Can you really build decent roads with Cash for Work?

Reply on Discourse | 24 comments

Feb. 7, 2024, 9:04 a.m.

Simon Levine

Hi Rachel, No need to apologise for a public message! The paper is in the final process of being reviewed and should be out in April, fingers crossed. As for that leaked version hidden in a brown bag – I think we should coordinate the under-the-table payments in bitcoin privately, we wouldn’t want everyone to know about those, would we? S ![~WRD0000.jpg|100x100](upload://bONwCMToQaefS5MCaw6ckHjvG5z.jpeg)

Feb. 7, 2024, 7:56 a.m.

Roger Dean

Hi all. Private Messaging in MiC is a thing! Whether you use the forum on the web page or through your email, just click the name of the person you want to message ![image|168x108](upload://sRcfViypI6EZvY5TblbP6qVbz8U.png) And then click Message in the popup ![image|616x268](upload://6P2ilcEcEyuLGNdJ8zVc0RhWiaY.png) Please keep sharing the good stuff with the group through - am also keen to see the CfW piece if it's out there. Happy networking! R

Feb. 6, 2024, 6:19 p.m.

Rachel Shah

Hi Simon - sorry to send this via the public forum, I can't figure out how to private message you on Discourse - but maybe others would also be interested. Did this publication on public works/cash for work ever get out in the autumn or since? If so can you share the link? If not, can you send me the brown (digital) envelope?! ;) Thanks, Rachel

Aug. 15, 2023, 10:41 p.m.

Sarah Johanna Ward

Hey Simon (long time, all good?) and Liz and everyone else, So glad to see something to get my blood up on the MiC again! I actually think this is a pretty complicated question. Liz I completely agree with you and I know your shelter background makes a lot of sense because the only time I've ever seen cash programming link successfully with strong construction is when shelter/construction people run it. I did some research and had some good findings around this in Haiti (also had some not great findings…) If livelihood or vanilla emergency folks are trying to use it, it doesn't usually work as well - and when we actually tried to construct a road as opposed to just do minor repairs on drainage for a dirt track (and even that was pretty not great)? Forget it. I used to try and use it to rebuild markets after they had gotten burned down or fallen down in at the village level, and it would sometimes work kinda OK, but the simplicity of the construction was really the key element. And I totally agree Simon that giving people cash for their work (that's what I do, right, I work and then somebody gives me money) needs to be separated from cash transfers and humanitarian assistance. I believe we need to get rid of the term entirely. I think as we look to Turkey and Ukraine we're really going to see this debate heat up, because the level of sophistication of construction and engineering will be extreme. There's this final part of me that feels like there's a really big racial/anti-poor component here. If it's in an African village with a dirt road and a market built with “local materials and construction techniques”, then we feel it's reasonable to expect communities to contribute their labor and provide materials and figure it out, even as we're giving cash transfers. It’s like, if were are going to give money for something, there should be work involved, which we sometimes call the ‘double benefit/dividend’ (this has always felt uncomfortable for me, because it's still totally sounds like the welfare work programs in the 1940-50s and I prayed we have moved beyond this but I guess not..) And when we do emergency programming in places like Ukraine and Turkey (or even here in the US) where they have strong labor laws and there are protections - so we can't ask the people we're giving trash transfers to for their survival to haul rubble because we might get sued - we begin to see the difference in our expectations. OK there's my fuel to the fire 😊 rock on… Sarah Sarah J Ward (she/her) Livelihoods and Economic Recovery in Crisis []( Skype: sarahjward +1 518 929 6975 LinkedIn: [](

Aug. 15, 2023, 8:59 p.m.

