Posted by: Jeff | July 4, 2010

PlayPumps International

Several years ago, the Case Foundation launched an initiative to install PlayPumps all across Africa – merry-go-round playground equipment that would double as wells to dreg up clean water from underground.  The initiative was lauded at first as a unique and innovative method for combining community improvement with human development.  However, for a variety of reasons, the program has faltered, and in the end it has proven disappointing.  Jean Case laments the project’s failure:

[A]t the Case Foundation we’ve had to face our own hard moments when reality has set in and you realize that the big opportunity you were chasing is looking more like a really big challenge that is hard to overcome. Things don’t materialize as envisioned, and you fall short of your mark. It’s easy to feel discouraged or even embarrassed. You can’t help but worry about what people will think, or the price you might pay in the court of public opinion…

[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.

I get the sense that this can often be true.  Too often development innovations are condemned as ill-thought or even sinister for their unintended consequences; but it is important to remember that often negative results are borne out of the best of intentions.  PlayPumps weren’t designed to fail – it is a far more productive use of time to learn from mistakes and innovate further than to chastise for a good idea that didn’t pan out.

As Case concludes:

Turns out innovating is hard work anywhere and anytime. In the developing world even more so. But if the philanthropic sector is transparent about mistakes and lessons along the way, and adapts as the situation calls for, hopefully we’ll all end up a little wiser and a little closer to solutions that can more effectively address the daunting challenges of our day.

For more information about the PlayPumps project and all of the problems it has encountered along the way, view this excellent Frontline piece.

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