Social design problems

Everyone wants to help the poor. The needy. Sometimes the ‘want to help’ is so large that the needy are helped regardless of them.  Let us not get into the discussion of whether some NGO’s are in this just to make loads of Tax-free money.


Merry go around pumps or Roundabout playpumps, are pumps which use the energy of children playing on a merry go around. This is the conjecture: Children love to play, hence use the energy generated to pump water. Children are happy playing, and the community gets its water. The idea seemed so great the company got lots of funding (even from the US govt.) and lots of playpumps where installed.

miling, playing children, solving Africa’s water problems. It is an appealing image and one that has attracted millions of dollars in American government aid, backing from the likes of the Co-op and high-profile celebrity endorsements. The only problem is it has also been criticised by one of the world’s leading water charities as being far too expensive, too complex for local maintenance, over-reliant on child labour and based on flawed water demand calculations. So, are we just buying into yet another feel-good marketing gimmick? And what does this say about the current state of the aid industry? Read more here

The details are there in the guardian article, out of which I will list the main problems here:
1. The playpumps are too expensive ($14000 excluding drilling)
2. The maintenance is difficult and spare parts are not easily found.
3. It ‘Needs’ the kids to play to do something which is a necessity. So in a way it is child labor.

Why did nobody see such obvious points earlier? One big reason could be the pictures of smiling children.

Who doesn’t want children to be happy, and also solve a big problem, that of water. Researchers have known that their presence necessarily changes the outcome of the observation (hiesenberg’s principle at play ? :P). But I guess in this case they did not realize the extent. A researcher pointed out that as soon as he reached the pump site, children used to rush towards him. Seeing a white guy, seemed to excite the kids and they always started to play. Questioning locals, he found out that this is a more common scenario: a lone woman pushing the playpump to pump water.

As the guardian article remarks,

They can keep quiet and watch money wasted in massive quantities, or expose the waste and risk damaging charitable giving to the sector as a whole.

Now lets take an example which is closer to my country India.

Sethu Sethunarayanan, founder and director of the Center for the Development of Disadvantaged People (CDDP), an organization dedicated to aiding the Irulas, enlisted the help of a mechanical engineer to make a rat trap that is effective 95 percent of the time compared to the old method which was successful only 40 percent of the time. read more

The difference in both these examples is the way of Intervention. In the first case the intervention is being implemented by another body (someone other than the people), and hence has limitations. The third party may not want to accept failure, after having come so far. Even if they do, it will send a negative message to contributors, who might be turned off contributing to that sector at all. The fact that the rat traps are being made by the Irula’s themselves, makes the second plan foolproof. If the Irulas later find that the rat trap is indeed not useful, or not worth the effort they can just stop making them. What this implies is that it is not sufficient to solve social problems by design, even the implementation has to be well thought out.

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