How the ILO can support vital public employment programmes during the COVID-19 crisis

Public employment programmes have played an increasingly important role in government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. In this article, Maikel Lieuw-Kie-Song, ILO Specialist on the Employment Intensive Investment Programme (EIIP) sheds light on new, innovative approaches being used to assist countries like Uzbekistan in supporting their PWPs during the pandemic, resulting in temporary work for almost 500,000 women and men in 2020 – nearly twice as many jobs as those created before the pandemic.

Comment | 10 February 2021
Public employment programmes have played an increasingly important role in government responses to the COVID-19 crisis. In anticipation of the impact of the pandemic on the labour market, the government of Uzbekistan identified the Public Works Programme (PWP), their largest intervention for supporting unemployed and job-seekers, as a key element of its response to the crisis. By October 2020, it provided temporary work to approximately 500,000 people across Uzbekistan, of whom 270,000 were women – nearly twice as many jobs of those created by the programme in 2019, before the pandemic. Furthermore, the number of eligible areas for public works increased from 9 to 18, including in some COVID-19 related activities such as monitoring quarantines, guarding checkpoints and financing care services for the elderly and other more vulnerable groups.

In expanding the PWP and making it more fit for purpose in the context of COVID, the Ministry of Employment and Labour Relations of Uzbekistan (MELR) requested ILO technical assistance in carrying out an institutional assessment and providing recommendations for revamping and scaling up its programme as well as better aligning it to their social protection and active labour market policies.

The Decent Work Team for Eastern Europe and Central Asia contacted the EIIP in Geneva in order to adapt the Inter Agency Social Protection Assessments (ISPA) methodology for collecting information and assessing the performance of a country’s public works programmes to Uzbekistan’s national priorities and country context. The approach included overcoming the challenge of applying more traditional technical cooperation approaches as travel to Uzbekistan by ILO staff and consultants was not possible. Therefore, a new, more innovative approach had to be developed.

The ILO Moscow and EIIP team proposed to the Ministry to conduct a “Guided Self-Assessment”. The ILO developed the framework and process on how to conduct the assessment through virtual meetings, so that the MELR staff could conduct the core of the assessment themselves. A key element of the proposal was to ensure that these virtual meetings were interactive and allowed MELR staff to raise questions and concerns and all parties to share their views and experiences.

The ILO technical assistance also covered, among others, facilitated online workshops, staff questionnaires on how to conduct the self-assessment, sharing of relevant international experience, labour standards and good practices on public works programmes’ management and delivery of quality services; and, support in identifying bottlenecks and recommendations for improving strategic management.

The final report was largely based on the reports prepared by each working group and the discussions during the workshops. This approach to technical cooperation was driven by the current circumstances but ended up being a positive experience with several lessons worth sharing, highlighted below:
  • The virtual sessions were interactive and had a high level of participation from MELR staff. Because all the workshops were conducted via Zoom, there was far greater scope for participation. More than 40 officials spread across all the districts of Uzbekistan participated in the workshops and were able to contribute cases specific to their region. Such levels of participation would be much more difficult to achieve if the workshops had been conducted in person.
  • Because the MELR was more involved through the self-assessment process and came up with most of the proposals, there was far greater ownership of these. In fact all of the 14 proposals for improving the programme have either been implemented or are being implemented.
  • Because all the workshops were online and no one was required to travel, there was greater flexibility in the timing of the sessions, allowing the scheduling to align well with the process.
  • This support was provided at very low costs, as there was no travel budget required, nor was it necessary to engage consultants. The only costs involved were those related to the translation of documents and interpretation during the workshops.
  • With all the meetings held online, it was easy to record the workshops. This makes it much easier to prepare reports as well as to go back to verify specific statements or re-listen to sections when issues were not clear.
However there are also some downsides and risks to this approach:
  • The online process diminished the ability for outsiders to bring in a fresh perspective and look at issues through a different lens. Any observations of the interventions remained indirect, mediated through MELR staff which limited the types of new insights and recommendations that can be provided.
  • Such a process is largely dependent on the buy-in from the receiving parties and their ability to do the self-assessment. It was critical that the Deputy Minister was very involved in all the workshops, ensuring that working groups were constituted and that the self-assessment was taken seriously and people were allowed to commit time to it. Where this is not the case, it may be difficult to come up with results.
  • As this is a new way of working there were also some technical glitches which others should be aware of. For example, where translation and recordings were involved, we encountered glitches in the language being recorded which resulted in extra time being spent translating the recordings.
  • I can speak about two changes: First, unemployment benefits have increased almost three times. Second, the duration of the public works will be increased to up to six months."

    Erkinjon Mukhitdinov, First deputy minister of the MELR
The recommendations from this guided self-assessment process have been introduced as Resolution 799 on the Employment of the Population by the Cabinet of Ministers. “This has been a special resolution as the experts of the International Labour Organization have also analyzed it, says Erkinjon Mukhitdinov, First deputy minister of the Ministry of Employment and Labor Relations. “I can speak about two changes brought by this resolution, but the importance of those changes can be seen in the changes that took place in our daily work. First of all, the unemployment benefits have increased almost three times. This is a big change in our work. Second of all, the duration of the public works will be increased to up to six months.”

The self-assessment was prepared and facilitated by Maikel Lieuw-Kie-Song, EIIP specialist, and Ramiro Pizarro, ILO Moscow manager of the project "Partnerships for youth employment in the CIS-II", a public-private cooperation program between the ILO and the Russian company LUKOIL.