3.3 Innovation in institutions: policy and NGOs

As you should recall, the concept of ‘institutions’ has a dual meaning:

  • as ‘complexes of norms and behaviours that serve a collective purpose’ (de Janvry et al, 1993); and
  • as organizations, when they are established (‘institutionalised’) and embody established norms and roles.

All innovation takes place in an institutional setting and must to some extent imply a deliberate attempt to change institutions: either the promotion of change within an institution or the establishment of a new institution. For example, the spread of an innovative use of IT will require organizational change as well as changes to the norms and roles within organizations. A significant change in, say, environmental policy will at least require change in the roles played by existing agencies if not more sweeping organizational changes and changes in underlying values. Hence an important aspect of innovation research is research about deliberate attempts at change in institutions.

It is important to investigate cases where innovations have occurred or at least where there have been clear-cut attempts at innovations. Yet the likelihood, particularly in the early days of an attempted institutional change, is that there are few clear successes and perhaps many more examples of failure or no attempted change at all. This points to the use of case study as the most appropriate method, focusing on whatever successful cases exist, together perhaps with one or two cases where definite attempts failed in a way which promises to be illuminating. This was the approach that Elinor Ostrom followed. Indeed, even with a research question which prioritises cases of success, one can still include other cases in one’s investigations. You may recall in the second Taylor reading ‘The Innovation Process,’ that apparently bright ideas that seemingly have lots of commercial promise are not always successful. Sometimes the market can be resistant to a new technology, product or service. Failure takes many forms. Its diversity is explored in the following East African case study.

Activity 23

Read the following East African case study and answer the following question.

To what extent do you feel the failure of the PlayPump was due to the failure of institutions and to what extent a failure of thorough research into the nature of the problem?

The PlayPump

PlayPump is a water pump that uses a children’s roundabout to draw water which was designed for use in rural parts of developing countries. Currently about 1,000 PlayPumps have been installed, mostly in South Africa where they were originally invented. While children have fun spinning on the PlayPump merry-go-round, clean water is pumped from underground into a tank, standing about seven meters above the ground. A simple tap connected to the tank makes it easy for adults and children to draw water. Excess water is diverted from the storage tank back down into the borehole. The high visibility of the water storage tank provides an opportunity to advertise to surrounding communities and all four sides of the tank are leased as billboards, two sides for consumer advertising and two sides for health and educational messages. It was envisaged that the revenue generated from advertising would pay for pump maintenance.

The design of the PlayPump water system it is argued, makes it highly effective, easy to operate and very economical. Capable of producing up to 1,400 litres of water per hour at 16 rpm from a depth of 40 metres, it is effective up to a depth of 100 metres.

As outlined by Borland (2010) “The first PlayPump was installed in South Africa in 1993, but it didn’t start to receive a great deal of attention until about 2000, when it won an award from the World Bank for “innovative solutions to development problems” (Bloom 2004, p.20). They described how the PlayPump “captured the attention of many” (ibid).” PlayPumps International, the company producing the PlayPumps has been the beneficiary or significant amounts of US aid as well as personal endorsements from George and Laura Bush.

Figure 2 Children using a PlayPump
Figure 2 Children using a PlayPump

What went wrong with this practical innovation?

The failure of PlayPumps offers many interesting lessons that touch on its financing, the role of development agencies and how the problem was initially conceptualised. The advertising did not generate the revenue expected to maintain the pumps. This was because their rural location did not reach large numbers of people with large disposable incomes. Similarly, WaterAid, a large water charity, has criticised the PlayPumps because of their high installation costs and complex pumping mechanism which makes local operation and maintenance difficult (The Guardian, 24 November 2009).

The enthusiasm for the PlayPump by Western aid agencies was in hindsight misguided. There is firstly the thorny question of whether children playing is an appropriate source of energy for drawing water and when this turns from play to child labour. The times of highest demand for water, such as early in the morning and early evening are not necessarily the times children are most likely to want to play on the PlayPump. If demand is too great for the relatively modest capacity of the PlayPump, there is the real threat of exploitation of children, forcing them to keep “playing” in order to pump and meet demand.

But perhaps most significantly, it is argued that the PlayPumps were addressing the wrong problem. PlayPumps could only work in specific situations: where there are large supplies of high-quality groundwater, close to the surface, and where existing infrastructure to extract the water is poor. For example:

‘… the Sphere Project [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  states that the recommended minimum daily water requirement is 15 litres per person which – based on the pump's capabilities – would require children to be "playing" non-stop for 27 hours in every day to meet the 10 million figure. Under more reasonable assumptions, a Playpump could theoretically provide the bare minimum water requirements for about 200 people a day based on two hours' constant "play" every day – considerably less than its claimed potential.


However, in much of Africa the problem is water scarcity and insufficient supply to meet demand. Indeed, some PlayPumps appear to have exhausted their supply and run dry. Moreover, where water is available it is often of poor quality which makes the PlayPump an unviable solution.

Yet, sometimes the PlayPump might be useful and the correct solution. As Daniel Steller wrote in 2010:

“In most situations though, it is imperative to first understand the problem and to design an appropriate, tailored solution. It is also necessary to see the local supply of water within the environmental services system. If there is insufficient supply, no amount of pumping, no matter how playful it may be, will help.”

If you want to find out more about the PlayPump the following URLs and references have been provided:


The PlayPump was a failure of both institutions, in particular of Western donor agencies and PlyaPump itself, and of the conceptualisation of the problem.

The World Bank and Western aid agencies and media were lulled into believing the PlayPump was an appropriate technology for meeting water demand. The attractiveness of the image of children playing and delivering water for their communities blinded them to the rigorous questions that needed to be asked to identify the nature of the water problem. The problem in much of Africa is availability of an adequate supply of potable water rather than the failure of a technology to bring it to the surface. Thus, the PlayPump’s failure was due primarily to a poor conceptualisation of the problem which led to the development of a technology that had utility in very specific and limited contexts but was attractive to donors because it was a metaphor for self-reliance.

You may recall Ostrom argues that while metaphors are very powerful in capturing important aspects of a situation, this can lead to their being taken as a model of reality which may in fact misrepresent reality. She adds that policy makers may base their policies on such misrepresentations. Thus, as she argues, the simplifying effect of metaphors can lead to a neglect of detail by policy makers. For policy makers we need to substitute donor agencies for the PlayPump case study, but Ostrom’s argument has utility for understanding what went wrong.

This Section has looked at associations, NGOs and networks. It has examined how they help shape the institutional and organisational context for innovation and policy making.

3.2 Non-governmental organisations (NGOs)

4 Organisations and communities of practice