Turning Play Into Work

What’s wrong with the “PlayPump”?

Source: Marginal Revolution

The “PlayPump” uses a merry-go-round to pump water, transforming children’s play into a labor-saving way to obtain an essential commodity. The driver of the idea quit his job and raised millions from celebrities like Jay-Z, Steve Case, and Bill Clinton. He received prestigious awards and began installing the pumps in Africa.

But it didn’t work out very well. In order to pump the water, the merry-go-round requires constant force. The children playing on them quickly get exhausted. The people whose labor was supposed to be saved ended up pushing the merry-go-round themselves. And the complicated device requires extensive maintenance that can’t be done in many underdeveloped situations. It would have been simpler and easier to install hand-pumps. After connecting 1000 pumps over the course of 15 years, the project folded.

The PlayPump is an illustration of the failure of good intentions. Westerners love innovative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. But it’s really important think critically about the causes we support: did they talk to the people they want to help—to find out what they think is important? Did they try the idea on a small scale, with follow-up? And have they thought about what can go wrong?

When it comes to helping people, being unreflective often means being ineffective– wasting time and money. It’s a huge mistake to judge something based on its intentions rather than its results.

Douglas R. Tengdin, CFA

Chief Investment Officer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *