Play-Pump

An Idea Sparked in Africa

I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know about the impetus behind Tiny Spark.

For several years, I worked as a public radio and television correspondent in Africa. During that time, I traveled around the continent, seeing a range of social enterprise initiatives and aid programs on the ground, each meeting with varying degrees of success. I also discovered that well-intentioned ideas, poorly executed, can actually do harm.

This was never more apparent to me than when I reported on a promising technology called the PlayPump, which was supposed to harness the energy of children to provide clean drinking water to thousands of communities in Africa.  The device works like a roundabout – as the children spin round, a device beneath the ground begins to turn, pumping clean drinking water into a tank, which is then available to the entire community.  Harnessing the energy of children in this way, to provide clean drinking water, proved to be a captivating idea; one that the public and donors fell in love with. But when I followed up a few years later, I uncovered an array of problems with the way the technology had been implemented on the ground and I was dismayed to discover that the promise of the PlayPump had fallen woefully short.

During my reporting trip for the follow-up story, I traveled to Mozambique, where I met women who had been without their own supply of clean drinking water for months, because their PlayPump had broken down and had never been repaired or replaced. As I sat in the sand with those women, hearing their stories of anger and frustration, I felt partly responsible for their plight. After all, it was my initial glowing report that had helped to catapult the technology on to an international stage where it received millions of dollars in additional financing.

As a result of this experience, I have come to realize that we need to ask hard questions about seemingly good ideas. We should look closely and more critically at celebrated social entrepreneurs and the programs they spawn across the globe. I want to follow up on promising technologies and see what happened to them five, ten years down the road. I imagine we’ll discover that many ideas that appear simple and “good” on the surface, are actually not simple at all and are likely  fraught with moral and ethical complexities.  And in the course of these discussions, I hope we will discover what ideas are worth replicating and why. Because I’m interested in constructive conversations rather than finger pointing – aren’t we all?

So please send me your ideas for guests and topics.  Who do you find inspiring? Let me know what issues are troubling you the most and we’ll find someone who’s working on a solution. Who do you find especially irksome or innovative in the humanitarian or philanthropic worlds? What programs have more hype than actual results?

Drop me your suggestions and questions here. Or just leave a comment!

7 Comments

  1. Alex Greenspan

    Hi Amy

    I also heard your recent piece on “The World” about insecticide-resistant mosquitoes and the description of your podcast caught my interest.

    I was wondering if you had heard about an organization called Givewell (http://www.givewell.org/)? They do in-depth research to find charities which can maximize the good achieved by individual donations. It sounds pretty straightforward stated as such, but to my knowledge there aren’t any other organizations that evaluate the evidence of humanitarian interventions and the charities that practice them in such a comprehensive and thoughtful manner. Given that your podcast has largely similar stated interests, I thought you might want to know about Givewell if you didn’t already.

    Also, their current top rated charity is the Against Malaria Foundation, which distributes insecticide-treated bednets. Both Givewell (http://blog.givewell.org/2012/11/09/insecticide-resistance-and-malaria-control/) and AMF (http://blog.againstmalaria.com/post/2012/10/11/Status-and-implications-of-mosquitoes-developing-resistance-to-the-insecticide-used-in-LLINs-and-mosquitoes-changing-their-biting-time-to-early-morning.aspx) have written about insecticide resistance.

  2. Don Wilson

    Hello Amy,
    Terrific project, much needed, and bravo to you for taking it on. Just heard your series feature on malaria and nets this evening. Like Marco, I am a returned Peace Corps volunteer who served in West Africa (Sierra Leone, 3 years +), followed by a motorcycle trek across 9 West African countries in 6 months, solo. And while there encountered the problematic nature of malaria drugs which become ineffective myself. A big problem.

    In the Malawi feature, one angle I came away wondering about is whether the nets that have holes now are repairable locally by tailors who are in every village – and if they are being organized or paid by development orgs to do so. And if they are being tucked in properly at night — when, as we know, predator mosquitoes do their transmission biting. Giving a net without repair and education angles is fruitless.

    These two elements are key to a successful program – constant repair and care in use — the kinds of elements Peace Corps is generally good at. And nets that are used properly and kept in repair will still help alot to keep mosquitos at bay, even if their insecticide doesn’t work at all. I realize that to many, these two things will seem horribly obvious. In Africa, the obvious is never simply accomplished. Also, if the second anti malarial cannot be added to the nets, perhaps oral dosage of current alternate anti malarials can be organized. There seem ways around the current problem short of waiting 5 years for a new second close in insecticide to be developed.

    Thanks for this series, will look forward to more, and good luck with your work on this. It matters. All Best, Don Wilson

  3. John Philp

    Hi Amy,
    Great idea for a blog/book/website/initiative. It is incumbent upon those of us interested in “helping” to make sure we are efficient and ethical.
    Have you heard of “Team Rubicon”, military vets that provide mobile disaster relief? Might be worth a look. I have no special insight but have seen their response to Hurricane Sandy here in NYC and think they’re doing good work by pulling on good people with good training. But who knows?
    Best,
    John Philp,

    • Amy

      Thanks so much for taking the time to write, John. I’ve not heard of Team Rubicon but I will take a look at them.

      And if you ever come across other initiatives you think merit a closer look, please send them my way! I get some of my most interesting story ideas from listeners.

      Best,

      Amy

  4. Hello Amy,
    I loved the podcast you did about international adoptions and I look forward to hearing more! I would be interested to hear about the long-term effect of small “revolving loan funds”, also called “merry go round loans.” They work well in the short term but I’ve also heard that if there is corruption in the group then there can be long-lasting negative effects. Keep up the good work!

  5. This is a great idea! We are always wondering about how to help in a way that isn’t hurtful here. You may be away of the book “When Helping Hurts” that explores this? The longer I live here, the less i feel confident that I have answers. Always good to discuss and learn.
    Jennings boone
    Bunia, D.R. Congo

    • Amy

      Jennings,
      So great to hear from Bunia, a place I’ve been before! I think many people agree with you: the more we learn, the more we realize just how much we don’t know. That’s what I’m always more interested in raising questions in my stories rather than drawing conclusions. I hope that’s what our first podcast on adoption achieved — to open up discussion, to dwell in difficult questions that don’t have easy answers. I hope you will continue to visit us online all the way from Congo!

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