Food aid through Labour Intensive Public Works deployed for structural development’

The NICC Foundation recently included an article in English in its e-collection about the Kobo-Lalibela Road Project (1974-1979) in the former Lasta district, a part of the Wollo province in Ethiopia that was severely drought-stricken at the time.

The article was written by Dr. Johannis Leeuwenburg, Bart Wesseling, Worku Behonegne and Dr. Mekonnen Lulie, who were involved in this Labour Intensive Public Works (LIPW) project  more than four decades ago, during and immediately after the famine of 1974. They visited the Kobo-Lalibela project area together in 2018 and were impressed by the quality of the road built in the mid-1970s through emergency aid and the provision of work, the maintenance of the road and drainage systems that was carried out and the socioeconomic effects of opening up the area. In times of famine, food could be supplied, agricultural inputs could be accessed, agricultural products could also be sold at more distant markets, seriously ill people could be taken to regional hospitals and some of the young people could attend secondary and later higher education in towns such as Dessie or Woldia. In addition, the road construction project led to a number of integrated development programmes in different parts of the former Lasta district, where LIPW was also used for erosion control and water conservation, among other things by terrassing.

Now that national governments of poor countries and international development organisations are showing an interest in working through LIPW in the context of the economic effects of the corona crisis, this article may provide inspiration.

At the time, Dr. Leeuwenburg worked as a doctor in refugee camps in Lasta through the social organisation Terre des Hommes. He then ensured that the food aid in the camps along the main road was gradually transformed into a work-provision programme based on Labour Intensive Public Works. This enabled rural households to return to their farms to plough, weed and harvest, while at times when no labour was needed on their farms they could take part in road building activities such as cutting stones from mountain walls to widen a track from a mule track to a six-metre wide road for four-wheel-drive cars and trucks, using the stones to make Irish bridges, among other things. The digging of drainage ditches along the road was also initially done entirely by manpower. In this way households were able to rebuild some food reserves.

The LIPW approach was practically worked out by the Dutch road builder Bart Wesseling and another Dutch engineer, who were deployed in the project via SNV (then Stichting Nederlandse Vrijwilligers, now Netherlands Development Organisation). Dr Johannis took care of the general management of the project together with another Dutch doctor. Bart and his colleague SNV-er were supported by Worku Behonegne and Mekonnen Lulie who acted as interpreters and assistants. For Worku this was the beginning of a long career within SNV, where he became regional SNV director for East and Southern Africa. He is now the director of SNV Ethiopia and the employee who has been with SNV the longest of all. Mekonnen also worked for SNV for some time in the nineties.

In the 1980s, the LIPW approach was also applied in the SNV-supported Golina Hormat development project in Wollo, which not only helped create infrastructure, but also contributed to the conservation of land and water, including through terrassing and reforestation. This project formed the basis for a broader SNV programme in Ethiopia.

Later the LIPW approach was scaled up by the Ethiopian government, with the help of various donors, to the national level through the Productive Safety Net Programme (PSNP), which reaches approximately 7 million people in rural areas, while it was further stretched during (impending) famines. An assistance component for the elderly and handicapped was linked to this programme, as well as a livelihood component that supports households in productive greasing (= investments).


This social safety net system with a LIPW component was subsequently also developed – often in an adapted form – in other African countries.Possibly, emergency aid for poor households affected by the pandemic can also be combined with structural sustainable development.

The NICC Foundation wants to challenge people who are also working within the framework of LIPW to share their experiences.This can be done, for example, by submitting an assignment for the NICC pool of resource persons via the website www.stichtingnicc.nl, but also by sending a story about the knowledge and experience gained to info@stichtingnicc.nl.