Lessons from a Spectacular Failure - by George Birchenough

Time and again, well-meaning donations to low-income countries fall short of delivering the enormous impact that they promised. Why is this?


The problem occurs across all fields of international development, from sanitation to healthcare; agriculture to education. Perhaps it has its roots in the complex and often conflicting motives of each party involved – the donors, the NGOs, the local government and private sector, and the poor people who stand to gain – and lose - the most. 


Paul Polak advised us to ‘think like a child: see and do the obvious.’ His NGO provided low-cost treadle pumps to lift 50 million out of poverty, and continues as a sustainable agri-enterprise to this day. It helps for us to make things simpler. Let’s take the water and sanitation situation in Malawi, and first state the obvious - people need an affordable, reliable service that provides them with enough clean water. And before this service is universally available, there should be no other objective than to provide it.


PlayPump ®, however, is an example of an initiative that failed spectacularly in the above mission, despite attracting tens of millions of dollars in donations, government endorsements and widespread press coverage. The concept was simple – indeed even a child could understand it: harness the energy created by children playing to operate a pump to provide water for the local community. Of the 1000s built, not a single unit is still in operation, and most remain as junk in the villages they were designed to empower.


So, what went wrong? 10th grade physics tells us that the necessary energy to provide for more than a few people, would require tens of children to ‘play’ for tens of hours per day. The same equation tells us that if the water table is lower, or the storage tank is higher, then the energy input scales in proportion to that height difference. In fact without any need for maths we should all agree that children should not have any responsibility for water or energy generation, full-stop. It’s also obvious that even the most delighted children cannot summons water from a dry borehole.


Despite the inherent flaws, let’s give founder Trevor Field the benefit of the doubt: the goals were admirable, the motivation sincere, and he had the backing of what seemed like the entire world. One thing this failed venture teaches us, is that that isn’t enough. The compassionate donors, the excitable media, even the local government, are the wrong people to ask for approval. The only people who can tell if you are on the right track, are the people you are actually trying to help.


What is needed is a deep understanding of the context of the problem you are trying to solve. What is the state of the water table in the areas where water is scarce? What resources are available to build, install and maintain the machines? What technology is appropriate? How do we trade of cost versus capital, affordability versus quality? The answers can only be found by looking exactly where the problems exist.


Ernst Schumacher wrote in 1973: “An ounce of practice is generally worth more than a ton of theory.” If we want to find out find what the real issues are, and create solutions with real impact; then perhaps it’s time to go to where the action really is.