This is a guest article by Learning Service Intern Kayley Gould, on how even large well-funded development projects can fail if they don’t prioritize learning.

This past spring, I took an Environmental Anthropology course focused on environmental justice and water scarcity. As part of the project, I worked with an organization to research the World Bank’s 2030 Water Resources Group. What confused me the most was learning about all of the initiatives companies like Nestlé and Coca-Cola were engaged in to build wells and provide clean water while they also contribute water scarcity through their unsustainable water practices. On one hand, I was glad these companies were giving back and helping communities, even if it was mostly because it would earn them more power to decide water policy. However, on the other hand, I was unsure of how effective their donations were, and I knew they were probably only giving back to protect their image.

I was interested in learning more about what happens when outside companies and volunteers come into a community to build wells, which led me to the PlayPump debacle.

In 2006, the United States government partnered with PlayPumps international to build 4,000 PlayPumps. The idea behind the project was to bring clean drinking water to communities powered by children’s play. The children would play on a merry-go-round, and in turn, the circular movement would pump water. The project was endorsed by George and Laura Bush as well as celebrities like Jay-Z, bringing a large amount of attention and funding to the initiative. By 2010, PlayPumps had raised over $60 million.

While thought of as a revolutionary idea at first, the PlayPumps led to controversy and challenges. To begin, in order to meet the daily requirement of water for the proposed 10 million people, children would have to play continuously for more hours than are available in a day. Additionally, in times of extreme weather, and when children are busy at home or in school, there would not be any water available. Since constant “play” was required, children could be exploited to ensure enough water is produced.

In 2010, “Frontline” went to the schools where PlayPumps were installed and found that the women in the village were taking turns using the pumps, and in one place they visited, children were being paid to “play” with the pump. Additionally, WaterAid found that for the cost of one Playpump, four traditional wells could be built. Traditional wells are not only cheaper but also more sustainable.

Further, many of the communities where these PlayPumps were installed were not consulted before installation. The organization simply came in and replaced their existing handpumps, even if they were functioning. Often, organizations and volunteers come in with a “solution” that does not adequately address the root problem and fails to perform as expected. In many areas, the lack of available drinking water is due to the polluted groundwater that these wells pull from. In 2004, UNICEF estimated that up to a million people were consuming arsenic through their water source.

Additionally, in 2017, researchers discovered that almost half of the installed wells were no longer working and only a quarter of them provided enough safe drinking water for the communities. Further, they discovered over one billion dollars has been spent on wells that no longer work. One of the reasons wells fail is due to lack of maintenance. When volunteers come in for a one-time service project building a well, their efforts will have a short-lived impact unless they stay engaged in the project and make sure the well receives proper attention and care.

Even if the wells worked efficiently, PlayPumps would only be effective in areas with large supplies of groundwater and with correct infrastructure. Without sufficient water, a PlayPump does not alleviate any water scarcity and will only be effective for a limited time. A little over a year after the pumps were installed, UNICEF found the PlayPumps abandoned and a quarter of them already needed to be repaired.

PlayPumps are a great example of a well-intentioned idea that failed to produce the desired result and instead created unintended consequences. While the creators of this initiative had the best intentions in mind, they did not take the time to think through the possible negative externalities of the installations. Fortunately, the creators of PlayPump learned from their mistakes. They apologized, abandoned the PlayPumps, and instead focused on getting access to running water in schools. While it is admirable they were able to admit their shortcomings and adapt their approach, if they had taken the time to learn from the communities and ask what would help local villages the most instead of assuming they had the best solution, the negative effects from this project could have been avoided and many more people could have been helped.

Kayley Gould is an undergraduate at Stanford University studying English and Education and an intern for Learning Service. She has been volunteering her whole life and became passionate about the ethics of volunteering during a research project in high school. She hopes to share what she has learned through her volunteering and research in order to help people make their volunteer projects the most educational, effective, and rewarding experiences possible.