Success is something we all want to be associated with. We are all eager to celebrate our successes by shouting it from every roof top so that people know of it—even for a little while—as we enjoy our 15 minutes in the spotlight of life.
Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are no different. They are just as quick and eager at celebrating success. They would get busy writing lengthy documents, capturing lessons that people never read or developing huge newspaper spreads that display events that the readers could hardly care about. But you would rarely, if ever, find an NGO displaying their failures. You will never see a newspaper spread with the heading “Why We Failed” or a document citing failures rather than failure’s distant cousin—challenges.
Of course, this is purely due to conditioning. In Malawi, displaying failure is frowned upon in favour of perpetual and never-ending success, favour and prosperity. Actually, when an entire people are taught to always be Number One in class from their very first step in the corridors of education—what would you expect? What you then have, as a result, are a people who are more certain of how to respond or react to success, but do not have the emotional or social intelligence to react constructively to failure. Failure is viewed as a stigma rather than an opportunity to learn, improve and grow.
In the water sector, we have had many failures—failures we simply sweep under the carpet, hoping they get buried under a heap of dust over time. Some of these failures have actually made the water situation worse instead of better. And if there is one monumental failure among them that has quietly disappeared from conversations and plummeted into the lexicon of forgotten white elephants, then it is the once lauded and loved Play-Pump.
For those of you who do not know a Play-Pump, it is simply a water pump that operates by using the energy of children at play. The children play on a merry-go-round and the spinning motion pumps underground water into a 2 500-litre tank raised seven metres above the ground. The water in the tank is easily dispensed through a tap.
Cool idea right! Everyone thought so, too!
Media across the world hailed this as a great innovation—something that would help turn the tide as regards school and even community water supply. Donors embraced it and imposed it on developing nations and cash-strapped NGOs as possibly that much needed “magic bullet”. The Play-Pump had all the right (powerful) cheer leaders doing backflips and somersaults shouting:
“The Play-Pump is it! We don’t lie – The Play-Pump improves our water supply!”
Orders were made. Shipments came in. Money changed hands. And Play-Pumps were drilled. Excitement! Anticipation! Revelry even! And now—Silence! Cold, dead and deafening silence!
What happened to all those orders and shipments of pump parts that were meant to change the lives of thousands of school-going children across sub-Saharan Africa? What happened to the vision, the drive, and the enthusiasm? Where are all the cheerleading donors and the over-praising media? What happened to the Play-Pump?
Well, this is what happened. The organisation promoting the Play-Pump, Play-Pump International, went bust and closed shop. In Malawi, the pump parts that were shipped into the country and delivered to districts councils like that in Chikhwawa, where the NGO I work for operates, are simply gathering dust with no-one having a single idea what to do with them.
Most of the Play-Pumps that brought moments of mirth for several children, giving them respite from their “less than a dollar a day” life, have joined the other broken down, non-functional water supply systems that have riddled the Malawian country side. Forgotten by the NGOs and government that put them there.–The author is grants manager with Water For People Malawi writing in his own capacity.