Simon Levine

Hi Liz, I think that we might be talking about different things here. I am not arguing that ‘communities’ (people?) can’t build roads, and I’m certainly not saying that it’s a bad idea to use techniques that create as much short-term employment as possible for unskilled labour in building infrastructure. (I’m not a civil engineer, that's not for me to say.) What I’m arguing is this: if you want a road built, you should design a programme to build roads. It should be targeted at where the road needs to be and where it can be maintained, designed so that it will last as long as planned for with the maintenance system that is in place (roads don’t last forever), built at the optimum time for building roads, the project should have the budget required for building roads using the chosen approach and design…. M&E should look at the road and it’s durability over time. But that doesn’t happen with CFW programming. CFW/FFW or ‘public corks projects’ are targeted at where transfers need to happen. They are designed so that they will absorb labour from the number of people who need a transfer, implemented when they need the transfer (sometimes!)…and what is monitored ? The number of transfers made! Monitoring stops as soon as the building work is complete. That's no way to build roads! And it’s no way to run infrastructure construction. Of course, you can get lucky. You might get some decent roads from CFW/FFW. But I have never seen any evidence that looked at the condition of roads built by CFW/FFW/PWP after a couple of years and compared it to the condition of roads built using projects that were thought of as construction projects. If anyone has ever seen such a study, please let me know. We looked at a similar question in a couple of countries, i.e. what you actually get for your money with PWP, apart from the transfer (which would typically cost half as much if you just gave people the money). PWP are justified because the transfer gives people short term relief (food security, income, etc.) and what they build, the asset, contributes to their medium term well-being. So, we looked at what contribution assets had made in the medium term. We didn’t look at roads, though, I should stress. At the time of the research, after an extensive search, we couldn’t find a single case where anyone had bothered to check whether the ‘assets’ were still in existence or not, and what value they had for people. (That ought to be shocking, but somehow it isn’t even surprising, is it?) In the few cases that we assessed ourselves, the not-looking had saved a lot of embarrassment – there was pretty much no livelihood contribution from any of the assets at all, and it was pretty easy to see why not. That, of course, doesn’t mean that assets from CFW/PWP never work. But it did show beyond doubt that the Big Boys in this game internationally (you know who you are!) had put nothing in place to check this. As result, projects had to be designed blind. There was no evidence to help guide planning showing what made construction projects more or less likely to lead to assets that ‘worked’. And everything at every stage of the project cycle had been designed in ways to make it less, not more, likely that the assets would work. One of the Big Boys got so upset with our findings that they got very threatening, and somehow even managed to stop publication of the paper, sadly. I can send anyone interested *samizdat* copies (I know, I’m showing my age*) in a brown paper envelope. Or you could wait until autumn, when (fingers crossed) certain organisations will dare to put their head above the trench and they will finally be published. A luta continua! Simon * Google is the friend of the less aged. Other internet search engines are also available. ![~WRD0000.jpg|100x100](upload://bONwCMToQaefS5MCaw6ckHjvG5z.jpeg)

Aug. 15, 2023, 12:43 p.m.

Liz Palmer

@ Simon Levine: to your question - " There’s been a lot of unanimity on this forum that road construction and CFW really don’t go together. So if there’s professional agreement that it’s daft, why are $Billions being spent every year on doing this kind of thing?" As per my reply > It is not daft, and should not be dismissed in this cash & markets forum without sufficient review of the evidence-based analysis. There is sufficient evidence and case studies that construction programming (including roads) can be done effectively with communities with integrated livelihoods programming, i.e cash-based modalities. Please see the links I provided.

Aug. 13, 2023, 9:53 p.m.

Simon Levine

In many countries there are ‘employment generation schemes’ that are essentially food or cash for work. In Ethiopia, there used to be ‘EGS’, which was absolutely not the same as FFW< I was always told, because EGS is developmental and FFW was emergency. In both, people worked and were given food, but no, they were quite different! As for good roads and PWP/CFW. It’s quite simple. If anyone on this group has ever heard of anyone actually killing two birds with one stone, can they please write in and let us all know. If not, w can assume it can’t be done. And that means, if you want a good road, design a project to build a good road. If you want to give people cash or food, design a project to give them money. Don’t ever think that a project designed to do one will also do the other. Everything about the way you design, target, manage and monitor the projects will be quite different. That's not only true of roads. It’s true of a lot of public works programming. (Just don’t tell the World Bank, they’ll get very upset. But if you ask them what data they have from monitoring the performance over the years of the infrastructure that was built by PWP, they will change the subject very quickly.) It is possible to design a good road building project that uses more labour and less machinery and you can build that into the conditions for a contractor (so my engineering friends assure me). It’s still a road building project, though. It’s designed to give you a good road and that's what you pay for. My question is now this. There's been a lot of unanimity on this forum that road construction and CFW really don’t go together. So if there's professional agreement that it’s daft, why are $Billions being spent every year on doing this kind of thing? ![~WRD0000.jpg|100x100](upload://bONwCMToQaefS5MCaw6ckHjvG5z.jpeg)

Aug. 12, 2023, 3:41 p.m.

