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.