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Western Foundations Use Child Labor to Pump Water in Africa with “Play Pumps”

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Charlotte Allen - published on 07/30/15 - updated on 06/07/17

"Play Pumps" use no fossil fuels, but are far from fun and games for African kids

Child labor! Why do the progressives who are horrified at the idea of putting little kids to work in the First World think it’s perfectly fine to put little kids to work in the Third World?

I’ve been reading about the rise and fall of the "PlayPump." The idea, hatched by a high-minded NGO (natch!), was that the perfect way to provide clean water for impoverished sub-Saharan villages would be to set up a children’s merry-go-round attached to a pump that would move water from an underground aquifer to an above-ground tank that the village women could draw from. Perfect! No nasty real energy source for the pump such as, um, electricity. Fossil fuels! Global warming! We can’t have that. 

So the little tykes would run the pump instead, merrily pushing themselves round and round just for fun, and voila! Water for the whole village!

The donations gushed in. In 2006, the U.S. government and two major foundations pledged $16.4 million in a public ceremony emceed by Bill Clinton and Laura Bush. The technology was touted by the World Bank and made a cameo in America’s 2007 Water for the Poor Act. Jay-Z personally pledged $400,000. PlayPump set the goal of installing 4,000 pumps in Africa by 2010. “That would mean clean drinking water for some ten million people,” a “Frontline” reporter announced.

But no one at the carbon-phobic nonprofit ever thought to test the idea on real children before plunking about 1,500 of the PlayPumps in African villages whether the residents wanted them or not. No one ever considered, for example, the fact that children get bored with doing the same kind of play over and over, especially when it actually isn’t play at all but more like those primitive olive presses operated by a blinders-wearing donkey on a rope trudging in a circle.

By 2007, less than two years after the grants came in, it was already clear these aspirations weren’t going to be met. A UNICEF report found pumps abandoned, broken, unmaintained. Of the more than 1,500 pumps that had been installed with the initial burst of grant money in Zambia, one-quarter already needed repair….

In 2010, “Frontline” returned to the schools where they had filmed children laughing on the merry-go-rounds, splashing each other with water. They discovered pumps rusting, billboards unsold, women stooping to turn the wheel in pairs. Many of the villages hadn’t even been asked if they wanted a PlayPump, they just got one, sometimes replacing the handpumps they already had. In one community, adults were paying children to operate the pump.

Trouble is, the PlayPump wasn’t a one-off folly. Environment-conscious do-gooders are still coming up with ideas for putting child-power to work for adults. It’s a kind of "sharing economy" in which the idle asset to be monetized is all that kid energy presumably wasted when playing is just playing. In 2011 I attended a conference at Harvard that focused in part on "new ideas" for the "developing world"–ideas that wouldn’t use fossil fuels, of course. One of the featured prototype products was the "sOccket," a soccer ball designed to generate electricity if enough kids kicked it around enough.

2012 academic paper envisions generating home electricity on a treadmill–an idea the author says is based on "children’s play." Yes, let’s put little Vishnu on a treadmill for a couple of hours a day. He’ll think it’s fun–and no childhood obesity! Other kid-power ideas explored on the Internet: a bicycle-powered water pump (for Malawi, not here), and a swing set that generates electricity.

So progressive! So carbon-emissions-free! But please don’t put our kids to work on them. We’re the First World. We don’t believe in child labor.

Charlotte Allen writes for a variety of publications: The Weekly Standard, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times. She has a Ph.D. in medieval studies and is the author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus. She blogs at article first appeared on the Independent Women’s Forum’s blog and is reprinted here with kind permisson.

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