Engagement: Building a society that works

Dr Kate Philip

Dr Kate Philip, Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies

Unemployment: the meaning of work

Employment is the critical interface between the social and the economic in society. The personal impacts of employment/unemployment impact on inclusion and dignity: on families, communities, societies. The social problems that arise from unemployment – direct and indirect – raise the costs of poverty for the rest of the economy; and can also translate into economic instability.

Few failings in the economy impact as directly on social outcomes (and social costs) as unemployment. Treated solely as an economic problem, economies can in fact function quite efficiently despite high levels of unemployment, especially in a globalized world. This is especially so in dual economies, highly unequal ones, and ‘resource-cursed’ economies.

The need for there to be enough jobs for all those who need work is therefore a social need: a critical factor in social stability, human well-being, and the well-being of communities.

It’s about more than the money

In South Africa’s context, in which more than half of the unemployed under 35 have NEVER worked:
Those who lose their jobs lose the skill, habits and discipline of ‘work’ and become unemployable;
Those who have never worked never learn these skills;
Statistics show that those who have never worked are least likely to succeed in self-employment.

For many people, the link between work and remuneration is simply missing: ‘work’ is just not where ‘income’ comes from. Their access to income is through secondary sources and via dependent relationships.

South Africa’s system of cash transfers mainly target people who society does not expect to work: children, pensioners and those with disabilities. For most unemployed people, there is therefore a significant social protection gap, with only about 3% of the unemployed receiving unemployment support at any one point in time (Klasen and Woolard, 2008).

The rest depend on grants meant for other purposes (such as the diversion, and hence dilution, of the child support grant to support adults as well) or on goodwill transfers from friends or relatives who are employed. For the unemployed, who effectively remain ‘economic outsiders’, this situation can be deeply disempowering.

Long-term structural dependence has therefore influenced peoples sense of economic ‘agency’, that is, their scope to change their material conditions through their own actions. The crisis is therefore about the meaning of work in society, and the erosion of ‘work’ skills on a systemic scale.

‘Engagement’ requires ‘agency’

Continued failure to create employment at the scale required is likely to lead to heightened social tension; this in turn is likely to negatively affect the scope for economic growth and sustainable employment outcomes.

The need to break this cycle is the core rationale for a form of employment safety net in South Africa: to enable economic participation even where markets do not, providing a minimum level of work to those who need it – not as an alternative to the other economic policies required, but as part of the necessary conditions for a longer-term process of economic change.

Meaningful engagement requires a level of agency from participants/communities, where agency is the opposite of dependency (while acknowledging that, in South Africa, dependency is deeply structural: not just a state of mind). Critical questions are:

How to build/rebuild the agency of individuals and communities?
Their belief in their ability to use their own labour/skills/capacities to change their material conditions?
And how to create/further the experience of doing so?

The Community Work Programme is an initiative that tries to address these questions.

CWP: innovation in public employment

The Community Work Programme was initiated in 2007 by the Second Economy Strategy Project, in TIPS (Trade and Industrial Policy Strategies).The CWP is an employment safety net that enables economic participation even where markets don’t. The programme offers a minimum level of regular work – two days a week – on an ongoing basis at community level. The initiative is a government programme, implemented by non-profit agencies.

The work in CWP must serve community needs: and it is identified and prioritised through participatory community processes. Each site has a target minimum of 1,000 participants. This labour force of 1,000 people (plus tools and materials) each week is a powerful resource with which communities start to solve problems in a creative manner.

While CWP is not the solution to unemployment, it is a powerful development instrument. In its current form it is not an employment guarantee, because there is no legal entitlement to work on the scheme, and the numbers of people able to participate is limited by the budget available at each site. It is, however, a new modality for the delivery of public employment, designed with the explicit intention of developing and testing an approach that could be used to implement an employment guarantee in South Africa.

New forms of development partnership

CWP is a Government programme, implemented by NPOs, in partnership with local government, local multi-stakeholder Reference Groups and community participation. While the quality of the outcomes is, of course, variable, the programme provides policy support specifically for the attempt to craft a new form of development partnership.

The ideal result would be a developmental state enabling developmental communities and a developmental society – rather than trying to do all of the delivery all of the time.

Link to informal settlements

Informal settlements are a core focus of the CWP urban strategy. When communities in informal settlements prioritise work, the work usually fits the definition of ‘informal settlement upgrading’. However, the 65% labour intensity requirement in CWP limits the scope for large-scale infrastructure work.

In terms of moving forward, the programme was linked to the National Upgrading Support Programme (NUSP) early on, but the struggle for policy survival can make co-ordination hard. Yet both programmes are now rolling out: both with (almost) impossible targets – CWP is tasked with scaling up to 1 million participants by 2013/14.


The CWP model has the potential to build local institutions, strengthen participatory processes of development planning, deepen local democracy and unlock a new level of agency within communities.

In other words: while the case for an employment guarantee has focussed on its role as an employment safety-net where markets fail, an employment guarantee could also be an instrument of structural change in marginal areas – investing in people, as well as in community assets and services – and, in the process, creating new opportunities for sustainable economic development.

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