Liz Palmer

Dear Karri, all. Your question ref Cash for Work for roads has raised a common misconception that communities cannot build. As @JamesElliot mentioned, this is possible. From my personal experience, applying Community Based Approach for construction projects is possible and is being done well. Save the Children builds many structures using community-based approaches, including roads. All construction programming can be done well with communities as long as you apply appropriate construction project management procedures. Depending on the program, you may apply a hybrid approach where the implementing agency may procure the materials, rent machinery etc, but the community manages the construction labour component (paid), with training, regular inspections, tranche payments etc. The level of support from the community will vary according to risk, their capacity, the complexity of the project etc, but anything is possible. In SCI we have moved away from 'Cash for Work' to 'Cash and Voucher Assistance' (CVA) as it better describes the activity of engaging communities as partners. You can learn more about CVA for construction in the shelter projects publication, the Construction Good Practice Standards, and many other publications. See links below. Please send me an email direct if you want to know more. Best regards Liz Global Construction Lead, Save the Children.

Aug. 11, 2023, 7:16 p.m.

NFN Ladd

Based on my interaction with our engineer n BHA I would say no you can't. You need some level of technical expertise and often beyond what can be done with food for work. Might be an interesting conversation to have with her. Ladd

Aug. 11, 2023, 4:41 p.m.

Thomas Byrnes :

Hi Roger, was only talking about this the over day in truth, I have to be honest that the phrase "cash for work" has long raised concerns for me about the potential accidental (and non-accidental) exploitation of vulnerable populations by aid agencies. While such programs aim to provide immediate income, the informal and unregulated nature of "cash for work" arrangements means participants often lack labor rights and protections. The language itself is problematic, implying compensation is given instead of earned, when all labor deserves fair pay. More appropriate terms like "paid temporary work" better reflect that obligations are owed to workers, but that would open up agencies for tax and legal obligations which highlights the issue. Fundamentally, we would not implement undercompensated or unprotected "cash for work" programs domestically in countries with robust legal systems like Turkey or Greece, as we would face lawsuits for labor violations. In the Philippines the government created labour exceptions for humanitarian CFW, after the Typhon Youlonda but it was still defined in the labour code. And a final but important issue that came up recently hear in Ukraine but is valid in may over contexts, is if you pay someone CFW for informal work and while doing so they are injured by a UXO the agency could be liable for their life long care under the countries law, regardless of what waiver they sign, as people are not able to waiver their statutory rights in these cases. (and nor should we be able to shield ourselves from that liability.)

Aug. 11, 2023, 4:41 p.m.


Hi @KGByrne I believe the crucial word is 'decent' as you've mentioned. @JamesElliot's post touches on this, the design/quality aspects. While I was not a part of it, I know what comes close to 'decent' was done in the Rohingya Camps in Cox's Bazar through WFP's Site Maintenance and Engineering Project (SMEP). Of course that did involve a lot of heavy machinery, but people were "employed" to do some of the work. I passed there recently and the roads have held up quite well in my humble opinion, despite the rains that pound the region each year in the monsoon. To your primary question, the answer could be somewhere in between "*yes...*" and "* depends*" with location and type of road playing a major role in the discussion. So, depending on your objective and timeframe, your budget should be a big factor in the decision to green light a CfW Road Building project. No answer to the second question on sources for any good examples unfortunately.

Aug. 11, 2023, 4:41 p.m.

Thomas Byrnes :

Roger, your query reminds me of my time in Sri Lanka in 2011. The "Cash for Work" (CfW) initiative was then being lauded as a pioneering approach, offering a more dignified alternative to traditional "Food for Work" schemes and appearing more streamlined than "Voucher for Work" programs. The exact genesis of its name remains somewhat of a mystery to me, but the overarching principle is not unprecedented. In fact, my Irish lineage brings to mind the poignant chapter of the Great Famine. Between 1845 and 1852, Ireland grappled with devastating potato blight and widespread hunger. In response, the British administration set up public works, intending to provide employment opportunities for the starving population. These public works often involved building roads that led nowhere or moving large piles of rocks from one place to another. The primary objective was not infrastructural development, but rather a means to provide sustenance. In exchange for this labor, the workers were given a meager wage, which was often insufficient to purchase the scant available food at inflated prices. This "Food for Work" model during the famine has since been criticized for its inadequacy and the sheer physical toll it took on an already malnourished population. As such I am very much of the opinion when CFW is discussed in saying if the issue if the people need urgent basic need support, just give them cash. And if the markets need a road urgently contract a local company or contractor to build it to the local building regs.

