The Playpump V – Response to Recent Publicity

The fifth in a series of posts on the playpump. (Posts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Frontline on PBS recently published a critical story about Playpumps, which has been getting a lot of media attention. This isn’t a response to that story, as such, because the internet I have in Malawi isn’t fast enough to even watch it. However, this is a response to some of the other commentary that the story has generated or brought to the forefront.

As more and more people become critical of the Playpump technology, a new “concensus” seems to be emerging: that the Playpump was a good idea that was scaled-up too quickly, and applied in contexts where it wasn’t appropriate…but that it is still a useful technology if used, appropriately, at large schools. In the terminally-nonconfrontational development industry, it seems no one will simply call a spade a spade, and admit that this project was ill-conceived from the start, and is appropriate pretty much…nowhere. In my opinion, this project never deserved funding, in any circumstance – certainly not after the original pilots were in the ground.

What are we trying to do in the water supply sector? Seriously.

I think we’re trying to do two things: (1) reduce sickness and death caused by drinking unsafe water, (2) reduce the burden of water collection on women and children.

Last year WaterAid estimated in a memo that Playpumps are roughly four times more expensive than conventional pumps to install: “You could provide at least four conventional wells with hand pumps and associated safe sanitation and hygiene education for the cost of one PlayPump.”

FOUR TIMES MORE EXPENSIVE! That means that, for the same amount of money, you can get four times fewer pumps into the ground using Playpumps than using conventional pumps. All else being equal, this means you can achieve a four times smaller reduction in waterborne disease burden, or, if you want to be dramatic about it, extend the lives of four times fewer children.

It’s basic cost-benefit analysis, required on pretty much any publically funded project (or privately funded for that matter) in any developed country in the world. It should have stopped the Playpump idea from the beginning. Funds for development projects are scarce, and the challenges are immense in scale and importance – we can’t afford mindless 400% inefficiencies just because it makes rich people happy to see kids spinning a roundabout in promotional pictures.

And, speaking to the second goal of the rural water supply sector: does the Playpump in any way reduce the burden of collecting water on women and children? Yes, it can, in an infinitesimally small way – in a school with hundreds of play-happy children, constantly filling the tank, it can mean women and children don’t have to move a pump handle up-and-down.

However, the largest burden on women and children isn’t moving a pump handle, it’s walking to, and queuing for, pumps. The more pumps in the ground, the greater the distribution of rural water supply, the less walking, and the less queueing. The Playpump, just by virtue of being more expensive than conventional pumps, is regressive on both these issues. If you want to reduce the burden of water collection on women and children, install more (cheaper) pumps and expand coverage.

Why are school water sources exempt from cost-benefit analysis?

It’s quickly becoming an almost necessary caveat, when discussing Playpumps, to say that the Playpump can be appropriate in large school settings. Take one example:

First, the pump was very expensive. That was one problem, and we’re trying to serve as many people as possible for the same amount of money. So there were real concerns about the cost of the pumps. And it was very clear to us that, whereas it may be an appropriate pump for a school, it is not appropriate as a community pump. – Clarrissa Broklehurst, UNICEF (my emphasis)

Or, maybe the original source of the caveat, from the Case Foundation:

We learned that PlayPumps perform best in certain community settings, such as at large primary schools, but they are not necessarily the right solution for other communities.

And, for another example, the frontline report itself (written story synopsis):

Although Field said he’s learning, and improving his technology along the way, he concedes that the PlayPump, which is mainly effective at large schools, will likely never live up to its initial promise.

Is anyone going to comment on this: a Playpump installed at one school uses an amount of money that could provide safe water at four schools? FOUR schools or ONE school, which is better? This is basic cost-benefit analysis. The Playpump technology suffers from incurable financial inefficiency. So why do we keep it on life-support by continuously caveating about its appropriateness at large schools? Is it four times more appropriate than a regular handpump? If not, then what’s the point…

Something like a conclusion.

The real story should be this: the Playpump illustrates beautifully about one hundred things that are wrong about the development sector. It illustrates the triumph of rich-country whimsy over poor-country relevance. It illustrates how standards, like basic cost-benefit analysis, that are routinely applied to public expenditure in developed countries, aren’t applied to our foreign aid spending. And it illustrates how, in a terminally-noncompetitive industry, it’s difficult to get anyone to take a controversial stand. The party line has become that Playpumps were applied in inappropriate contexts, and are only viable at large schools, so now that’s what everyone says – regardless of the technology’s financial inefficiency. Ignoring the continuous caveats about large schools, the Playpump may be finally getting its due, but I can’t help but think that we’re missing the real lessons here.

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13 responses to “The Playpump V – Response to Recent Publicity

  1. Hey, cool post.

    I’m going to dig into your bit about 4x financial inefficiency. I don’t doubt the literal numbers, and I don’t necessarily disagree with any of your points or conclusions, but I think I can make it a little more complicated than your “basic cost-benefit analysis” by adding just one factor.

