What my afternoon with Joe confirmed for me is that coming up with practical solutions for homelessness requires going to the places where homeless people live, learning from them what their lives are like, why they do what they do, and what opportunities they take advantage of now and hope to take advantage of in the future. I was able to put what I had learned from my day with Joe to good use in learning about poverty by interviewing people all over the world who survive on less than a dollar a day, by walking with them through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud-and-wattle homes.
These people told me they were poor because they couldn’t earn enough from their one-acre farms. They said they needed access to affordable irrigation before they could grow the high-value crops that would increase their income, and sometimes they needed help to get these crops to markets where they could sell them at a profit. So in 1981 I started an organization called International Development Enterprises (IDE) that helped them meet these needs. We designed a range of affordable irrigation tools such as treadle pumps, and mass-marketed them to small-acreage farmers through the local private sector. We helped farmers pick four or five high-value fruits and vegetables they could grow well in their area, set up private-sector supply chains that sold them the seeds and fertilizer they needed to grow these crops, and helped them sell what they grew at a profit in the marketplace. This effectively ended the poverty of 17 million dollar-a-day rural people.
It has taken me twenty-five years to come to these ridiculously simple and obvious conclusions.
Out of Poverty teaches us to think simple. Paul Polak brings forward ideas and solutions that bypass government agencies and other leaden institutions. Ideas that work!
— PAUL NEWMAN
OUT OF POVERTY
In this impassioned and iconoclastic book, entrepreneur, inventor and self-identified “troublemaker” Paul Polak tells why mainstream poverty eradication programs have fallen so sadly short and how he and his organization developed an alternative approach that has already succeeded in lifting 17 million people out of poverty. (Watch video of Paul on his 12 steps to Practical Problem Solving).
Drawing on his 25 years of experience, Polak explodes what he calls the "Three Great Poverty Eradication Myths": that donations alone will end poverty, that national economic growth will end poverty, and that big business, operating as it does now, will end poverty. Polak shows that programs based on these ideas have utterly failed–in fact, in some areas where these approaches have been tried, such as sub-Saharan Africa, poverty rates have actually gone up.
These failed top-down efforts contrast sharply with the grassroots approach Polak and International Development Enterprises have championed: helping the dollar-a-day poor earn more money through their own efforts. Amazingly enough, unexploited market opportunities do exist for the desperately poor. Polak describes how he and others have identified these opportunities and have developed innovative, low-cost tools that have helped impoverished rural farmers use the market to improve their lives.
In Out of Poverty, Paul Polak shares a practical guide to problem solving that helped him address the root causes of poverty and can help us improve our lives. His book also offers specific advice for everyone who wants to end poverty, including development donors, multinational corporations, universities, agriculture and irrigation research institutions and concerned individuals worldwide who would like to join the movement to support innovative design solutions that enable prosperity.
Throughout Out of Poverty Polak tells fascinating and moving stories about the people he and IDE have helped, especially Krishna Bahadur Thapa, a Nepali farmer who went from barely surviving to earning $4,800 a year; solidly upper middle class by local standards. Out of Poverty offers a new and promising way to end world poverty, one that honors the entrepreneurial spirit of the poor themselves.
Stories Spawn Solutions
My fifteen-month-old grandson, Ethan, has fallen in love with a neighbor’s driveway. It sits two houses down from where he lives, and it seems to overflow with small, multicolored stones. He stops there when I take him for a walk, and then he refuses to leave. He picks up a handful of stones and inspects each one carefully. He places them one after another in my hand, watching intently, and I give them back to him one by one until his hand is full again.
I don’t know who has given him the job of turning every little stone over and over in his hand until he understands its very essence, but that’s the job he has accepted, and he’s not leaving until it’s done. I think I must have inherited a lot of genes from Ethan, because I operate just like he does. I live to play and to satisfy my curiosity.
For the past twenty-five years, two questions have kept my curiosity aroused: What makes poor people poor? And what can they do about their poverty? Because of these infernal questions, I’ve had thousands of conversations with one-acre farmers with dirt on their hands, and they have offered me more cups of steaming tea than my seventy-three-year-old kidneys can take. I have learned more talking with these poor farmers than from any other thing I have done in my life.
Out of Poverty tells their stories, describe some of the things they have taught me, and shows how what I learned has been put to work in straightforward strategies that millions of other poor people have used to end their poverty forever.
Each of the practical solutions to poverty I describe is obvious and direct. For example, since 800 million of the people whose families survive on less than a dollar a day earn their living from small farms, why not start by looking for ways they can make more money from farming? And since these farmers work for less than a dollar a day, why not look for ways they can take advantage of their remarkably low labor rates by growing high-value, labor-intensive cash crops and selling them at the time of year when these crops will fetch the highest prices?
I hate books about poverty that make you feel guilty, as well as dry, academic ones that put you to sleep. Working to alleviate poverty is a lively, exciting field capable of generating new hope and inspiration, not feelings of gloom and doom. Learning the truth about poverty generates disruptive innovations capable of enriching the lives of rich people even more than those of poor people.
My hope is that you will read Out of Poverty and come away energized and inspired. There is much to be done.