This blog post summarises the webinar Impact of COVID-19 on public works programmes (PWP): policy options in short and medium-term held on 26 May 2020. This was the 12th event of the “Social protection responses to COVID-19” webinar series, and it was co-organised by SPEC, IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT).

The recording of the webinar is available here and the presentation here.

The webinar was moderated by Rodolfo Beazley, an independent consultant. The panellists were Anna McCord, Overseas Development Institute (ODI), Devan Pillay, Acting Director-General, Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP), South Africa, and Rajeev Ahal, Director Natural Resource Management & Agroecology, GIZ India.

As a result of the closing of economic activities to curb the spread of COVID-19, the pandemic has turned into a major global economic shock. The global GDP may be contracted by 3% due to lockdowns, and this might be worse in the developing world.  The International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates that 25 million additional people may be unemployed due to coronavirus restrictions; and according to an estimate by the World Bank additional 49 million people fall into extreme poverty.


How do Public Works Programmes (PWPs) fit into COVID-19 response

COVID-19 has created a huge demand for social protection, especially non-contributory social assistance. According to the World Bank, 190 countries and territories have planned, introduced or adapted social protection measures dominate by cash transfer.  

Public works programmes (PWP) are usually used by governments as a social safety net to address mass unemployment. Historically, PWPs were used during the Great Depression of 1930s, Latin American financial crisis of 1990s, and the global financial crisis of 2008. PWP was also used during the Ebola crisis in Congo, in 2018, to build infrastructure and transport corridors giving health workers access to patients. During the COVID-19 crisis, PWPs are facing a major challenge to operate as these programmes need the workers’ physical presence at the work-site, which poses a risk of spreading the disease. For this reason, many programmes have suspended operation.

There are potentials for using PWPs as a short and medium-term response to address the COVID-19 crisis. Where PWPs can operate, they can provide income support to poor families in the short term. They have the potential to help promote microeconomic stability by stimulating demand in rural economy in the medium term. For these reasons, there is a keen interest in PWPs among donors and governments.

To continue operation of PWPs, there is a need for major adaptations to avoid risks of further spread of the coronavirus. A key principle that should be followed is - ‘duty of care’ and ‘do no harm’. The programmes should be suspended if not considered safe to operate. PWPs may be converted temporarily into cash transfer programmes, if in accordance with the local law and policies. Several examples of the operation of PWPs with major adaptations are available. This blog discusses case studies from South Africa and India further below.


How can PWPs be adapted to respond to the COVID-19 crisis in the short term

Ensuring compliance to COVID-19 safety requirements: The International Labour Organisation (ILO) has published a guidance (Employment-Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP) Guidance) that provides practical advice on required adaptations at various stages of PWP operation. The guidance recommends that PWPs should operate only after a thorough risk assessment and if public health authorities consider them safe. The programmes must comply with the COVID-19 safety requirements including the following:

  • preparing an emergency preparedness plan and awareness campaign;
  • appointing a focal point for monitoring compliance to COVID-19 safety requirements;
  • ensure compliance with safety requirements at accommodation and transportation;
  • provision of sick leave and compensation in case of any worker gets infected;
  • provision of quarantine;
  • provision of health insurance, setting up hand washing facility, supplying masks and so on.

Potential Expansion of PWPs: Subject to the assurance of health-safety, PWPs can be expanded to absorb additional people who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. India has expanded its flagship Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act (MGREGA) both horizontally (taking more participants) and vertically (increasing the wage rate). In regard to horizontal expansion, PWPs can be considered to expand in the urban areas as well as in the rural areas.

 Adapting PWPs design to provide health response: A key innovation in regard to adaptation is using the PWP workers to assist epidemiologists in contact tracing, setting up testing sites, disinfecting nursing homes and shelters etc. In other cases, workers have been employed to support the production of masks, distribution of food and hand sanitiser, and construction of medical infrastructure; to provide hygiene education and build hand wash facilities; to work in disinfecting high-risk areas, running clean-up campaigns, providing child-care, water drainage, and garbage collection services etc. In all cases, PWPs have to ensure that social distancing and other health safety advice are followed.

Digital public works: Based on the recent improvement in access to the internet across the globe,  the World Bank has put forward a new idea of creating home-based ‘digital public works’ to address the COVID-19 job crisis. According to data from the International Telecommunication Union (ITU), 47% of the population in the developing countries and 19% of the least developed countries had access to the internet in 2019. This offers an opportunity to create activities like digitisation of records of physical assets and of printed public health records, tracking contacts with COVID-19 patients and classifying digital (health) records. Such jobs would require computer equipment and some knowledge of digital technologies. This could be particularly attractive to young people who have familiarity with digital technology.

