Extended Interviews

Carl Mitchell

Interview with Kristina Gubic

Kristina Gubic is a community development and media consultant for nonprofits. Between 2007 and 2008, she was the communications manager for PlayPumps International South Africa. Here, she talks with FRONTLINE/World correspondent Amy Costello about her work with PlayPumps, the challenges the organization faced in keeping up with its rapid growth, and some of the inherent problems nonprofits have in admitting mistakes and telling the public when they encounter problems with their programs in the field. This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place in Johannesburg, South Africa, in January 2010.

"I think it’s a learning curve that the organization went through over time. What we need to bear in mind is that the organization wanted to help
as many people as it possibly could."

Amy Costello: What type of work did you do for PlayPumps International (South Africa)?
Kristina Gubic: As you know, PlayPumps is a water pumping technology for rural communities. For the liaison role, it’s very much about introducing that technology to communities, helping them understand what it’s capable of delivering. Often, it is also assessing whether the community is in fact the appropriate site for such a technology.

What was that experience like for you?
It was a great privilege. I had a wonderful time during my employment with the nonprofit. It was immensely rewarding being able to deliver a technology that essentially brings clean drinking water to poor communities. Also, as part of my communications work, I got to interview a lot of beneficiaries and get their voices and their stories about how it had actually changed their lives. So that was very encouraging and positive.

And did you experience any challenges going to visit the communities?
As you know, the PlayPump is a child’s merry-go-round that is attached to a borehole, so it’s an innovative device that uses the power of children playing to pump water. In its most appropriate form, it is best suited for a primary school. It’s best suited for a certain age group of children -- I would say after preschool, junior, primary school -- ages six to 13. What I did find is that if the pump was installed in a community or outside of that school setting, it may not have been as effective or as well utilized as if it were installed in the school.

And when did you figure this out?

I think it’s a learning curve that the organization went through over time. What we need to bear in mind is that the organization wanted to help as many people as it possibly could. If you have an appeal from a community for a water pump, and you offer them this technology and you explain to them how it works, they may not even be aware of the challenges until they experience the technology. It really is a learning curve from both sides.

When you visited the communities, what kind of things would the women tell you?
I didn't interview women exclusively. I obviously tried to interview as many different stakeholders as possible. The overwhelming benefits, which have been well reported, are that women are spending less time walking possibly two to three kilometers to a river source or an unclean water source to collect water. So they’re not only saving a great amount of time in their day, they're also not carrying this burden of 20 kilos of water on their heads for such a great distance. And they were definitely experiencing increased hygiene and health because they weren't being exposed to bacteria in water, and the children weren't being exposed to it.

Antenatal and child mortality as a result of water-borne disease is a serious issue in [Africa], so we are having a tremendous impact on that, and [the women] were pleased to have access to this clean water.

I want to talk to you about the PPI mandate to install pumps in a certain number of years. Did you ever feel urgency about getting pumps in the ground?

We obviously tried to address an urgent global challenge, and we were all motivated to do it in the quickest possible way. I think what’s important is that our progress was often hindered by the quality of the water or the boreholes not being viable. I wish [this information] had been communicated in a more public manner, so that people had a realistic expectation about the amount of work and effort that it takes in order to find a viable site that is going to produce enough water for a community.

Educating the public is one thing. It also seems important to educate the donors.

Yes, I agree.

Was there communication with donors?

I wasn't involved in communicating those matters. So I can't comment on that.

You were communicating more with the public?

Yes. Certainly, my role was to create feedback to donors, but it was feedback in terms of how the technology was being experienced by a beneficiary community. That’s what I did. Obviously, [providing] that feedback was positive, and I had to bring the challenges to the table as well.

And when donors heard about the challenges that PPI was facing, what was the response?

I'm afraid I wasn't involved in those decisions. I was able to provide the feedback, but I can't comment on how that feedback was utilized.

I want to talk to you about the marketing of the PlayPump. It seems so simple. What could be better? From the marketing perspective that you bring, is that an accurate way to look at the device?

Certainly, it’s an innovative technology solution, where, if you're in a rural community that doesn't have access to clean drinking water, it’s something that could potentially save your life. Since children are traditionally utilized in the home to collect water, there's an immediate connection with traditional African family life. So, yes, when it’s utilized in a primary school, and children have never had access to play equipment, and they're used to spending two to three hours walking and carrying water back, it is that simple. And it’s overwhelmingly positive.

Yes, but there are so many other factors. I wonder about whether children are a reliable source of water. When it's something as important as water?

