Interview with Carl Mitchell of USAID
Carl Mitchell is a water coordinator for USAID. The government agency pledged $10 million in 2006 to install PlayPump systems across 10 water-stressed African countries. FRONTLINE/World correspondent Amy Costello spoke with Mitchell earlier this year about what happened to that $10 million and how the agency responded when reports began to surface that the technology it was supporting was not meeting needs on the ground.
This is an edited transcript of an interview that took place October 7, 2009, at the USAID offices in Washington, D.C.
water-stressed African countries.
Amy Costello: I want to go back to 2006, when it was announced that several donors would be funding an expansion of PlayPumps to the tune of the $16.4 million. How did USAID become involved?
Carl Mitchell: I wasn’t involved back then, but I believe they [PlayPumps] approached the administration. They looked at an NPR program and saw that there were some very interesting opportunities there. We do a lot of work trying to push the envelope and do public/private partnerships. When we’re approached by an entrepreneur or an NGO with innovative ideas, we try to support that.
You said "an NPR program." Did you mean the FRONTLINE/World program that I did?
OK, that was public TV. How much did USAID pledge at that time?
In 2006, we pledged $10 million.
Has all that money been given over to PlayPumps [International]?
We’ve put in all but $2 million of that. And right now we’re looking at future years of funding and trying to choose when we’ll complete funding.
So you’re not sure about the $2 million that remains?
It may be fiscal year 2010, but [we] haven’t decided.
Of the $8 million that USAID has put into PlayPumps, do you know what’s happened to that money?
Our initial anticipation was 650 pumps. We’ve currently seen a little less than 20 percent of that in the field and in operation. That’s 117 [pumps]. Three hundred and one pumps have been manufactured and delivered to countries, and arrangements with the communities and sponsors are being worked out. The pumps are in the process of being installed; they’re not actively under construction. Another 146 have been manufactured and they’re en route, which, I believe, means they’re on ships to Africa. So that leaves about 85 that have not been manufactured. So we find that’s consistent with the amount of funding we’ve provided. That 650 is the number for the $10 million in U.S. government support. There were 4,000 pumps in the original design. Compared to our 117, they [the other funding partners] have installed about 1,200 under the broader program funded by the Case Foundation and others.
So when was the last time USAID expended funding and handed it over to PlayPumps?
I’m not sure [in what] payment cycle. I know that, of the $8 million that’s been authorized and obligated by the agreement, they [PlayPumps International] have requested and received $4.5 million.
But $4.5 million has been dispersed.
They’ve billed us for that amount. So we still are not beyond the halfway point in terms of disbursement.
Where do the disbursements go? To PlayPumps South Africa?
Yes, it goes to Africa.
Are you aware that PlayPumps Africa is now going by the name of Water for All?
They’ve rebranded their program as Water for All; [it is] part of the evolution of their delivery model and their business model. Originally, they began solely with the concept of PlayPumps. But now, based partially on assessments by UNICEF and WaterAid, they’ve looked at delivery models in the field, and sites where the maintenance is not done by the manufacturer, as [it was when] it started out, but by local companies.
They’ve also broadened the technology offerings: They’re providing solar pumps, and they also have a combo merry-go-round and solar pump called the Funpump, and water purification kits. They’re trying to provide a range of technologies and offerings rather than sticking with the original design. Like any innovative program, you begin to learn things and you sometimes find that different approaches sometimes work better. That’s what they’ve been doing.
As a major funder, have you been getting reports from the field? You mentioned a UNICEF report and WaterAid. What kind of feedback have you been getting about PlayPump rollouts in Africa?
We’ve been getting reports that a new model, where the various countries partner in the field with Africare, has been working much better. They believe, and our staff in Pretoria believes, that the success [of the sites chosen for the pumps] works better. When you choose an appropriate site, the technology works much better. They tell us that the maintenance issues have not been as severe, and that there have not been nearly as many issues arising as there had been initially.
What were you hearing about maintenance issues initially?
Like any technology, you find that there are things that need to be addressed. One of them is sustainability. You really have to back up here and ask yourself, Is it easy to provide water and sanitation in the developing world? And, of course, it’s not. The real challenge comes in the sustainability of the program.
