[It is my great pleasure to publish this first - and hopefully not last - post by a former student of mine, Dave E. (I don't know if he wants his whole identity revealed, I'll update with his full name if he wants). Dave is one of these students that makes teaching easy and makes teachers feel smart. I only hope he got what he needed out of my class and that the materials were stimulating enough for his brilliant intellect. Dave is also a very compassionate individual, as evidenced by his involvement with the Interfaith Youth Core. This book review is entirely his, I only added links, some formatting and the video at the end.
Thanks for this, Dave.]
I just recently read Paul Polak’s book entitled Out of Poverty. The basic realization that Polak and others have helped me come to is that humans have radically material needs. While I have reservations about using per capita income as a primary measure of development, an income of less than $1/ day is staggering and must not be treated like yet another neocolonial or materialistic paradigm or measure.
Polak is a successful entrepreneur and changemaker who comes from a strawberry farming background. His perspective is wonderfully refreshing and simple. Through his organization, International Development Enterprises (IDE), he claims to have effectively lifted 17 million people out of poverty. According to Polak, IDE was founded and operates on the basis of four very simple observations:
The biggest reason people are poor is because they don’t have enough money.
The vast majority of people living on $1 per day earn their living from one-acre farms.
They can earn much more money by increasing productivity and finding ways to grow and sell high-value labor-intensive crops such as off-season fruits and vegetables.
To do that, they need access to very cheap small-farm irrigation, good seeds, fertilizer, and markets where they can sell their crops at a profit.
So Polak has invented and marketed affordable, efficient, and effective tools like treadle pumps and drip irrigation systems that can be afforded by the world’s poorest farmers. Couple this technology with the global expansion of microfinance, a second green revolution could be in the cards. Polak doesn’t depend on donations or subsidies for his method of change. Instead, he is able achieve scale, sustainability, and a small profit by marketing low-profit tools to millions of small-acreage farmers around the world.
In Out of Poverty, Polak also identifies three great poverty eradication myths, which I found most informative:
1) We can donate people out of poverty
This is a direct critique of Jeff Sachs, head of the UN Millennium Development Goals, who argues that poor people are too poor to invest their own money to move out of poverty. Sachs calls for rich countries to make gifts to poor countries to essentially continue the enormously ineffective trend that has gone on for over 50 years. William Easterly, in The Elusive Quest for Growth, is right in that we have spent billions of dollars in foreign aid and private philanthropy and have very little to show for it. Both myself and Polak see the Sachs plan as merely a continuation of the past 50 years; big infrastructure, irrigation, and agriculture projects with big budgets that will be controlled by the governments of developing countries, the benefits of which will very rarely reach the poor rural farmers who really need it.
2) National economic growth will end poverty
India and China have both experienced incredibly impressive GDP growth over the years. However, 360 million people in India and over 200 million people in China continue to live on less than a dollar a day. Any scholar of India can notice a development of “two Indias,” one for those who reap the benefits of growth and those who continue to be entrenched in poverty. Yes, we need growth, but all too often that growth is aimed at urban industrial growth instead of empowering small-scale, dollar a day farmers to increase their production and profits.
3) Big business will end poverty
Polak sees very little reason to think that multinational corporations will seriously invest in lifting people out of poverty. Not because they are evil or selfish, but they are just not competent in designing affordable solutions for the poorest people in the world. According to Polak, roughly 90% of innovation and design efforts are focused on catering to the richest 10% of the world’s population. Corporations simply don’t have the competence in understanding, reaching, and selling to customers who live on a dollar a day. Until the target market they are designing and innovating for changes, we will not see a major breakthrough from corporations in solving poverty.
In sum, Polak bypasses donors, governments, and big business to directly empower the millions of people who need the most help. He sells small-acreage farmers unsubsidized and high-quality tools and resources by which they can generate enough income to send their kids to school, see a doctor, be properly nourished, and partake in community activities. He is a grassroots visionary in a world where the IMF, World Bank, and UN Millennium Development Goal initiatives continue to dominate.