How ‘cash-for-work’ projects help vulnerable groups in Lebanon – and what they need to do better

Léa Moubayed-Haidar Cash transfers, Humanitarian, Research

Offering temporary jobs on donor-funded and public projects can boost community incomes, as well as women’s economic empowerment and local quality of life. However, our new paper also finds such schemes need to do more to improve long-term economic inclusion and social impact, say Léa Moubayed-Haidar and Christina Elias of the EU-funded Economic Development Policy Unit (EDPU), hosted at Oxfam Lebanon

Customers at a vegetable store in Beirut. Cash-for-work schemes can boost local economies and businesses by bringing more cash into local markets. (Picture: Sam Tarling/Oxfam/EU-funded EC Dear project)

Overlapping crises in Lebanon since late 2019 (accelerated by the October 2019 social ‘revolution’) have led to a surge in poverty and a dramatic fall in incomes and job opportunities. GDP shrank by 10.5% in 2021 on top of a 21.4% decline in 2020. According to the UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, in March 2021, 77% of households reported not having enough food, or money to buy food. In this blog, we share key findings from a recent paper from the EU-funded Economic Development Policy Unit, hosted by Oxfam Lebanon, that looks at “cash-for-work” (CfW) and similar projects guaranteeing temporary jobs as a way to support vulnerable groups in the face of mounting economic and financial challenges.  

What is cash-for-work?

Cash-for-work projects provide paid work to boost the livelihoods of vulnerable people and have become a more common intervention in recent years, especially in fragile settings. This resource from Mercy Corps defines cash-for-work as “a short-term intervention used by humanitarian assistance organizations to provide temporary employment in public projects (such as repairing roads, clearing debris or rebuilding infrastructure) to the most vulnerable segments of a population”.

In Lebanon, vulnerable groups participating in EU- and other donor-funded initiatives have accessed jobs via both Cash-for-Work (CfW) and similar Employment Intensive Investment Programmes (EIIP), which now support both the Lebanese and Syrian refugee populations. Here, both types of scheme hire workers for an average of 40 days and can contribute to the transfer of skills and to improving employability. However, in Lebanon, CfW programmes primarily support local authorities to provide key basic services such as waste management and road repair or cleaning; while EIIPs focus on boosting local economic development through rehabilitating or constructing productive assets including agricultural roads, lighting or water tanks.

Our paper examines the strengths and limitations of current CfW and EIIP initiatives from the perspective of practitioners, experts, local authorities and businesses, based on individual interviews and focus group discussions. We identified six interrelated areas where these schemes have had a positive impact in Lebanon:

1. A significant, though temporary, boost to household income

Cash-for-work shares many of the advantages of other cash transfer programmes, including supporting the local economy and ensuring direct and flexible money transfers. A key aspect of the schemes in Lebanon is that, as well as offering a decent, temporary income at a time when work options are minimal, they provide a rare chance to be paid in US dollars: a big benefit since the dramatic devaluation of the Lebanese Pound (LBP) national currency, which has also led to the dollarisation of other cash assistance programmes (note  that the informal market value of the LBP reached an all-time low of 35,600LL per USD at the end of May 2022).

2. A tool to enhance women’s economic inclusion

With women’s unemployment rate increasing from 14.3% (pre-2019 level) to 26% by September 2020, women’s economic inclusion projects are more needed than ever. Yet, this has proved particularly challenging in CfW interventions, where activities are often in sectors dominated by men, such as construction.  

In response to this, some international partners have set up CfW schemes aimed at vulnerable women, through for instance mobilising female entrepreneurs and offering women both traditional and non-traditional job opportunities to facilitate their economic participation. CfW projects that focus on women’s economic inclusion generally tend to combine skill-building with business development support. These initiatives involve improving the management of women-led cooperatives and businesses by providing women joining CfW schemes with soft and technical skills, as well as training on how to grow income-generating activities. Gender-responsive CfW interventions, some of which offer women childcare, have given women a valuable opportunity to overcome social and cultural barriers to employment and show how such schemes can be a tool to further women’s economic empowerment.

3. Post-crisis adaptation that has helped to ease social tension

Initially, CfW projects in Lebanon mostly offered work to Syrian refugees (70 to 100% of beneficiaries). However, as of 2020, the projects had to adapt to the new realities of a multilayered crisis that brought significant job losses (exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic), rising unemployment and financial stress among both refugee and Lebanese communities. As a result, the projects started increasing the number of Lebanese beneficiaries, who were selected in coordination with municipalities, so that they now make up half of participants. According to EDPU’s interviewees, this has helped to ease social tensions around CfW and local perceptions of aid bias.

