It seemed like such a good idea at the time: A merry-go-round hooked up to a water pump. In rural sub-Saharan Africa, where children are plentiful but clean water is scarce, the PlayPump harnessed one to provide the other. Every time the kids spun around on the big colorful wheel, water filled an elevated tank a few yards away, providing fresh, clean water anyone in the village could use all day.
PlayPump International, the NGO that came up with the idea and developed the technology, seemed to have thought of everything. To pay for maintenance, the elevated water tanks sold advertising, becoming billboards for companies seeking access to rural markets. If the ads didn’t sell, they would feature HIV/AIDS-prevention campaigns. The whole package cost just $7,000 to install in each village and could provide water for up to 2,500 people.
The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.
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By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair. The Guardian said the pumps were “reliant on child labour.”