We know that there is a cookbook of solutions that can be applied when you’re working within the concept of a utility. But when you step beyond the pipe and begin working in villages and slums and, in this case, schools, the challenges of sustainability are really the difficult part. It’s very easy to put in boreholes, deliver pumps, regardless of [the] technology. The real issue is how the community itself takes on the sustainability. And those challenges are ones that PlayPumps [South Africa] has been facing, as most of our implementers have.
They seem to be finding effective solutions now, and those are the reports we’re getting. I’m told that, of the 117 pumps, they’re all working fine and maintenance is not a problem.
And where are those 117 pumps put in?
I’d have to pull my notes; they are in half a dozen of the ten countries. But you ask about the maintenance issues. Two of them are rather simple but require attention. One is the taps themselves: They get broken or vandalized and, periodically, have to be replaced. In addition, the flywheel needs to be greased. When [it’s not greased], the PlayPump becomes difficult to rotate. All of that is not terribly difficult to fix, but it requires attention and resources -- people dedicated. You have users that are aware of the phone number [the text or phone number displayed on the storage tank in case of maintenance problems]. When you start out, you have a plan, but then issues arise, and you resolve those issues.
In Mozambique, I understand the issues are being resolved. Between 2006 and 2007, Save the Children, in response to the Clinton Global Initiative, put in 42 pumps. They were supposed to put in 80, but after a few months, they began getting reports from the field that the PlayPumps were breaking down, and the communities were rejecting them. As we speak, 13 of the 42 pumps they put in the ground are functional.That’s not a USAID thing. We didn’t fund those. . . . It’s true that USAID participates in multipartner programs, even though they have moving parts and they have challenges, because we’re trying to leverage ourselves with other organizations. So it’s not an issue that we are uninterested in what WaterAid pumps are encountering. As I understand it, there were issues of siting, where the pumps did not match the size of the boreholes and so forth. But the most recent report I got from PlayPumps in South Africa was that those issues were being resolved.
When PlayPumps International became Water for All and started implementing other water initiatives, did it require a change in the contract between USAID and PlayPumps in terms of the way your monies would be used?
I’m not familiar with the contract change. Much of USAID’s work with nonprofits is done with cooperative agreements, which allow for a great deal of flexibility. We have a government role as well. But it’s not the same kind of relationship you have between a contractor and any other government agency. And I know this program is driven by annual work plans. So, cooperatively, the aid officer in Pretoria works for PlayPumps, and they establish a work plan. Right now, they’re working on a plan for 2010. [It] is just being delivered or was just delivered.
Of the $8 million that’s been spent, how much has been used to fund PlayPumps and how much for other initiatives?
I don’t know. Given the fact that most of this was done before they [PlayPumps] began to expand their offerings, I would guess that the original 117 are conventional PlayPumps from the earlier period. But I wouldn’t hazard a guess as to how many of the remaining ones that are being delivered right now are other technologies.
But as far as you know, are all the pumps that USAID has put in the ground currently working?
That’s what we hear. There’s 117 that we have in the ground -- and at any given time, there could be problems with them. But we’ve not heard that. And that includes the 10 that were Roundabout Outdoor pumps, which they’re still responsible to maintain. Those are not in Mozambique; they’re elsewhere.
Who do you rely on to get information from the field about how your pumps are doing?
That information is collected from our office in Pretoria and from PlayPumps itself. Periodically, USAID evaluates its programs. And UNICEF and WaterAid have also done evaluations of PlayPumps in the past -- partially because their water aid was interested in doing some “co-siting,” and UNICEF was interested in adopting the technology. So they did evaluations. And at that point, we held off. But, usually, halfway or two-thirds of the way through a program, if we have no particular issues -- or sometimes earlier if we do -- we do a thorough review, and we visit all the sites.
Given everything you know about PlayPumps today, has USAID changed anything about its support for the PlayPumps?
If PlayPumps [Water for All] had maintained their original design rigidly, without exception, I think we’d feel differently. But, as I say, it’s very challenging. When you’re working in the developing world, the outside concept of utilities, and the kind of testing and design issues that we’ve been encountering on the overall model of how to do this -- not just the technology -- this is not [an] unusual [situation], and the implementer, PlayPumps International, is doing as good a job as any in responding to [problems] and developing a model that is more effective.
So I think, in general, it’s a successful program and, of course, the jury’s out until it’s complete. We are involved in a number of water and sanitation issues. We work with a lot of different issues and NGOs and other implementers, and we don’t find [PlayPumps’] issues any better or worse than what we normally see. I don’t know anyone who regrets having gotten involved in the program.