Aug. 11, 2023, 4:20 p.m.

Sasha Muench

Actually it is the other way round. The modern version of CfW was started around 2000 in Afghanistan and a few other places to give people cash, instead of food, and keep them active in places where there was no work. It took off after the tsunami when many organizations used CfW to get people badly needed money and do rubble cleanup. And organizations quickly realized it also had a psychological benefit because it got people moving again and feeling like they were contributing. But it was very clear that this was for a short period only when people could not work. I was part of those activities in Aceh and I remember very heated conversations within NGO coordination groups when the rice harvest season started about diversion of work, appropriate daily wage rates, etc. Over time, organizations started questioning why cash transfers had to be tied to labor, or some contribution, and that is how the whole world of CVA as we know it today evolved. And that is the end of the history lesson for today. :laughing:

Aug. 11, 2023, 3 p.m.

Roger Dean

Humanitarian historians, was the term Cash for Work originally just a way of avoiding describing what we were doing as Employment? And so avoiding legal issues for people NGOs were not allowed to employ? And then later the principle was incorporated that CfW is primarily about benefit to the workers rather than the asset being created? Either way it's a badly misused modality description. We know, don't we, that if creating the asset is the most important thing we should usually be working with the private sector or, in the corner cases like my Darfur one above, being more honest that NGOs are the employer? With accompanying right-to-work interventions to support people's access to the labour market... R

Aug. 11, 2023, 2:42 p.m.

Maja Tønning

Such an important question - especially as I actually find that CfW seems to be more requested again in some programmes. As others mention, it's necessary to go beyond thinking of road quality. However, to me, it's important to also centre in on the human and those typically engaged in cash for work activities. While we say it's used to support basic needs, maybe even livelihoods in some settings, CfW projects often require hard labour, while the amounts we are able to pay are incredibly small (due to minimum wage balancing and avoiding pull-factor) - does the pay out even cover caloric output? Would it be a better idea to require contractors to employ locally? Make sure people are insured? Paid fair wages? Actually have their skills build to use in the future?

Aug. 11, 2023, 2:23 p.m.

James Brown

p.s. *Engineering in Emergencies* has a chapter on Roads, Crossings and Airstrips, which includes this little gem on Food For Work, below. It was written in 2002, but is currently being revised by REDR. It’s a go-to handbook for engineers, perhaps you could pose this question to the team reviewing the handbook? It might be possible to feed in some guidance from this group on the use of CfW in engineering projects? *Local development work, labour and skilled staff* *Check with local development agencies on local development issues and on their approach to labouring work. Emergency activities can often under-* *mine existing development initiatives. Check any minimum (or maximum) wages and the relevant labour laws. Roads are sometimes constructed on a food-for-work (FFW) basis, but it is not always appropriate. FFW may not be compatible with existing development approaches and the system gives the engineer little control over the labour force.* *Establish the range of skills which could be recruited through local government departments, contractors, and local development agencies. This will give an indication of the level and amount of training which may be required.*

Aug. 11, 2023, 2:14 p.m.

James Brown

It’s an interesting question. I have more confidence with engineering than with CfW as a modality but my first reaction would be that, like all engineering projects, it depends on the quality of the design, supervision, and quality control. In simple terms a road is just a graded surface between a couple of drainage ditches, with other structures like culverts in the right place to protect the surface from washing away. The labour involved in ditch digging would be well within the reaches of CfW, as I understand it. Laying a simple surface, too could be completed with manual labour. Other structures, like culverts and bridges, and mechanical compaction would need heavy equipment, materials, and qualified teams to operate them, but they would only constitute a part of the overall work. Overall, the success of the project would rely more on having a good survey and design, and then making sure what is built on the ground corresponds with the design. With good supervision, *in theory*, I don’t see why CfW couldn’t be a part of the project.

