Niger is a land-locked, semi-arid country in West Africa. The 2009 UN Human Development report ranked it last out of 182 countries in terms of human development. Much of the population resides along an eastwest strip of relatively fertile land along Nigers southern borders with Nigeria and Benin. This area has been unaffected by the low-level insurgency afflicting northern regions. Planting in the region begins with the first rains, typically in June. The period between planting and harvest in September is a hunger gap, even in good years and 2010 was not a good year. Projections by humanitarian agencies indicated that up to 20% of the population was severely vulnerable to food insecurity, with a further 20% at moderate risk.
Zinder, in the south-east, is the second-largest city in the country, with a population of more than 150,000. In response to the developing food security crisis, GOAL began an emergency cash-for-work project in the town in early June 2010 as part of a broader emergency intervention. Specific objectives included the clearance of culverts and drains before the onset of heavy rains. The overall goal of the project was to provide cash-for-work activities with public health benefits to vulnerable people in Zinder.
Initial project assessment
Initial ad hoc surveys of Zinder by GOAL personnel in early June indicated that a significant proportion of the citys drainage system was clogged with compacted dirt and general refuse. The Zinder city department of hygiene and sanitation (ZDHS) had started drain-cleaning activities in May 2010, but had halted them in early June because of difficulties in paying workers. Meanwhile, reports from OCHA and other humanitarian agencies indicated that vulnerable urban populations (including recent migrants and vulnerable social groups) were facing food security problems over the coming months. GOALs quick-impact cash for work scheme thus had the two-fold aim of providing employment to vulnerable urban populations and addressing a pressing public health concern.
Making use of a natural experiment
Because of time constraints associated with the imminent start of heavy rains, it was agreed that speed of implementation was vital. GOAL, in cooperation with the local authorities (particularly the ZDHS), decided to calculate a per meter rate to be paid for drains cleaned, in preference to existing practice which was to pay a daily rate per employee. However, national legislation dictates a standard minimum daily rate; it was therefore agreed that the per meter rate calculation should be based on workers average productivity when paid the national daily rate. Previous drain-cleaning activities, undertaken by the local government in cooperation with the Zinder branch of the Nigerien Association of the Deaf, had to be stopped after only 14 days because of a funding shortage. The project team, comprised of GOAL and ZDHS personnel, visited the previous work site and conducted a measurement exercise to determine the average rate of progress over the 14-day period; ZDHS had paid labourers on a daily basis using a fixed rate of CFA 1,500 per day (approximately $3), in accordance with the national pay scale. Measurements taken, along with estimates of average work group size and daily amounts paid, were used to calculate a rate per meter of drain cleared of CFA 1,100.
Drain-clearance activities using this per meter rate began on 8 June 2010, drawing workers from the same pool of labourers (identified by the Zinder branch of the National Association of the Deaf) used in the previous cleaning exercise. GOAL supervisors marked beginning and end points of work for each team using GPS systems, measuring the total distance cleared at the end of each day. In the first eight days of operations, a total of 1,847m of drains were cleared, using three teams of around 20 workers each. When calculated on a meter per worker per day basis, the average clearance rate was three times greater than that of workers using the daily rate. Daily clearance rates varied depending on the conditions of individual drains. While this increase in productivity cannot be attributed solely to the payment of a per meter rate, as GOAL also provided workers with new tools that made digging easier, discussions with workers and direct observation of clearance activities strongly suggested that it was an important contributory factor. Because of increased productivity rates, drain clearers consistently earned above the base national daily rate. As a consequence it was also possible to attract a greater number of workers to the scheme, further speeding up clearance operations. To give one indicator of progress, the teams supported by GOAL cleaned 215m of drains on the first day of operations using 45 men, equating to an average clearance rate of 4.8m per person per day; this compares to a total distance of 256m cleared by a team of 13 men over 14 days using the daily rate system, a rate of only 1.4m per person per day. The project completed all drain-clearance activities before the end of June, despite occasional stoppages towards the end of the month because of heavy rain.
The main lesson of the project was that, for this type of activity, a piece rate payment system is preferable to paying a daily rate. However, while the increase in daily performance that results from this alternative incentive system is a major plus, there are also disadvantages. The first point relates to the sustainability of activities. The longer-term problem remains the lack of a functioning refuse collection system in Zinder and the consequent dumping of garbage in the citys open drains. Annual drain clearance activities, in the absence of the establishment of such a system, risk perpetuating the problem rather than resolving it. In this respect it is notable that GOAL was responsible for initiating the last drain clearance programme, in 2006.
Second, piece rate systems tend to reward the strongest more than the weakest. This problem was in part overcome by paying teams collectively for work done on a daily basis. Teams typically comprised 20 members each. The earnings of each team were split evenly between team members, encouraging more efficient teamwork. For example, some team members would break up hard-packed earth with picks while others lifted and cleared the loosened earth. However, there is a need to guard against the risk of teams selecting stronger members and leaving out weaker members to maximise productivity.
The combination of work teams and payment method can also reduce workforce flexibility. In one instance, a team was reluctant to accept additional workers mid-morning because they had already cleared a significant area. This problem was resolved by forming an additional temporary team of new workers for that day alone.
Another lesson relates to timing it was initially hoped that the project could target both socially vulnerable groups and migrant labourers from rural areas looking for work in Zinder. However, the light rains that fell in the first week of the project encouraged temporary migrant labourers to return to their home areas to begin planting. As a consequence the project worked only with the Deaf Association. An earlier start to project activities, perhaps in mid-May, would have addressed this issue although too early a start might have resulted in cleared drains being refilled with waste, particularly in market areas.
Finally, both the ZDHS and the Deaf Association were reluctant to include women in drain-cleaning activities, claiming that the work was too dirty and physically demanding. As a consequence all project beneficiaries were male members of the Deaf Association. Unfortunately, time and capacity constraints prevented the project team from initiating further discussions with town and association representatives, which might have moderated their views on this issue or allowed for alternative activities to be integrated into the project. However, if future drain-cleaning activities are implemented, complementary cash-for-work street cleaning or other activities considered culturally appropriate for women should be included.
This project was only one part of a larger series of emergency cash-for-work interventions being implemented by NGOs and the Niger government in the run-up to the hunger gap. Cash-for-work proved to be a convenient and efficient way of implementing quick-impact projects and providing paid employment in Zinder, where markets function effectively and can respond to increased demand. Applying a piece rate approach and making team payments proved to be more efficient than paying individuals a daily wage rate, both in terms of completing the work as well as for income transfer. However, this approach and the type of work involved may also have had potentially negative consequences, including the exclusion of the less physically able and women.
Rob Kevlihan, FCA, PhD, is an independent consultant, currently based in Accra, Ghana. He was employed by GOAL as Interim Country Director in Niger in May and June 2010. He is contactable at email@example.com. The author would like to thank Adam Djibo and the staff of GOAL Niger, the President and members of the Zinder branch of the Deaf Association of Niger, together with Zoumari Marou, the head of the ZDHS, the mayors of the local commune authorities of Zinder and all other members of the local and municipal administration for their cooperation in designing and implementing this project. He would also like to thank the other members of the small community of humanitarian aid workers in Zinder for their hospitality, and GOAL Ireland for its support in publishing this article.
 Note that this rate was considered appropriate for drain cleaning in 2010 as the majority of drains had not been cleared for four years and as a consequence contained deep and heavily compacted debris and refuse. Should these activities be repeated in the near future, a lower rate might be appropriate because drain clearance should be considerably easier.