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Troubled Water

A new Frontline segment investigates one of its own stories from 2005, a report on a child-powered merry-go-round that acts as a water pump. At the time, the PlayPump seemed an innovative, clever way to increase the clean water supply in African villages.

After FRONTLINE/World first aired the story in 2005, major donors in the United States — and the U.S. government itself — launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to install the device in thousands of African schools and villages. Now, correspondent Amy Costello investigates what happened to those communities, as the promise of the PlayPump fell short and the device’s biggest American boosters began to back away from a technology they had once championed.

We blogged about PlayPumps in February, citing a report by the charity Wateraid which decried the pumps’ “reliance on child labour” and a commentary in the Guardian which calculated that children would have to “play” for 27 hours every day to meet PlayPumps’ stated targets of providing 2,500 people per pump with their daily water needs.

The Frontline correspondent visits communities where school children have tired of  the merry-go-rounds and women have to turn the cumbersome pumps by hand, and communities where PlayPumps have broken, leaving villages without a clean water source for up to 17 months while  no one responds to calls for maintenance. She reports on a never-released Mozambique government document that discloses a long list of problems with operation, repair, and maintenance of the device. She talks to a Save the Children official who says that only 13 out of 42 PlayPumps they helped install in Mozambique are working, but can’t say why.

According to Frontline, no one from the the Case Foundation (one of the major funders) or PlayPumps International would agree to an interview.

This is the preview; you can see the whole segment here.

UPDATE 12:20 pm: A few commenters and people on Twitter remind us that while the Case Foundation declined to be interviewed for this program, they did write a thoughtful blog post about their experience:

[T]here really is only one appropriate response when things aren’t humming along as planned, and it is the same response Bill Gates offered, “So, what do we do next?” Because just like in business ventures, personal undertakings and public sector initiatives, things often go wrong…

It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-adverse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet – thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks.

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  1. Jonas wrote:

    Sometimes is verry sad to know such things.
    And Sometimes you live and do know nothing is much easeier, because then you see such things is sad.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:30 am | Permalink
  2. Depend Dance wrote:

    Nobody could have seen this coming.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 5:56 am | Permalink
  3. Peter wrote:

    So what’s new? Implementing sustainable development and aid is not just a matter of having a good idea, getting funding and deploying it.

    It is a matter of refining the idea, maintaining the installations, following up, ensuring what is working will continue to work.

    This is a typically Western ‘I have THE solution’ approach, for all I can see. Even though the starting idea was a good one. But it forgot the ‘and what after a year’ part…. So what after a year? Where do people get maintenance done? Where does one get the spares for the valves then?

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:20 am | Permalink
  4. I was warning my international development students not to support this project back in 2006 when Jay-Z was first promoting it. It has always been a horrible idea. Glad to see there are some criticisms finally coming to light.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  5. Tina Z wrote:

    It strikes me as an inherently bad idea to use a pump that requires more complex manual labor in place of a good ole fashioned hand pump. Maybe I missed something? I agree that ingenuity is necessary to figure out solutions for development but I wonder why there wasn’t a test market. Or maybe that’s a bigger problem, that development ideas rarely get tested with the same vigor as consumer ideas before major roll outs.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  6. Tim Ogden wrote:

    In defense of the Case Foundation, one of the major funders of PlayPumps, they have written about their “mistake” even if they didn’t grant an interview to Frontline:

    Overall I think PlayPumps is a great example of how the US is lagging in social entrepreneurship and innovation not leading. The world needs less not more of our ideas. For more:

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  7. Felson wrote:

    The Frontline piece was pretty pathetic actually. Sure there are problems and lessons can be learned, but I have seen at least 2 blog postings by the Case Foundation that clearly state that mistakes were made. I imagine they did not want to speak with the reporter because it was clearly a hack job. Case in point: the story really only centers on one village. When the handpump is replaced the scene fades with a picture of LOTS of buckets and women waiting at the pump. What does that tell you – simple, the supply sucked and that the new (old) handpump is not that great either. Playpumps went too fast and there are good questions too ask. WaterAid — what a joke comment, all handpumps are avenues of child labor, they should know that. Lessons need to be learned, some are in this documentary, but it was a hack job, plain and simple.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink
  8. Dennis Whittle wrote:

    I think it is important not to hammer failure per se too hard. If you do that, you discourage searchers from experimenting. What we should hammer are people who fail to *learn* from failures and keep repeating them. One reason dynamic economies succeed is that it is understood that most ideas/new ventures will fail, and that, notwithstanding … See Morethat, we encourage people to keep trying. Some of the most “idiotic” ideas (boy did I think Twitter was stupid, and I used to hate Apple) end up being the most revolutionary. So let’s encourage a culture of (rapid) experimentation and (rapid) adaptation and learning based on results.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 3:49 pm | Permalink
  9. Stephen Jones wrote:

    Case’s blog pretend ‘mea culpa’ is pathetic. They are still pretending that the playpumps idea had other benefits than appearing cool to celebs and potential donors, when it’s only distinguishing feature was forcing people to work four or five times as hard to solve the non-existent problem of somebody to move a handle in the first place.

    What is also hilarious is that when I asked Duncan Goose of Global Ethics to give me one advantage the play pumps concept had over rival concepts, he replied

    1. the level of water quality testing (this is part and parcel of the installation package)
    2. the fact that the pumps have a maintainence schedule funded by the billboard advertising (accepting that we’re not 100% coverage yet, but it’s growing steadily) – interestingly one of the things we’re in discussions with WFP is their ‘riders’ maintenance programme which I like as it potentially dovetails into some other work we’re looking at in the micro-finance sector.
    3. That each pump carries a unique code, a text and freephone number so in the event of problem the community can contact the office to report it.

    Yet according to the PBS report nobody answers the freephone numbers, the pumps are all down for months on end, no water testing was done on many sites, and a large number of them understandably don’t have any advertising on the billboarding at all.

    Posted July 1, 2010 at 10:58 pm | Permalink

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