After the Great Depression in the 1930s, part of the recovery in the United States of America relied upon a massive programme of public works, under the Works Progress Administration. Its impact was not just as a stimulus; it also provided a focus of social participation and inclusion. Yet, in the context of the current Great Recession, public works have been only a limited part of the response across most of the developed world.
Instead, it is in the developing world that the most interesting innovation is taking place in terms of new approaches to public employment, including in India, South Africa and Ethiopia. These too perform the functions of a stimulus, targeted into local economies, impacting directly on employment and trickling up into the wider economy from there. They too are providing a focus of social participation and inclusion, in ways that are breaking new ground: changing rights frameworks, unlocking new forms of agency at community level, undertaking new forms of work and placing a social value on labour even where markets are not doing so. These processes are delivering sometimes unanticipated forms of transformation and systemic change, in some cases very locally, in others at a societal level.
In the process, longstanding debates about the role of employment in society, the scope for markets to achieve full employment, and the meaning of the right to work come up for new scrutiny also.
These issues are explored in a paper by Kate Philip, which draws on innovations in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in India and the Community Work Programme in South Africa to do so.
The implications of this are likely to have the most traction in the developing world; in the face of failing austerity policies, however, it's just possible that this is an area in which the developed world can also learn some lessons from the south.
The Transformative Potential of Public Employment Programmes, by Kate Philip, is published as part of the Graduate School of Development Policy and Practice's Occasional Paper Series. No 1/2013
Download a copy: The Transformative Potential of Public Employment Programmes