SecureNutrition Q & A Series: Rethinking Public Works and Food Security in Malawi

SecureNutrition Q & A Series: Rethinking Public Works and Food Security in Malawi

Suggest a

The SecureNutrition Q&A series aims to provide accessible insight into key technical points of World Bank research related to nutrition-sensitive interventions. Authors participate in a structured interview that surfaces the operational and policy implications of their work, then collaborate with SecureNutrition on a summary blog that is targeted towards practitioners.


This study is notable for its rigor in data collection as well as being undertaken jointly with the government to study a large-scale intervention. It examines a social protection program that is conceptually linked to both food security and production. Despite initial qualitative and pilot work showing positive effects, the full study showed that the program does not produce intended impacts on food security, even under modifications.

The study on Malawi’s PWP was undertaken by: Kathleen Beegle - Program Leader, Ghana Office, World Bank); Emanuela Galasso (Senior Economist, Development Economics and Chief Economist Group, World Bank), and Jessica Goldberg (Assistant Professor of Economics, University of Maryland). The interview was conducted with Kathleen and Emanuela.

Why is this report relevant to the SecureNutrition community?

Public works programs (PWP) are a source of cash to vulnerable families and households. In the case of one program in Malawi the PWP is linked to a fertilizer subsidy, and thought to improve food security by aligning small cash payments with the ability to purchase key agricultural inputs at a subsidized price and ultimately improve harvests. As the researchers we interviewed find, however, coordinating sectoral programs conceptually does not mean they will provide synergistic impacts in reality. Their words are a reminder that careful data collection is especially important in multisectoral approaches.

What was the research objective?

We wanted to engage with the Malawi government and World Bank operational team to embed an impact evaluation within a large-scale program. Our aim was to undertake research which would support evidence-based policy.

The idea of looking specifically at the public works program (PWP) of the Malawi Social Action Fund (MASAF) grew out of a technical seminar held in Ghana. We met representatives from MASAF and quickly realized there were a range of questions we could examine in the PWP. The program provides cash for work timed with the government’s fertilizer subsidy program, with the idea that linking the two would increase food security and agricultural productivity.

The conversations led us to ask pretty fundamental questions: “what is the impact of participating in public works on household well-being and economic activity,” and “can we improve the impact if we change program design around season (planting vs lean) and payment schedule (lump sum v. small installments)?”  We had broad parameters to experiment with, but any changes we explored had to be budget-neutral.

How did you approach the study from a data collection and statistics standpoint?

The research objective was straightforward enough, but translating it into an existing program was complicated. We worked extensively with the Government of Malawi (GoM) to inform the design—what and how we could feasibly measure the right outcomes. We iterated a lot and ended up with something pretty ambitious.

We did pilot and qualitative work to confirm some of our initial hypotheses, which indicated positive impacts of the program and in hind sight encouraged our ambitious study. The mechanics involved household (HH) surveys that dovetailed on cash payments for PWP participants, which is challenging to time correctly on the ground.

We looked at the key outcome of interest of the program, household food security, using a range of indicators which have become fairly standardized by the World Food Programme and others. If we were explicitly interested in nutrition, the study would probably have been designed differently; since most households grow maize and there was no focus on diet in the project, studying diet diversity was not really on the table.

How were the connections between the PWP and the fertilizer subsidy supposed to work?

The PWP is motivated by a productive angle on food security. The idea is to interlink short-term income boosts with a large fertilizer subsidy that has been around since the 1990s in some shape or form. The PWP typically operates during the planting season, when farmers access the subsidy and make fertilizer decisions.

Conducting a PWP during planting season is a different approach than in many (if not most) low-income countries. Often these programs avoid the planting season because of concerns over displacing peoples’ time away from their own fields, focusing on “lean season” support and achieving immediate impacts on food security. By contrast, the PWP assumes that providing support during planting season will improve production and harvests, with food security improvements to come afterwards.

So in a way, this is really about improving farm income more than consumption of home-grown foods?

Yes and no. The program puts cash into the hands of needy households in exchange for work.  If this money is used to buy farm inputs, it may raise farm income, which could cycle into improving nutrition through consumption of home-grown foods several months later. But for cash received during the lean season (when the maize is growing in the field) the assumption is that it is likely to be used to buy food then and there, since household stocks are low. So the lean season model is not seen as a means of improving farm income.

And the timing of the PWP itself?

As we said, the Malawi PWP stands out for operating during the planting season. As part of the study design, however, we looked at effects of moving the program into the lean season: Would there be a different impact on consumption smoothing or production? We do not see a large change in impact. Partly because getting the cash in the planting season did not result in a change in fertilizer use – so the production effects seem to not be there.

What are the key technical findings of your research?

We put a lot of effort into designing this study, supervising the field research, ensuring the statistics were done carefully, etc... This is one project where it’s safe to say we took extra time and care before publishing.

In the end, the main result is that we don’t find impact on food security across the board, neither with the current design (PWP during planting season) nor with the variants—harvest season vs. lean season, and lump sum payment vs. frequent payouts. Neither did we didn’t see any effect on fertilizer use, nor on savings and asset accumulation.

The productive motivation for having PWP in place simply isn’t realized.

Did anything happen as a result of this negative finding?

Yes: A lot of collaborative brainstorming that wouldn’t have otherwise occurred.

The results helped us as researchers engage with the government programmers to look at key design features for programs such as PWP. One key dimension is program intensity. The cash from work did not lead to improvements in consumption as far as our household surveys told us. The most likely explanation is that the payments, which were fairly small, were used for many different purposes and spread over a relatively long period of time. The potential to make a significant difference on food security or consumption at any point in time—and that could be picked up by even a well-timed survey—was therefore reduced.

This may sound obvious, but one lesson is that in creating evidence-based policy around PWP, there’s a risk that cash transfers are low enough you really can’t detect the effects. Even if you are 100% sure the money made it into the hands of the participant, your statistical instruments may not pick up the evidence. It doesn’t mean the cash isn’t helping, but you may not have the data to show for it.

What are the policy implications of your findings?

The Government of Malawi was just starting to look at the next phase of the MASAF programming when we were coming out with our results, so the research was well timed. The results of the study, as we note in the abstract, are disappointing—it doesn’t seem to help food security, it’s not clear how the household uses the extra cash for work, and the functional links to the fertilizer subsidy did not translate into more fertilizer use. The good news is we continued the conversation with our government counterparts and the operational teams at the World Bank about how to redesign the intervention. Programs to promote productivity and livelihoods might need a different policy tool.

Leave a Comment

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.

At a Glance

Food Security, Agriculture