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Thursday, September 1, 2011

Africa: The PlayPump Rolls Out, Then Runs Out

PBS’s Frontline recently broadcasted a story about Africa, clean water, and the troubling nature of high-octane, advertising-driven ‘entrepreneurial’ charity that we think is worth sharing.

In this story, Amy Costello chronicles the rise and fall of the ‘PlayPump’, a water system that doubles as a merry-go-round, a device that would harness the energy of children at play and replace the old hand-pumps that predominate in Africa.

A seemingly well-meaning entrepreneur named Trevor Field championed the device, and for a while, it captured public attention with gloriously lucrative results. PlayPump raised millions of dollars and commenced an ambitious rollout across Africa. PlayPump had particular targets it pledged to meet, and soon the devices were being installed across Africa at a breathtaking pace.

However, when Costello investigated several PlayPump sites, she found that children mostly avoided them, finding the PlayPump to be hard work, rather than fun. Many of the pumps were broken and local people could not reach anyone who could help them to replace parts. Many reported to Costello that they had never been consulted about the change and simply wanted their old pumps back.

This story is sad and frustrating on a number of levels. One thinks about all the donations that funded PlayPumps breakneck rollout. Perhaps most grievously, when people feel that their generosity is returned with inefficacy, it hurts the longterm cause of raising funds to make a real dent in poverty. People do not want to be taken for fools.

There are many lessons to be learned from the PlayPump, and we are grateful to have learned them relatively early on in our work with the poor.
  1. Any changes to a community must be spearheaded by the community. We do not ‘do’ charity to a community. When we help a community to install clean water systems, we are doing exactly that: helping a community to do it themselves. They approach us, and we assist them to make the changes that they have identified as being important
  2. ‘Make haste slowly’. This is an old African expression, and it applies perfectly to our work with the poor. The PlayPump fiasco was a model of too much, too fast. The ‘rollout’ became more important than the effectiveness of the pumps. There was seemingly no thought given to what would happen after they were installed. In our work, educating the people to maintain their own systems is a very important priority. It takes longer to educate, but it means the work will have been worthwhile.
  3. The ‘sexy’ solution isn’t always the best one. The PlayPump was a great story. PlayPumps are cute. Entrepreneurial campaigns that promise rapid change are very appealing. People love the idea that a new product will suddenly and substantially change the quality of life for the poor. They will believe this to the tune of millions of dollars. Sometimes technological innovations do help out the poor. But by and large, what really seems to help the poor is a harder sell: conscientious, people-driven, simple solutions paired with plenty of education.
In short, no ‘product’ can take the place of what our friends in the Philippines call ‘people power’. When we seek to help people rather than help them help themselves, we will always run into trouble. The PlayPump is only one of many frustrating examples.

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