A unique feature in the Tigray region is the mobilization of free labor at community level. The amount of work that each adult between 18 and 60 years has to provide has recently been increased from 20 to 40 days per year. This may be seen as a tax on the labor force of the households. It implies that labor is taxed at a flat rate and that labor-rich households pay more tax than labor-poor households do. If all households benefit equally from the work done through this mass mobilization scheme, it has an equalizing effect of reallocation of resources from (labor) rich to (labor) poor households.

Most of the labor mobilized has been invested in soil and water conservation. This may also be seen as a Pigouvian tax to address the environmental problems in the region. Labor is one of the most abundant resources in developing countries. Mobilizing idle labor for investment in public goods may therefore be a cheap and good way to enhance welfare and sustainable land management and even contribute to building of skills and reduce crime rates.

In our baseline survey in 1998 when 20 days per year was the standard, 70% of the respondents were highly motivated to participate in this work and only 6% stated that the motivation was low. 62% stated that the 20 days per year was a suitable level of the labor requirement, while 10% stated it was too low, and 8% that it was too high.

It is possible however that this activity is at the expense of other household activities even though it is carried out outside the main agricultural season when other activities are at a low level. In our 1998 survey 44% of the households stated that the labor mobilization was affecting domestic work, 37% stated that it became more difficult to look after their animals, and 14% that it affected their business activities. Such effects are likely to become stronger when the labor requirement is doubled.

A lot of labor is currently being invested in conservation of public lands in Tigray and the impacts are very visible. The environmental rehabilitation is impressive considering the semi-arid climate. An important question is, however, whether more of this labor could have been invested on the private land to enhance sustainable land management and productivity there. In 1998 we found that 25% of the households had been mobilized to conserve private land and these decisions/priorities were made locally. Under the current PSNP these decisions are made centrally and all the labor is used to conserve public land. In our 1998 survey we also found that 81% of the respondents considered the land degradation problem to be largest in the private land while 28% stated that it was largest in the communal land (implying 9% perceive it equally important in the two types of land). There may therefore be good reason to question the priorities under the PSNP program.