This paper discusses a community-led fencing project in the Koup, an arid, predominantly sheepfarming district in the South African Karoo. The project was managed by farmers but had a strong empowerment dimension in that fencing team leaders were drawn from the ranks of unemployed people in the town of Laingsburg. These leaders were responsible for recruitment into the project and for the day-to-day operations. By comparing information collected from participants with local census data, we show that the public works programme was appropriately targeted to the poor. This was in part because workers were required to camp on farms for two weeks at a time, thereby resulting in the project automatically selecting for those most committed to earning additional income. In explaining the success of the programme we highlight the role of supportive government officials in sourcing funding, and the importance of leadership in overcoming collective action problems amongst the participating farmers. This holds important lessons for the design of future public works programmes and for the kinds of mixed research methods that may be appropriate for evaluating such programmes.