Changing the way we change the world

Guest Blog: Playing With Failure

Guest Blog by Muthi Nhlema, Communications and Monitoring Specialist, Water For People Malawi

From Susan Davis, Executive Director, Improve International: I was working at Water For People in 2009 when the Case Foundation approached us about handing over their PlayPump inventory and funds. When I left in 2011, none of the pumps had been installed by Water For People. I ran into Muthi at a conference in 2015 and asked him what happened. He shared this blog and photos of the uninstalled pumps. 


How it was supposed to work: Children turning the merry-go-round to pump water (photo by Roundabout Water Solutions)

PlayPumps After

How it worked out: A 2015 photo of just a few of the abandoned PlayPumps in Chikwawa, Malawi (photo by Muthi Nhlema)

Success! Success is something we all want to be associated with. We are all eager to celebrate our successes by shouting it from every roof top so that people know of it – even for a little while – as we enjoy our 15 minutes in the spotlight of life.

NGOs are no different – NGOs are just as quick and eager at celebrating success. They would get busy writing lengthy documents capturing lessons that people never read or developing huge newspaper spreads that display events that the readers could hardly be bothered to care about.

But you would rarely, if ever, find an NGO displaying their failures. You will never see a newspaper spread with the heading “Why We Failed” or a document citing failures rather than failure’s distant cousin – challenges. Of course, this is purely due to conditioning. In Malawi, displaying failure is frowned upon in favor of perpetual and never-ending success, favor and prosperity. Actually when an entire people are taught to always be Number One in class from their very first step in the corridors of education – what would you expect? What you then have, as a result, are a people who are more certain of how to respond or react to success, but do not have the emotional or social intelligence to react constructively to failure. Failure is viewed as a stigma rather than an opportunity to learn, improve and grow.

In the water sector, we have had many failures – failures we don’t talk about and we simply sweep them under the carpet hoping they get buried under a heap of dust over the passage of time. Some of these failures have actually made the water situation worse instead of better. And if there is one monumental failure among them that has quietly gone and disappeared from conversations and plummeted into the lexicon of forgotten white elephants then it is the once lauded and loved PlayPump.

For those of you who don’t know a PlayPump – it is simply a water pump that operates by using the energy of children at play. The children play on a merry-go-round and the spinning motion pumps underground water into a 2,500-liter tank raised seven meters above ground. The water in the tank is easily dispensed through a tap.

Cool idea right! Everyone thought so too!

Media across the world hailed this as a great innovation – something that would help turn the tide as regards school and even community water supply. Donors embraced it and imposed it on developing nations and cash-strapped NGOs as possibly that much needed “magic bullet”. The PlayPump had all the right (powerful) cheer leaders doing back flips and somersaults shouting:

“The PlayPump is it! We don’t lie – The PlayPump improves our water supply!”

Orders were made! Shipments came in! Money changed hands! And PlayPumps were drilled!

Excitement! Anticipation! Revelry even! And now—— Silence!

Cold, dead and deafening silence!

What happened to all those orders and shipments of pump parts that were meant to change the lives of thousands of school-going children across sub-Saharan Africa? What happened to the vision, the drive, and the enthusiasm? Where are all the cheerleading donors and the over-praising media?

What happened to the PlayPump?  Well – this is what happened.

The organization promoting the PlayPump, PlayPump International, went bust and closed shop.

In Malawi, the pump parts that were shipped into the country and delivered to districts councils like that in Chikhwawa, where the NGO I work for operates, are simply gathering dust with no-one having a single solitary idea what to do with them.

Most of the PlayPumps that brought moments of mirth for several children, giving them respite from their “less than a dollar a day” life, have joined the other broken down, non-functional water supply systems that have riddled the Malawian country side. Forgotten by the NGOs and government that put them there.

And the once promising experiment in water supply system development – an innovation of unparalleled potential – has become banned in districts like Chikhwawa and across Malawi.

Another white elephant was born! Again one must ask – What happened?

Were we duped?

Were we somehow hoodwinked and didn’t know it?

Or was it something else?

Rather than engaging in an in-depth conversation around these and other soul searching questions – we have done the usual – sweep the failure under the carpet and hope no-one ever asks about it, especially Forex-laden donors.

