It examines the reasons for the popularity of public works programmes and the assumptions that underlie this, reviews the (sometimes weak) evidence base for these assumptions and draws implications for both policy choice and programme design.

Key messages include:

  • One reason for some donors and governments favouring public works programmes over other forms of social protection is their anticipated economic and political benefits. These include household, local and national economic development, increased productivity and graduation out of poverty, and the promotion of political stability.
  • This preference for PWPs is not entirely evidence-based: current data on the impacts of PWP implementation are inadequate to support widespread assumptions about micro- and macro-economic outcomes, or indicate that these assumptions hold only under particular institutional and programme conditions.
  • Politics matter in the selection of social protection instruments. The popularity of PWPs may be linked in part to political and organisational interests as well as concerns about programme outcomes, and political dynamics can lead to inflated expectations about impact if programme design and institutional capacity are not given adequate attention.
  • A political economy analysis is a useful tool for better understanding these issues. It can contribute to the development and design of interventions that are more likely to deliver significant welfare and employment benefits, while also being politically acceptable.