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:58 p.m.

Liz Palmer

PS for Corrie, speak to Seki Hirano in CRS about community led construction. He wrote a book on it! [](

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:47 p.m.

Christer Lænkholm

I would also overall say NO to your question like the other answers so far. You will not get a sustainable long lasting good road using CFW. But if there is no road at all to access the area it might still be worth paying people to make some kind of gravel road, even though it will not be sustainable. We also give people poles and tarps to build shelters knowing that they will not be sustainable. So actually the answer should more be “well it depends on your objective” and also how we define what a “decent” road is - Christer

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:28 p.m.

Karri Byrne

Ok, I hear you Malachi and Corrie... but most of these places have roads that I would describe as "Are you sure that's a road?" my definition of a 'decent' road is closer to "something better than this" than a paved blacktop road. Would love to hear experience and any case studies/evidence that is out there... and more comments!!

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:23 p.m.

Roger Dean

Agree with you Malachi. I think there will be corner cases though where options are really limited and CfW may come into play. I remember a 2002-ish CfW team working from a 1960s Chinese road building manual in Jebel Mara, Darfur. I'd love to see how those roads, with stones individually placed, have held up. No market analysis of course... Decent? Not sure. But the trucks got through to the markets again R

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:22 p.m.


Hey Karri, Great question! I hope the MiC hive mind throws up some specific examples but on my side I have always thought that the short answer to this is ‘ no’ - , that where any useful infrastructure ( including roads) requires skilled labor and heavy machinery , we should be avoiding using CFW approaches as it is generally hard to produce long-lasting infrastructure using labor-intensive techniques. To *really* improve an unpaved road in a rural area, for example, you would expect to spend a large share of the budget on gravel, on mechanical compaction, and on technical supervision, whilst most CFW projects I’ve seen want to get most of their budget in the form of cash to households – fast as part of meeting basic needs. Additionally, in most environments we work in, anything you do to a road using only 300 unskilled laborer’s wielding shovels probably won’t last through more than one or two good rains, based on my experience at least……. So I’d say CFW road repairs are generally unlikely to make a significant long term difference to a community’s access to markets, health services, etc unless its minor and short term ( eg clearing debris from a road following a flood or earthquake) and we perhaps have this habit of conflating the two goals of providing relief and producing genuinely useful infrastructure in project design and come up with cash for work as an approach – when it may not be the best way to allow vehicle access for the longest time say. BHA make a clear distinction in their guidance between major and minor road rehabilitation I think for this reason : [USAID-BHA_-for-Work_Guidance_September_2020.pdf]( But I’d be interested to hear where people have managed to achieve lasting results using CFW ( they may be out there!). Over to the rest of you all…… Best. C ![image001.png|551x234](upload://mWBxUunp1QmuQBpNR2FeutpW1Xl.png) ![image002.png|80x84](upload://fUwl243UdZsdZAxJlY05RcmYNb0.png) ![image003.png|89x84](upload://qwIeZMqHiXkJQG2zKAcyhALULjV.png) ![image004.png|80x84](upload://eYwj38Omxtk0j5f1UGhHp9d5Hz4.png) ![image005.png|84x84](upload://r4gz77qnwCdJFaxtY0lWu7WjTdF.png)

Aug. 11, 2023, 1:15 p.m.

Malachi Nyakado

Quite interesting question. Decent roads require huge capital investments on equipment, materials and labour. However, cash for work focuses on the short term livelihoods of the people involved in the road construction hence compromising the quality in terms of equipment used, labour time since the time is limited to the available funds for cash for work and in most cases, materials used are not standard. This makes the CfW not a good fit for Decent roads. I believe a decent road is defined in the context of its strength, sustainability and fit for purpose.

Aug. 11, 2023, 12:49 p.m.

Karri Byrne

I am really curious the answer to this question... I'm not an engineer (obviously!), and I haven't been able to find any reports answering this question (just lots of guidance on how CfW is used). But I have done a lot of market assessments recently where roads are a major barrier. I keep getting asked to provide programming recommendations and I don't know enough about the evidence of CfW on roads to understand the pros/cons of this approach. It seems like an approach that has fallen out of fashion, but it may be time for a comeback... depending on what the evidence says... Anyone know some good sources?