5 reasons NOT to do cash for work

Reply on Discourse | 15 comments

April 12, 2024, 2:32 p.m.

Rachel Shah

Thanks Andy, I’ve forwarded to our cash team. And hear hear Simon on all points!

April 12, 2024, 12:41 a.m.

Andy Hunter

Yep, fair enough Simon. I suppose what I'm getting at is that if 'work' is required, and 'cash' is available. Then by taking the time to understand the local government/civil/market functions that typically produce works of various kinds, along with the constraints preventing them from doing so... the project's cash should be able to be directed through local agencies in order to produce the works required - while generating employment.

April 12, 2024, 12:41 a.m.

Andy Hunter

Thanks Rachel, yes the part 2 touches on lots of the ideas I was thinking about. But there is probably a place for a piece of guidance that is more specific. (clarifying that I haven't done a thorough check of existing resources to know for sure that one doesn't exist). I'm a little removed at the moment from the team at MFAT that handles our cash transfers, but if there is appetite to produce some guidance in this area then we could potentially collaborate.

April 10, 2024, 3:35 p.m.

Simon Levine

Hi all, OK, I’ll bite. Here are a few thoughts on what I have read on the thread. @Youssef: “*One of the great aspect of cash for work is that people do not receive free support; any modality of support/ humanitarian/ development that ask recipients to provide something in return is great*.” In our own societies (i.e. the countries from which most of the int’l aid for CFW programmes comes from and most of those designing them), we believe in giving free support for people who need it. Britain used to send people to workhouses to force the destitute to labour for their food, because it was held to be somehow wrong to give people in need something for nothing. Those attitudes are now firmly condemned in this country (even with our current govt!). I do not see why we would apply those arguments in poorer countries. Giving people ‘free’ assistance doesn’t mean they sit at home doing nothing. It means we don’t waste their **time**, which is their most precious (only?) asset – they are free to get on and do their own projects. “*Good targeting approach with less mistakes/ errors*”. A lot used to get written about CFW being ‘self-targeting’. Evaluations have shown it simply doesn’t work, and I think that as a result the language of self-targeting is being binned. Not before time. @Youssef and @Liz - The big argument for CFW is the ‘two birds with one stone’ claim – we give people a wage and they get assets or infrastructure as a result. There are two problems with the claim. First, it’s simply not substantiated by evidence. How often do CFW projects produce assets that do any good to anyone? Answer: we simply don’t know because no one ever looks to find out. Ever. (Ok, there are a couple of documented exceptions, which didn’t find anything very convincing at all.) Secondly, when you look at why assets from CFW projects don’t work out, it’s very clear that the very way in which the projects were designed was to be CFW projects. Everything is organised around how to make people work in order to pay them. That affects where the projects are sited (where workers are hungry, not where it makes sense to build a dam or a school), who manages them (people who ‘do CFW’, not people who do dams or schools), when they are done (when people are hungry, not when it makes sense to plant trees or whatever), what is monitored (payments made, not asset performance) and what is evaluated (the impact of the payments, never the impact of the assets. Result: in most cases, crap assets that don’t help anyone, and a waste of people’s time and govt or donor money (CFW is twice as expensive as an conditional transfer). So, Liz, FCW is indeed a well-documented practice - but only the wage side. The asset side of it is not documented at all! @ Sasha “*Is there a need for short-term, low-skill labor to clear debris or reconstruct assess AND are there needy people with time to spare? If so, then “CfW” is fine but call it what it is – short term paid labor for community aims*.” Yes! Of course then it makes sense to pay people to do work. (What about paying people to keep latrines clean in camps, for example? Why is it so often believed that paying people to do this work would somehow weaken everyone’s moral fibre?) But it’s best that we *don’t* call it ‘short-term paid labour’. Call it a clean-up operation, or a sanitation programme or whatever its *objectives* are. In my experience, the TOR for consultant-led evaluations rarely call them ‘short-term consultant hiring programmes’ or ‘CFW’. They are called ‘evaluations’. (And they are paid for.) @Andy: “*lots of the issues could be mitigated*.” I agree that where CFW is the best approach, then definitely, we should look for ways to mitigate the inevitable negative consequences that all aid programmes have. But let’s not *assume* that there is a point to CFW in the first place, and we just have to take the necessary steps to make sure they don’t do harm. Why start out with the wrong medicine and then look for another medicine to deal with the side-effects? Start with the best way to achieve the objectives. People are hungry? Social welfare. Roads need building? Road building. @Rachel: “*there may be scenarios where it makes sense to use CfW – I just think those scenarios are fewer and further between than how often it gets used*.” Yes, 100%. There is no case to be made that CFW are always wrong in principle. But they are not right in principle either. It’s a bit like food aid vs monetary based assistance. Everything depends on the context. But 99 times out of a 100 the answer isn’t what the aid agencies most like doing, i.e. food and work-based transfers! Best regards to all Simon

April 10, 2024, 1:40 p.m.