Well, that's not something we can determine; that's something that's driven by African culture. Within their communities, water collecting is part of children’s traditional tasks and part of their traditional chores in the home, so I'm not going to challenge that. What the concept did is to take that cultural factor and make it simpler for the children. I think that's important technology.

Does that make it play or work?

Once again, I think we need to look at it in context. If you are in a first-world country, you would not want your child to walk two kilometers and to carry a bucket back; it would be inappropriate. In African rural communities, this happens every day. These children have never seen play equipment, and they are used to spending two or three hours of their day making that journey. So being able to offer them a simple solution is an improvement in the quality of their life.

What have you heard or observed firsthand to make you say that the system wasn't working as it should?

I did encounter pumps in the field that weren't working, and we obviously tried to notify the service provider, who provides the technology to the nonprofit.

You are talking about Trevor Field’s organization, Roundabout Outdoor.

That's correct. Roundabout Outdoor. I don't know why these pumps were not repaired or, indeed, if they were repairable. So if I was doing the community [liaison work] and I encountered a nonworking pump, all I could do was feed back that information.

Trevor [Field] would say that the information Save the Children gathered was not accurate and that those sites would never sustain a PlayPump. In fact, he says he did go back a few times to many of those sites, trying to repair them, and they were just not going to work. He says he informed Save the Children on a number of occasions.

Once again, there's a great potential here for a learning curve. If Roundabout Outdoor discovers that they can’t repair their pumps and that [the pumps] are not relevant to the site, and that gets back to Save the Children -- who were obviously intending to help those communities -- what then is the next step? How does the community then challenge the local government or get help?

From your perspective at that time, Trevor was saying, “I can't do anything.” Save the Children was saying, “Hey, we gave the information to Trevor. He put the things in. We can't do anything more; we've done our job.” Who, then, does the responsibility fall to?

I think what we're experiencing here is a very fragmented operation. Everybody has a specific and narrow focus. What I'd love to see is a more holistic approach to community development because, clearly, all of these elements impact each other -- to prepare communities and make sure that [PlayPump technology] is in fact relevant to their needs and that it is appropriate, before we go ahead and spend that money.

As someone who hasn't been involved with bringing water to poor African communities, I’m struck by the seriousness of what PlayPumps was undertaking: trying to bring a new technology to people who are often living on the brink. It's not like other innovations that will just slightly improve people's lives. We're talking about drinking water, a fundamental resource, vital to life. I am getting the impression that one needs to tread carefully in rolling this program out. Was the necessary care taken in the case of the PlayPump rollout?

Absolutely. I think what you need to bear in mind is that, yes, it is an enormous responsibility. You want to be able to improve people's health. You want to be able to provide them with a service that they've possibly never had. And I feel that the intention was always positive and always well meant, but possibly we could have spent a little bit more time doing a pilot study to see how these pumps were going to work across a number of communities. How often they were going to require maintenance. What that schedule should have been. Perhaps [we could have] been less focused on achieving quantity and more focused on getting it right from the outset.

Rather than the pressure to roll out as many pumps as you can, emphasis should be placed where?

On the quality. And the indirect part of the project -- let's call it the pre-installation phase -- is, I believe, where the emphasis needs to be placed to make sure that those sites are well selected, and that the community understands what the technology delivers and how it delivers it.

From my experience reporting on other issues and talking to a lot of NGOs working on the ground in Africa, it seems that it's difficult to raise money for things that aren't tangible, that you can't hold in your hand.

It's a hard sell. Absolutely, I agree with you. And that's really the most important thing for me to try to emphasize. You know, all of us in development, we get caught up in the challenge of raising money. I think one of the most appealing aspects of the PlayPump is that it's a simple, tangible technology that people can see. Donors understand it, and they can see the direct impact, and obviously that was immensely positive for us.

The fact that PlayPumps are tangible makes it easier for the donor to write the check for a cause they like?

It's tangible, absolutely. Working in community development, I'm increasingly understanding the importance of the indirect work and the orientation process. Being here today is a really great opportunity to appeal to the public and to the donor community to manage their expectations in terms of development having a direct dollar-for-dollar impact. We all talk about the concept of sustainability, and it’s a word whose meaning has been corrupted and distorted over time. Ideally, we would like it to mean self-sufficiency -- that we can support communities to a point where they are self-sufficient. What's misleading is the notion that sustainability doesn't cost anything. When we consider how much work and how much preparation -- monitoring, evaluation, community orientation, going back to check if the pumps are working – are required in order for that wonderful buzzword “sustainability” to ring true has a price tag.

