Allegations of misuse of Kazi kwa Vijana funds in the Prime Minister’s Office have brought to the fore critical issues around design, implementation, cost-effectiveness and evaluation of such programmes.
Public works, as such projects are commonly known, involve a number of operational benchmarks and practices critical to their success.
They are labour intensive hence the high propensity to mostly target able-bodied young people as their primary beneficiaries. Their main purpose is smoothing consumption during lean times, therefore, they are seasonal and most appropriate when people are vulnerable to or are facing hard times.
To prevent inclusion and exclusion errors, the programmes should ideally employ self-selection, community and geographic targeting methods so that at each stage of selection, only the poorest of the poor remain.
Wages should be lower than labour markets rates to discourage less needy individuals from joining such programme. The secondary objective should be creation of community assets. Higher level objectives such as vocational training should only be considered after successful achievement of lower level ones.
Similar programmes have existed for decades.
For example, public works were implemented across Europe and in the US during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s.
So what exactly are public works programmes? These are safety nets used in adverse country circumstances. In such cases, the poor, especially the unemployed, are provided with seasonal government, donor or NGO-led labour intensive jobs and in return get food rations or cash as wages.
Today, the programmes are common in middle and low income countries because they are vulnerable to economic crises, fuel and food prices volatility, among others, which take a toll on household savings.
Some of these circumstances lead to limited economic opportunities, which mean less disposable household incomes available to spend on even socially acceptable basic needs like food.
Purchasing power of cash in hand is also compromised by high inflation. Those affected need help to protect them from becoming destitute. This is why projects such as social pensions and school feeding are important.
Even though there are dozens of such programmes around the world, two case studies are famously referred to as most successful. These are Ethiopia’s Productive Safety Net Programme and India’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
Implemented in 2005, Ethiopia’s programme is a good model of a large-scale government-led welfare programme, in a poor country. The project emerged from the frustrations, successes and lessons of more than 20 years of emergency appeals.
Each year since the mid 1980s, the Ethiopian government had to send out appeals for emergency food relief for up to 14 million of its hunger-stricken citizens. This was considered untenable, bearing in mind that the hunger patterns had become predictable.
Today, the programme reaches more than eight million with seasonal jobs in times of famine.
Also implemented in 2005, the programme in India is similar to Ethiopia’s in many ways save for its most outstanding feature — it was anchored in law, which assures the poor 100 days of public sector work annually.
So what can the Kazi kwa Vijana stakeholders learn from these two case studies?
First, for such programmes to succeed there must be genuine political goodwill. For example, in Ethiopia’s case, high level political commitment from the Prime Minister and deputy Prime Minister dictated its success from the start.
Despite donor aid, they went ahead to ensure that the government committed its own finances and officials to the programme.
In Kenya, our overdependence on donors for finances and technical help is our main undoing.
We should ensure that local ownership of Kazi kwa Vijana is expanded.
We should also learn from the success and failure of similar programmes in countries such as Malawi, Zambia, Mozambique, South Africa as well as from the two cases above.
In addition, we should separate cheap politics from genuine political goodwill when implementing the programme.
Let us be honest and inform the youth that such projects only fight transient or seasonal poverty.
Fighting chronic or long-term poverty requires different policies such as governance and institutional reforms, subsidised higher education, creation of a pro-poor credit environment and infrastructure expansion.
Secondly, Kenyans should take advantage of the new Constitution and judicial reforms to compel the government to implement provisions in Chapter Four on Bill of Rights.
Through the civil society, we should identify supportive MPs and ask them to push through social protection specific Bills in parliament.
Thirdly, for this project to attract wider buy-ins, efforts should be made to address development concerns like the impact of climate change.
Public works programmes are here to stay since they are among the most acceptable means of fighting seasonal poverty. However, left on their own and in their current design, they cannot be a panacea for youth poverty.
Mr Aseka is a lecturer at Moi and Catholic universities and an anti-poverty policy specialist.