Do Public Works Programs Have Sustained Impacts? A Review of Experimental Studies from LMICs

Many low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) have introduced public works programs that offer temporary cash-for-work opportunities to poor individuals. This paper reviews experimental evidence on the impacts of public works programs on participants over the short and medium run, providing new insights on whether they have sustained impacts. The findings show that public works mainly increase employment and earnings during the program. Short-term positive effects tend to fade in the medium run, except in a few cases in which large impacts on savings or investments in self-employment activities are also observed. Importantly, the estimated impacts on earnings are much lower than planned transfer amounts due to forgone earnings, raising questions about cost-effectiveness. There is also little evidence of public works programs improving food consumption expenditure. The review finds evidence of improvements in psychological well-being and women's empowerment in some cases, but not systematically, and with limitations in measurement. The paper concludes by outlining directions for future research.