And it’s more difficult to get people to . . .

I suppose it's more difficult to get people to part with their money. But I think it's really about reeducation about how development actually works on the ground.

As someone who's very concerned and passionate about issues of sustainability, when you look ahead at the next five or ten years, what do you think about those 100 sites that you've visited? How confident are you that the PlayPump ultimately will prove to be a sustainable technology?

Well, I know that, in terms of the raw materials that are utilized to build the pump and the way they are erected and stored, it certainly has a life span that can take it beyond ten or 20 years. But there are certain elements that need to be serviced. I just hope that this conversation, or indeed this interview, reenergizes the local partners to make their maintenance programs more rigorous, so that these communities are not let down in the years to come.

I think more people need to be trained as part of the maintenance program, and perhaps there's a potential there for training in simple things like changing a washer on a dripping tap. It’s a sacrilege in an arid country like South Africa to have water wasting away. A local community member could be trained to do that low-cost maintenance. I believe there are lots of ways that it could be tackled.

We found that, in Mozambique, many of the Save the Children pumps never worked from the outset for a number of reasons. As you traveled to other PlayPump sites in other African nations, including this one in South Africa, did you see other pumps that weren't working?

I have only seen PlayPumps in Mozambique and South Africa. I know they were rolled out in other African territories, but I wasn't involved in those particular programs. So I haven't seen them in Zambia; I haven't seen them in Lesotho. I beg your pardon: I've seen lots in Swaziland; I just remembered that. In Swaziland they were very effective. We had some instances in some areas where we were experiencing groundwater shortages, and the pumps weren't working. I think it goes back to my comment on site selection and doing those tests very, very stringently to make sure the borehole can in fact produce the amount of water that we need it to.

How confident are you that, when a pump breaks down in a rural village in Swaziland or Mozambique, someone is going to find out about it in a timely manner and repair it, if it's repairable?
Once again, I haven't been with the organization for the last two years, so I really don't know if they have improved their systems. I'm aware of pumps that weren't working during my time. But I have no way of knowing if they have since been addressed or repaired. And we have no way of knowing what that turn-around time was. So my comment may be out of date. But certainly the maintenance was not up to scratch when I was part of that organization. I really hope that's been addressed.

Another aspect of this I want to cover is fund-raising. The announcement came out from Washington that they were going to pledge $60 million to roll out a bunch of pumps in Africa. However, it seems like, in those early stages of the rollout, problems were being encountered, some of which we’ve already articulated. Help me understand why this pretty aggressive fund-raising campaign continued while the organizations involved were struggling to just keep up with what they had going?

I can't answer that question, except that, you know, there were the best intentions to try to reach as many Africans as possible. We were assigned 10 African countries initially that they wanted to reach. And to try and meet that target . . . but I can't answer that question. I wasn't involved in those decisions.

But is it responsible to continue to aggressively fund-raise for a technology that is already struggling with what it has? Is that responsible from a fund-raising perspective, or from a marketing perspective?

I think I can only answer that in my personal capacity. I certainly can’t speak for the organization that I no longer work with, but, in my personal capacity, I think it is responsible if they were producing information about their challenges. I just feel that if there was more public awareness about these challenges, they would be easily accepted. So certainly, if PlayPumps had said, you know, “We want to press on and we want to provide as many people with clean drinking water as possible, but we are experiencing challenges.” That level of transparency and loyalty earns people's trust. So, if you're asking me my personal opinion, I think that the responsibility has to be managed very carefully.

You were saying earlier that it's very important for the public to know when challenges are arising.

I think when new technologies are involved, the public needs to know that you're having growing pains, because that's going to help you get support in the future: to show some level of accountability, to say that you have addressed [the issues]. That's what's important here.

I'd also say that you're not alone among people involved with the PlayPump rollout in Africa who say that, while negative feedback may have been received, it was not acted upon by higher-ups in the organization. Based on the number of people I've talked to, I get a sense that, especially, the people in Washington didn't want to hear it.
Well, I think you might be right. And I think that's a generalization that we can probably apply across the entire nonprofit development world. How often do we hear about a big organization -- like an Oxfam or a New World Vision or a United Nations development agency -- admitting their mistakes and going, "We messed up. But don't worry; we're dealing with it." It's not part of development culture to admit your flaws. And I think that is something that needs to be addressed: We need to be transparent with our public and with our donor community and say, "We're experiencing problems and we are trying to address them, and this is what development is about." It's challenging. It's about finding solutions for problems. So why are we so reluctant to share that negative feedback, which should really just be construed as a learning curve?