4. Support for the capacity, motivation, incentives and ownership of local authorities

The role of local government is central to these projects and there are signs of support from municipal actors, albeit with caveats. Municipality buy-in is critical in conducting the initial community needs assessment and selecting beneficiaries, as well as quickly identifying useful interventions that can help people and proposing concrete activities such as road repair or street cleaning. Local authorities are particularly supportive of EIIPs due to their long-term infrastructure investment component which can boost local economic development. However, municipalities do say that the often temporary nature of schemes can limit their potential to play the role of effective partners.

5. A tangible improvement in the supply and procurement of local services

Representatives from local institutions noted that the projects had a positive impact on local living conditions by enhancing the area and quality of life for inhabitants. There are also noticeable – albeit short-lived – benefits for the broader local economy (availability or accessibility of quality services and goods) due to the injection of cash into markets.

6. Advantages for community businesses

Businesses contracted to deliver CfW projects also benefit.Contractors get training in entrepreneurial best practices from NGO and INGO partners (for example in procurement or project management) and are exposed to new, socially responsible ways of conducting business – including decent work principles. Firms interviewed by the EDPU reported that CfW had helped them to build staff loyalty and win more commercial opportunities.

What more is needed from CfW projects?

There is no doubt that CfW can provide opportunities to local communities while offering dignified humanitarian support. However, our paper also identifies areas where much more needs to be done. A key challenge comes out of the short timeframe of many of these projects. Practitioners and experts told us they want to see more attention to ensuring long-term impact. With this in mind, we suggest that programme designers and policymakers focus on four key areas for action:

  1. Increasing coordination and communication between funders, implementing partners and the government. It is vital all stakeholders reach a common understanding about the nature and aims of such schemes – including the important question of the USD to LBP exchange rates used to determine the value of payments to participants – and work out ways to make the most effective utilisation of donor funds in rapidly changing times.
  2. Promoting the implementation of CfW programmes that are based on decent work standards and local economic development plans, as reflected in Lebanon’s 2020 Guidelines on Employment Intensive Projects. Strong advocacy for CfW contractors, supported businesses and public institutions to apply decent work standards – alongside investment in productive assets and infrastructure through scaled-up EIIPs – will help create quality jobs for the most vulnerable, including women and people with disabilities, and boost local growth and economic recovery.
  3. Planning for more social impact through CfW by enriching EIIPs with additional social procurement provisions, so that donors’ and implementers’ investment in people and businesses can be harnessed to deliver maximum social value. This could be achieved through, for example, encouraging CfW-implementing agencies looking to procure goods and services to prioritise partnerships with institutions or enterprises with a clear social mission, ultimately maximising their social impact and contributing to building a fairer economy and social stability in Lebanon.
  4. Linking CfW to employability (skills training) and Business Development Services (BDS) programming. These training and BDS components could either be fully integrated into CfW/EIIP activities, or implemented through referrals of participants by local CfW actors to technical and vocational education and training providers and BDS partners. Ultimately, workers should be put on a path to graduate out of temporary schemes towards more stable employment.

Want to know more? Read the full paper from the Economic Development Policy Unit: Cash for Work: a meso-level impact analysis.


Léa Moubayed-Haidar

Léa Moubayed-Haidar is Head of the EU-funded Economic Development Policy Unit (EDPU)


Christina Elias

Christina Elias is Project Support Officer for the Economic Development Policy Unit

The EDPU, hosted by Oxfam in Lebanon, is a collective of 5 INGO-led Livelihood & Social Stability programme consortia supported by the EU Madad Fund for Lebanon.

The EDPU is grateful to all key United Nations, INGO, NGO and research-based informants and respondents in Lebanon who contributed time, insight and expertise from their organisations to the initial working paper. The unit also thanks the Delegation of the European Union to Lebanon and EDPU constituent members (the EU Madad Livelihood & Social Stability programme consortia) for their detailed review of the first working paper draft.

The picture above was gathered as part of the EC Dear project, funded by the European Union

Disclaimer: This blog was adapted from a longer working paper and produced with the financial support of the European Union. Its contents are the sole responsibility of Oxfam (which hosts the Economic Development Policy Unit) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the European Union.