An example of do-gooding done wrong

PlayPumps International was an immediate sensation. The idea was this: instead of the typical hand-pump, found in many developing-world villages to provide water for the community, PlayPumps International would install playground merry-go-rounds that would pump up water from deep underground as children played on them. The children would get often their first playground amenity, and the village would get clean water — it was a clear win-win.

Soon, Playpumps International was raking in awards and accolades — a $10 million grant from the US Government, announced by First Lady Laura Bush, a World Bank Development Marketplace Awared, and even a site visit and sponsorship from Jay-Z. The international media swooped in to report the story, loving both the startling innovation and the opportunity to pun on “pumping water is child’s play” and “the magic roundabout”. At the centre of it all was Trevor Field, the founder of PlayPumps International. He reported: “It really rocks me to know we’re making a difference to a lot of people who are nowhere near as privileged as I am or my family is.”

The only problem with PlayPumps International was that the idea wasn’t actually any good. There were many problems, and I’ll just mention a few.

First, unlike normal playground merry-go-rounds, which spin freely once they’ve gained sufficient momentum, in order to pump water the PlayPumps needed constant force. The kids, understandably, would get tired very quickly, and didn’t want to ‘play’ on the pumps at all hours of the day. So it would often be left to the women of the village, who would struggle to push the additional weight, and would sometimes vomit while the pump was in motion. In one town, children were actually paid by the locals to ‘play’ on the pumps.

The second problem was the lack of consultation and maintenance. When the UN investigated the efficacy of PlayPumps in Zambia, the majority of users said that they hadn’t been asked whether they wanted the pumps and that they preferred the handpump that had been removed to make way for the PlayPump. Most didn’t know who to contact in case the pump needed repair — which a large proportion of pumps did.

Finally, there was the cost. Though initially touted at $6500 per pump, the price rose without explanation to $14 000. Though that might not sound like much, that’s equivalent to 64 years of local wages, and several times the cost of a standard handpump (which could also pump more water per hour). So donors were paying several times as much for a worse product.

In an interview prior to the public realisation that the PlayPumps program had been a disaster, Trevor Fields was asked what his one piece of advice would be. He said: “The best advice I’ve ever received, ever, is to, and everybody says this, but it’s true, believe in yourself. You’ve got to believe in your idea… So the best advice that I’ve ever got was that you’ve just got to do it. It’s like the Nike slogan. You’ve just got to do it.”

Unfortunately, when it comes to helping others “just do it” and “believe in your idea” are probably the stupidest pieces of advice you could offer (rather than, say, “do your research”). Luckily for the world, PlayPumps International was decent enough to admit it was game over and folded in March 2010.

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