PWPs as a response to the economic crisis in the medium term  

The impact of COVID-19 is likely to sustain for a few years. The potential rise in poverty and unemployment may lead to social and political instability. As in past economic crises, PWPs can be a part of the package for economic stabilization. Historically, there has been some controversy around PWPs from ‘decent job’ perspective and around the quality of assets created by public works. But currently due to the magnitude of the unemployment crisis an alternative to PWPs may not be available. Some innovations discussed in the previous section may help public works go beyond the conventional approaches, and another possibility is to link public work with activities related to climate adaptation.


Case Study 1: Experience from South-Africa in adapting PWP to COVID-19

South Africa’s Expanded Public Works Programme (EPWP) was launched in 2004 to address the massive unemployment problem. EPWP has been innovative in terms of the nature of work projects. It provides works in four sectors: infrastructure, environment and culture, social sector and non-state sector.

South Africa’s National Command Council, headed by the President, is leading the COVID-19 response in the country. EPWP is being used to respond to the health crisis as well as to address a massive rise in unemployment. The Council asked EPWP to provide employment in the following areas:

  • Public health containment: cleaning and disinfection of public spaces and quarantine sites, community awareness, data capturing and reporting, screening, training;
  • Social impact mediation: administrative support, security and cleaning of schools, caregiving;
  • Economic impact mediation: maintenance of public buildings and infrastructure, youth environmental services, solar water heaters, etc;
  • Law enforcement: assisting the South African Police Service.

EPWP identified a number of activities in line with the above that could be implemented during the COVID-19 crisis. Over 100,000 people are expected to be engaged in these works.


Case Study 2 : Experience from India in adapting PWP to COVID-19

The COVID-19 related lockdowns have created mass unemployment in India. Millions of unemployed workers migrated to the villages from the cities. This created additional demand for work in rural areas.

India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is the largest public works programme in the world. It is an entitlement based programme providing at least 100 days of guaranteed employment per year. Currently, MGREGA has 71 million active workers. MGNREGA expanded vertically and horizontally as part of the COVID-19 response. To support the expansion, the government has allocated an additional U$5.4 billion to this year’s budget. In addition, the state and local governments have allocated U$13.5 billion.

MGNREGA has adopted a number of adaptations to ensure the safety of workers. It has increased the wage rate by around 10% so that the workers can support their families, many of whom may have additional unemployed members. Though the demand for MGNREGA work declined immediately after the introduction of lockdowns, it went up sharply in May 2020, which was 27% higher than in May 2019 (see figure 1). MGNREGA has simplified the enrolment process by relaxing the requirement for papers related to identity to enroll additional workers.  

Figure-1: Changes in demand for MGNREGA work

To ensure health safety of the workers, MGREGA shifted its policy in regard to works from creating public assets (common lands, forestation, develop infrastructure and resources) to individual infrastructure so that people do not have to go far for work and meet other coworkers. Maintaining social distancing in the worksites has been made a condition for the site managers to fulfil.



PWPs can be used as a mechanism to create jobs to address mass unemployment created by the coronavirus pandemic. PWPs can be used both during the health crisis with appropriate safety measures and as part of the package for economic stabilization in the post-COVID-19 world. We are seeing innovations in the nature of work created by PWPs that have come up during the COVID-19 crisis. We need to think of how PWPs can be extended beyond the conventional approach of creating infrastructure, based on the current experiences and innovations. It is already a good time to start planning for PWPs for the medium term so that any potential social instabilities can be avoided immediately after the health crisis is over.

The webinar finished with an interesting Q&A session, accessible here. You can also join the Q&A discussion here.




This blog post is part of the Social protection responses to COVID-19 webinar series. The series is a joint effort initiated by the IPC-IGGIZ on behalf of the German Federal Ministry of Economic Development and Cooperation (BMZ), and the Australia Government's Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) collaboration with the platform, and in cooperation with partners from different organisations.

Join our online community ''Social protection responses to COVID-10 [Task force]" to learn more about the initiative and future webinars

Social Protection Programmes: 
  • Labour market / employment programmes
Cross-Cutting Areas: 
  • Health
  • Humanitarian assistance
  • South Africa
  • India
  • Global
The views presented here are the author's and not's