Rachel Shah

Hi all, Sorry for the slow responses – I was on leave when this discussion was happening. **Meseret** Thank you for your thoughtful reflections. I think you make some really good points – and for me I would come back to exactly what you said: what is the objective here, and then what is the best way of achieving that objective. As some of you know, one of my mottos in research that equally applies to implementation is “purpose drives design.” If the purpose is to meet basic needs *and* to sustainably restore or maintain community assets, then it’s important to really assess how best to achieve each of those objectives, and feasible it is to do both those things effectively via the same mechanism (a win-win….or not?). In terms of restoring or maintaining resources – are the right people being brought in who now how to manage such a project, and is *any* budget going towards monitoring the extent to which those rehabilitated resources are sustained? It is also worth noting that our blog was aimed at CfW programs run by development actors, rather than government, though in Ethiopia as in many other places that is not always such a clear binary. **Karri** – very fair points, and well articulated. I think when programs treat it as temporary work, like they might hiring a consultant or someone else, then it brings different paraments and responsibilities to the engagement which we don’t always see in CfW programming. There is also an interesting dynamic here which is around whose incentives are driving the transaction. When Mercy Corps hires gig workers/consultants/temporary laborers (including your lovely self) we are doing that because we need a job doing and we are willing to pay for it. We are not doing it to “supply jobs” but rather because we “demand labour” – in other words the employer is on the demand side of the interaction – and so it will be for temporary labourers whatever their skillset in labour markets more generally. But CfW almost tries to flip that, to “supply jobs” – and sure, if it’s done well, it’s for things that are needed, but I think the assessment of what is needed and how it might get done *otherwise* is often not rigorous or honest enough. I also think the driving incentive in such programs is usually (or at least *often*) to get people cash to meet their basic needs in the face of a crisis or emergency – and so it should be – so in which case, I’m not sure why wouldn’t we use unconditional cash transfers? All that said, there may be scenarios where it makes sense to use CfW – I just think those scenarios are fewer and further between than how often it gets used as a modality. There was a super interesting comment from someone on LinkedIn about the feedback they had received from participants in one context where they felt working for the cash actually *increased* their sense of dignity around receiving cash…which is fair enough, if that is well validated. But let’s be better at working out what our objectives are and what is the best way of achieving those in the contexts we are in. **Youssef** – to your number 3 – the idea that CfW addresses asset building/ improvement is strong, but the evidence is weak. Certainly not saying it never happens or never works – but arguing that it probably is not the best way of doing this. *And* that seems to be a ‘known secret’ as asset quality, use and maintenance isn’t even measured or monitored in most CfW programming. The points on sustainability / addressing unemployment not being the purpose of CfW are well taken (including from **Alfred**, and also on LinkedIn) but I have personally seen it be advocated for as a way to address under-employment, so wanted to include that piece in the blog. **Liz** – it is very true that we are not construction / infrastructure experts – no dispute there! And agree with **Sasha** that the point is to be clear about one’s goals and how best to achieve them. **Andy** – would love to read it, are you volunteering?! 😊 We touch on it in part two – but it’s a collection of quite varied thoughts on ways to mitigate some of the risks we raise, rather than the more focused suggestion you are making which would be interesting. Part 2 is here: [https://medium.com/mercy-corps-economic-opportunities/five-reasons-not-to-use-cash-for-work-64fb665dc5d2](https://medium.com/mercy-corps-economic-opportunities/five-reasons-not-to-use-cash-for-work-64fb665dc5d2) Thanks for all the thoughts! ![image001.jpg|600x149](upload://q16BRZ5URsud6EAZjOJmBhZgkYo.jpeg)

March 28, 2024, 6:29 a.m.

Andy Hunter

Great discussion @Rachel - and nice goading @rogeralexanderdean. Something that stands out to me in flicking through the article and these posts – is that if we take a systems approach to what we are designing/funding/managing – we can generally offset a large portion of the negative outcomes and limitations. I was thinking about how for each of the 5 points in the medium article… if the market was engaged property and programmed through, lots of the issues could be mitigated. Maybe MIC could put out a working paper response - '5 ways to apply systems thinking to CFW' *Those inclined are welcome to sub in 'MBP' for 'systems thinking'.

March 27, 2024, 4:42 p.m.

Sasha Muench

I agree and I think the key here, as the blog post states, is to be clear about your goals: - Do people need cash to meet basic needs and prime markets? If so then distribute unconditional cash. - Is there a need for short-term, low-skill labor to clear debris or reconstruct assess AND are there needy people with time to spare (for example disaster victims who are stuck in a temporary camp)? If so, then “CfW” is fine but call it what it is – short term paid labor for community aims. - Do people need to spend their energy recovering assets, restarting livelihoods, and rebuilding their lives? In that case, do a market assessment to understand what interventions will help them the most without getting in their way and/or disempowering them (which could include linking available individuals to private sector actors who need laborers).

March 27, 2024, 2:14 p.m.

Liz Palmer

I will share with my networks with this comment: Its very unfortunate to see the observation in relation to community-built infrastructure. By linking it to CfW, the authors have inadvertently condemned community-based approaches for infrastructure projects. In my experience, this is not the case and is in fact a well documented and executed practice. See GADRRRes Towards Safer Schools, among others. This could be a case where the observation is written by Cash Experts, rather than infrastructure / construction experts.

