Troubled Water

A new Frontline segment investigates one of its own stories from 2005, a report on a child-powered merry-go-round that acts as a water pump. At the time, the PlayPump seemed an innovative, clever way to increase the clean water supply in African villages.

After FRONTLINE/World first aired the story in 2005, major donors in the United States -- and the U.S. government itself -- launched a multimillion-dollar campaign to install the device in thousands of African schools and villages. Now, correspondent Amy Costello investigates what happened to those communities, as the promise of the PlayPump fell short and the device's biggest American boosters began to back away from a technology they had once championed.

We blogged about PlayPumps in February, citing a report by the charity Wateraid which decried the pumps’ “reliance on child labour” and a commentary in the Guardian which calculated that children would have to “play” for 27 hours every day to meet PlayPumps’ stated targets of providing 2,500 people per pump with their daily water needs.

The Frontline correspondent visits communities where school children have tired of  the merry-go-rounds and women have to turn the cumbersome pumps by hand, and communities where PlayPumps have broken, leaving villages without a clean water source for up to 17 months while  no one responds to calls for maintenance. She reports on a never-released Mozambique government document that discloses a long list of problems with operation, repair, and maintenance of the device. She talks to a Save the Children official who says that only 13 out of 42 PlayPumps they helped install in Mozambique are working, but can’t say why.

According to Frontline, no one from the the Case Foundation (one of the major funders) or PlayPumps International would agree to an interview.

This is the preview; you can see the whole segment here.

UPDATE 12:20 pm: A few commenters and people on Twitter remind us that while the Case Foundation declined to be interviewed for this program, they did write a thoughtful blog post about their experience:

[T]here really is only one appropriate response when things aren't humming along as planned, and it is the same response Bill Gates offered, "So, what do we do next?" Because just like in business ventures, personal undertakings and public sector initiatives, things often go wrong...

It sometimes feels like philanthropic efforts are held to a different standard than in the private or public sectors. All too often there is less tolerance for mistakes, which leads many organizations to become risk-adverse. And when mistakes are made, the tendency is to sweep them under the carpet - thus depriving the sector of important lessons learned. But in reality, the very nature of innovation requires that we try new things and take risks.