Well- I am asking and I have an answer.

I don’t think we were neither duped nor hoodwinked. There are several reasons why the PlayPump failed and they mostly categorized into three:

  • Technically, the PlayPump had an inherently complex design with pump parts that were either not readily available on the local market or too expensive. In this age of community based management, where the onus for operating, maintaining and replacing water supply systems is shifting from government and NGOs to communities – this technical flaw made the PlayPump unsustainable.
  • Conceptually, the PlayPump needed the play-energy of the children – meaning that the pump was dependent on children spinning the merry-go-round to pump water up into an elevated tank. What the designers didn’t count on was that the children would have to pump 27 hours a day to meet the minimum standard of 25 liters per person per day. The Play-Pump only managed an average of 2 liters per child per day. Also, it turns out, children didn’t always want to play on the merry-go-round. This resulted in the PlayPump remaining idle, especially during school holidays, which further culminated, over a short time, into breakdowns/complications due to dis-use.
  • Safety-wise, the PlayPump proved dangerous to children with stories of children falling and hitting theirs heads on the concrete pavement. There was talk about trying to introduce safety-belts to keep the child secured when spinning, but, as many of us may remember from our own childhoods, the fun in “play” rests mostly on the exhilaration of danger. Take that away and “play” loses its exhilaration.

Yes! These are all correct and valid lessons to take from the PlayPump’s monumental failure. BUT we are not seeing the grander picture here. We are running away from the real problem – the real culprit of the PlayPump’s failure is not really conceptual or technical – it is human. It is the very thing that was supposed to provide solutions to our water problems, but is ironically adding to them. And that “human thing” is the water sector itself. The water sector as a whole – the donors, the NGOs, the bureaucrats, technocrats and whatever other “-crats” there may be – we are all responsible for the failure of the PlayPump!

As a sector, we don’t think things through before implementation. We are very quick to sign off on policies and strategies that don’t take into consideration the impact of the changes we intend to make on the existing complexities of human nature or community life. We seek out quick-fix solutions that offer short-term relief, but secrete even larger problems in the future. We jump on any bandwagon that large NGOs and multilateral donors push without asking:

  • Can this idea, like the PlayPump, work for the Malawian context?
  • Will it be sustainable?
  • What new problems could this idea potentially create because of its intrinsic nature/design?

Several NGOs and local experts, playing the role of Monday Morning Coach, started emerging out of the woodworks claiming to have foreseen the PlayPump’s failure. I only wish these Monday Morning Coaches had said something on Sunday afternoon.

Nobody did or said anything when it actually mattered! We just accepted what we got without asking any questions. And even when failures were imminent with the PlayPump – we marched on believing in our naivety that we were doing our little part to change Malawi. As long as targets were being met, numbers were being reported, LOGFRAMEs were followed and donors were happy, there were no worries! Hakuna Matata!

And, despite all good intent, the water sector, and how it works, becomes the very reason why water is not flowing. As our fancy, “one size fits all”, technical solutions continue to break down, frustrated communities remain, not just at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases, but also at risk of remaining in a deficit mode of hopelessness, apathy and mistrust – a potent recipe for sluggish development in the long term.

The problem is not technology – it’s the sector and how it works.

If we don’t stop for a moment and reflect critically about the wider cycle of water-poverty and how our solutions, approaches and strategies are impacting, either negatively or positively, on it in the longer term, then we are doomed to fail again and again – no matter how many lessons we learn or how good our policy documents or ideas sound on paper.

So, join me as I raise a glass in acknowledgement of the failure we know as the PlayPump. I hope it is pulled out from under the carpet, out from among the many unspoken and unholy failures of years-past and years-to-come, and given a high place of dishonor where people will see it for what it truly is: a reflection of us – the water sector.

Read more about PlayPumps

2005 Frontline story (video) South Africa: The Play Pump. Turning water into child’s play

2007 UNICEF Evaluation of PlayPumps

2010 Frontline story (video) Troubled Water

2011 – 10 Problems with Playpumps by Ralph Borland

2012 – The Painful Acknowledgement of Coming Up Short by Jean Case

Current – News about PlayPumps in South Africa

Leave a Reply