My experience with the Innovation Unit at UNICEF in summer 2011


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The head butt by Zidane in 2006 World Cup was quite a shock and it’s one of few things that comes to me when I think of the word ‘impact’. Some people might not even remember it, but to some extent I’m sure it has changed the behaviors and thoughts of soccer players on field from all around the world who have followed him. 

At UNICEF and many NGOs, the word ‘impact’ is a set goal for various projects in many different levels and scales; regional, national and global. If done properly, a single project can have a positive impact on people in a global scale while one thoughtless idea or choice can impact the nation and the beyond in a negative way. There is a range of possible reasons for a failed project, and it will be discussed in more detail in a different post. But for now, I’d like to talk about the impact of a not-so-successful project.
There are limitations on the extent to which it is possible to measure the impact of projects, and even when measured properly, it’s hard to openly share the failure. What happens if it is undiscovered? What is the impact of it? In my opinion, it poses a new level of threat, because the next group of people who have a similar idea and beliefs would go and make the same mistakes.

Playpumps, a project by Water for People, is a water pump connected to a merry-go-round which children spin on. It seems like a great idea derived from a relatively new perspective compared to not-so-fun traditional hand pumps. Indeed I also thought that the intervention complemented what was missing in aid approaches toward developing countries—playfulness. A post by Ingrid Fetell, called In Defense of Delight, indicates that we’re on the same track:
"Designers use delight in clever ways to facilitate collaboration. One of my favorite examples is PlayPumps, an economical water pumping system that uses the power of children playing on a merry-go-round to bring clean water up from underground for use."
Unfortunately we were both losing sight of the real problem of Playpumps which was clearly stated, for example, in Laura Freschi's post: Some NGOs CAN adjust to Failure: The PlayPumps Story. She points out flaws of Playpumps, especially quoting a statement from an aid worker and engineer in Malawi who witnessed multiple problems of the intervention. A lot of comments and twitter debates were generated by Laura Freschi’s blog, and it was also noticed by PlayPumps. PlayPumps website changed the “Donate” page to no longer steer money to that project.
This could be an interesting case study of the power of social media, however, Ingrid Fetell and I wasn’t aware of this debate. Still, it’s hard to perceive the overall problem of Playpumps when visiting the Playpumps website. Unless a failure was broadcasted like Zidanne’s head butt or elucidated by the main organization, there are certain limits in terms of how far a failure can reach people. The lack of transparency in vocalizing a failure is linked to the collateral of failures, however, attention should be paid to reason behind the initial failure.
 One thing I would like to point out is that by no means I doubt the good intentions behind projects like Playpumps and there is nothing wrong about having a playful approach; there is no need to change it. We just need to remember that it can be applied, only when the focus is on the main issue at hand; the main issue being impact. When the main issue is distracted by secondary perspectives like playfulness, we’ll lose sight of the first principle— to solve a real problem of people in critical situations.


  1. deeunicef posted this
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