In 2006 a new kind of borehole pump emerged on the stage of African aid. Called Play Pumps, these were designed to be operated by children playing on a ‘merry-go-round’ type aparatus. Various foundations, charities, and even celebrities got involved; the project became a lauded favorite of media outlets.
Four years later the PBS correspondent, Amy Costello, who originally authored the story that made Play Pumps famous is now revisiting their installations, investigating numerous reports of failures.
After watching this story (the first 24 minutes of the embedded video player), I commend the author’s sense of ethics being willing to revisit this story. I also find it sad that I feel the need to commend a journalist for owning a story, but with the increasingly fleeting nature of journalism in the West today there is very little truly investigative reporting, let alone followup investigations. I laud her efforts to hold accountable those who are perceived to have made promises that didn’t materialize.
What she and others — including journalists who picked up the story, donors who committed millions, and the founders of the companies themselves — failed to initially see is that the pumps may not have even addressed an existing need of those the donors and companies were seeking to serve. Yes, people need clean water. And yes, children need entertainment. That doesn’t however, mean combining the two is a good idea. Were traditional handpumps all that bad? Would kids even use the Play Pumps over the long term? If they’re seeking a way to improve on the traditional hand pump, was there not a more efficient way than to use children as labor?
Time and time again I see two common ways in which well-meaning Westerners try to aid others and fall short of their mark. One hallmark of misguided or just plain bad aid is “appropriate technology.” In Pathologies of Power (p.177) Dr. Farmer refers to “appropriate technology” as chicanery. The second common problem with aid is donors trying to force what seems like a good idea to them onto aid recipients with little or no consideration for what the recipients really need, want, or will make use of.
Both of these problems inhabit the same spectrum. On one side donors patronize recipients by foisting on them crappy solutions that are overly dumbed down or otherwise technologically inadequate. On the other side of the spectrum donors send overly complicated solutions that don’t address the recipients needs, but all this is missed because the solutions seem so cool to the donors. Who cares if kids actually play with the Play Pumps, or if the pumps will even last for a year, because the 10-second b-roll of the reporter spinning around on it while being pushed by cheering children is all the producer and audience really have time to care about.
William Easterly would probably call Play Pumps the project of a ‘Searcher,’ and in its face I think it is. Its downfall is in that it searches to answer the question of water delivery without considering any of the important questions for such a solution: will it last, will it be used, does it meet the needs of those who will receive it. Worse yet, this Searcher idea became a Planner project once large amounts of donor money got involved. In the haste to spend $60M and install myriad pumps around Africa, no one bothered to actually test-case any of the original pumps or refine the design. The subtitle of Easterly’s latest book is “Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good,” and I think the Play Pumps fiasco fits that subtitle to a tee.
The solution to these sorts of problems, is to actually think about what people want, what they need. To spend time getting to know them, trying to understand not only their needs but the context from which they approach the world. Lastly, beyond all else, the question I ask myself over and over when I consider a solution to a humanitarian problem, is whether that solution would be good enough for me, for my family. If the answer is no, then the solution is inadequate.