March 27, 2024, 8:04 a.m.

Alfred Hamadziripi

Has CfW been necessarily designed to be sustainable but temporary, more of the latter. Where sustainability is the intent what specific elements for enabling sustainability are included in the designs? In reaching decisions on suitability for CfW to certain desired outcome all elements that were put in place have to be analysed. I believe a lot needs to be done beyond a mere CfW modality to sustainably address unemployment, some of which is far beyond the humanitarian sector and actors. The distortion of labour markets is definitely something not unique to CfW programmes. I have the privilege of working in the extractives sector and can witness the extent to which their compensation structures heavily distort labour markets at much larger scales than CfW. But there is acknowledgement that there are issues that have to be addressed at multiple levels both within and beyond the sector. In addition to better designing of CfW programmes, there is need to focus on and intervene on systemic issues that underly the skewness that we observe not just for CfW but any other initiatives and sectors.

March 27, 2024, 6:47 a.m.


One of the great aspect of cash for work is that people do not receive free support; any modality of support/ humanitarian/ development that ask recipients to provide something in return is great; why? 1- They are in need. otherwise such programs will not attract their attention 2- Good targeting approach with less mistakes/ errors 3- It address asset building/ improvement 4- It can be sued to have further targeting for those who provide work for cash (multi stage targeting) 5- it is flexible for some categories (women, PWD) Regards, Youssef

March 26, 2024, 3:26 p.m.

Karri Byrne

I think my issue with "Cash for Work" (and I know @SarahWard will echo me on this) is that it really should just be called "Work" or maybe "Temporary Work"/"Gig Work" etc. I don't really buy into the "but it isn't SUSTAINABLE" arguement... The Medium article says: *"the transient nature of CfW opportunities may even hinder program participants from building a longer-term livelihood strategy. While participants are engaged in temporary work, potential for meaningful skill development is limited"*. Well, that's really an "us" problem not a "them" problem. We should 1) be super clear about the limited nature of the job (most of my consultant contracts are brilliant at making it clear I am not a permanent employee), 2) work through existing private actor sectors that may at some point in the future need whatever skill you are building (even if it is waste removal or another low skill job), 3) build-in or subsidize skilling-up, when appropriate. On-the-job training is an ideal way for adults to learn, so let's incentivize that. Sometimes training/improving takes us away from our money-making opportunties, let's help people think about how to manage that, but not assume that they are not already perfectly capable of creating multiple income streams in their lives. In my mind we can keep CfW/Temporary Work on the table as an option, but we should apply our systems lens to what we are trying to acheive with the program activities overall and make sure it makes sense in the context and in the market.

March 26, 2024, 9:20 a.m.

Meseret Getahun

Thank you, Rachel, for sharing this insightful piece! I agree with the arguments presented in it. But one practical example that immediately comes to mind is the Productive Safety Net Program in Ethiopia. This program aims for social protection as its overarching goal, utilizing both conditional and unconditional cash or food transfers. Target households are required to engage their able-bodied members in public work activities, particularly Natural Resource Management (NRM) activities, in exchange for cash or food assistance (note that these are supported by capital budgets to procure for some items to keep the quality of work). Yes the cash can be transferred with out any condition to support meeting the food need gap (and it's one of the principles of the program which is primacy of cash/food), but the same time rehabilitating the resources in the area is critical for sustainable impact…. Reflecting on this, I am thinking what might constitute a more effective approach to supporting this objective. Additionally, as I also look into some literature, I saw discussions on how such initiatives contribute to the promotion of decent employment opportunities ( https://www.ipc-undp.org/pub/IPCOnePager132.pdf )… happy to hear your and others thoughts on this.

March 21, 2024, 8:55 p.m.

Simon Levine

I can’t see why there would be any debate, let alone one for hours – who would argue with anything you’ve written? Simon ![~WRD0000.jpg|100x100](upload://bONwCMToQaefS5MCaw6ckHjvG5z.jpeg)

March 21, 2024, 7:49 p.m.

Roger Dean

Thank you Rachel, it's reignited! Let's slant the debate towards MBP rather than just cash... Ok, go! :-)

March 21, 2024, 7:47 p.m.

Rachel Shah

A while ago there was a fairly heated conversation on here about cash-for work (see: "Can you really build decent roads with Cash for Work?") To add fuel to that fire, we have just published a blog post called "Five Reasons Not to Do Cash-for-Work." It's a 10 min read (according to Medium!) but there's enough in there to fuel hours of debate. ;) https://medium.com/mercy-corps-economic-opportunities/five-reasons-not-to-use-cash-for-work-ff983332783e There is a part two coming about how to mitigate some of the risks of CfW when you *do* have to do it. Big thanks to those who authored and co-authored this piece, and to Simon Levine for your help with relevant evidence and research. Always interested to hear folks' thoughts - I learn a lot from the debate and examples shared on these technical topics in here!