    Where does the money for these pumps come from? I’m not familiar with that aspect of the PlayPump, but I’m assuming there is significant funding from private donors. You even say “it makes rich people happy to see kids spinning a roundabout in promotional pictures”.

    If that’s true, you need to think about whether these donors would have donated to the less-flashy regular hand pumps. While more expensive in absolute terms, I don’t think it’s safe to just assume all of the money PlayPumps was coming from the same sources as it would for the hand pumps, so you might not find that you could have actually installed 4x more hand pumps instead.

    I’m not saying anything is right, just that it is.

    I do agree that this is a story which illustrates tons of issues with the development sector, and I do think that project funding is a major one!

    • Hi Phil. Thanks for the comment. Two points in response: (1) Regardless of fundraising concerns, I think that better solutions generally still yield better net impact, even with less money. (2) The development sector fundamentally needs to shift its focus towards a beneficiary-centered approach, even at the expense of short-term fundraising goals.

      On point (1).

      Based on the 4x financial inefficiency alone, an organization would have to be able to fundraise 4x as much money using Playpumps than conventional pumps before they “break even” on impact. That’s a tall order.

      However, it gets more complicated. It’s widely acknowledged that Playpumps yield less water for communities than conventional pumps. Let’s say, conservatively, that they are half as productive as a conventional pump. Now, taking water output as a proxy for impact, you’d need to be able to fundraise 8x more money using Playpumps than conventional pumps before you break even on impact.

      Then consider that water output is not actually a perfect proxy for impact, because distribution matters too – installing more pumps for the same amount of money has a impact-multiplication effect over and above the increase in water output (compared with installing a single pump). So, choosing even a small multiplier, that could put the break-even fundraising requirements of Playpumps over conventional pumps at something like 10x+ now. Taking the analysis to its conclusion, you’d need to raise 10x as much money using Playpumps before it made sense to choose them over conventional pumps.

      Don’t take the above numbers too seriously, but focus on the concept – bad solutions just aren’t competitive with good solutions in terms of impact per dollar spent. When you really start to think of the impact you can generate, any “fundraising advantage” inherent within a bad solution tends to melt away pretty quickly. At least I think so.

      On point (2):

      The most often ignored Millenium Development Goal, #8, is to “develop a partnership for development.” In my opinion a major part of achieving this goal would be taking brave, difficult choices, making the needs of developing communities central to development policy, and then building fundraising strategies that support those needs.

      Rich people in donor countries are generally smart. Properly engaged, they can understand the real problems and solutions in development. They shouldn’t need flashy technologies and bright spinning wheels to get excited. And I think that developing communities certainly deserve better than to get those technologies foisted on them just to make fundraising easier on the other side of the ocean…

  2. Dope post Owen!! I really enjoyed the whole series. Where were/are most of the playpumps in Malawi installed, district-wise? I saw maybe one or two during my placement in Machinga.

    • Hey Ian. Thanks for commenting. I’ve seen/heard of Playpumps in Chikhwawa, Machinga, Nsanje, and Lilongwe. I know there’s some up north as well, although the exact district escapes me. I’ve also been at a meeting in Thyolo discussing 10 that were planned for the district, though I don’t know if they’ve been built. And there’s probably a bunch in other districts that I don’t know about.

  3. I’ve been talking to the One Foundation in the UK who fund the Playpumps via a complicated bottled water operation. As a result of this, they wrote this blog today http://bit.ly/d7Skra

    They have invited me to meet them to discuss my concerns – I am happy to do so if others think it might be worthwhile.

  4. Pingback: The Playpump IV – Playpump vs. AfriDev « Barefoot Economics

  5. Pingback: The Playpump III – “The challenge of good inquiry.” « Barefoot Economics

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  7. Emily stewart

    I think one of the issues with a lack of criticism (albeit constructive) in the development sector is that many donors, who are unaware of the realities on the ground, will overlook grave lapses in judgment such as that you described. The view that “development organizations” are doing their work with “the right intention” and therefore we (as donors) shouldn’t expect perfection is pervasive. But just because an organization is a charity and works through volunteers and donations and appeals to peoples’ love of children, etc etc….doesnt mean they can bypass rigorous economic cost benefit analyses. I mean, when we think about the potential impact these projects can have On peoples’ health and lives and wellbeing (or are lacking due to inefficiencies like this) it’s rather astounding that this issue hasn’t received more attention!

  8. Pingback: The Playpump – A Review from Teachers | Barefoot Economics

  9. Pingback: Deflating the SOCCKET ball. | Staying for Tea

  10. Wow that was unusual. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I clicked submit my comment didn’t show up.
    Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless, just wanted to say superb blog!

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