One of my favorite nonfiction books is Small Is Beautiful. I never thought I would find a book that I liked as much as that one for how to reduce poverty, but Small Is Beautiful has now been replaced by Paul Polak's Out of Poverty as a helpful guide for poverty elimination.
I was drawn to the book by Susan Harrow's video of a talk by Dr. Polak, and I attended a recent presentation he made at MIT to learn more. Though trained as a psychiatrist, Dr. Polak appears to have been a thoughtful listener before he began to treat patients. That sincere interest in understanding the circumstances and perceptions of others has served him well in understanding the real and mental barriers that keep rural poor people who live on less than a dollar a day in income from lifting themselves out of poverty.
In Out of Poverty, Dr. Polak summarizes what he has learned from in-depth conversations with over 3,000 poor people and in attempting to design and deliver products and services that would help them to earn more money from their existing resources. A key lesson that readers will learn is that each person's situation is different, and you cannot impose solutions from above. Instead, you should seek to take advantage of the hard work of poor people and their determination to survive and thrive (if possible).
His overall model is to help rural poor (who are most of the poorest of the poor in the world) to grow high-priced items (such as out-of-season vegetables and fruits) that require lots of labor on tiny plots of land (scattered holdings that total an acre or less for a family). While the concept is simple, turning that concept into reality isn't. Farmers need to lift, store, and ration water carefully for dry seasons; avoid excess water in wet seasons; learn how to handle the new crops; find markets for what they produce; and be able to afford the investments required. Much of the book involves a single case history of a Nepalese farmer, Krishna Bahadur Thapa, and his family who attempt to follow this route.
For poor people who live in slums, Dr. Polak has a parallel vision: Manufacture high quality items that wealthy people will want to purchase that require lots of low-cost labor. Here again, a lot of work needs to precede the solution: customers found, designs created, standards set, training provided, small factories established, suppliers qualified, financing made available, and market knowledge developed to shift into new opportunities.
Dr. Polak also describes his past work with International Development Enterprises to design and deliver very low-cost treadle water pumps, drip irrigation systems, and water storage containers. He outlines his plans for a new organization, D-REV, which aims to increase the availability of designers and designs for solving the most pressing economic problems of the poorest people. The book outlines what some of those design needs are.
For those who prefer conventional solutions such as massive international aid to developing countries, charity, extending the green revolution, advancing technology, and encouraging major corporations, Dr. Polak has bad news. Those efforts haven't worked, and they aren't likely to start working now. He also describes the inevitable failures of even the most humanely intended and thorough forms of assistance.
Affordability of new options is the key. Poor people need to spend very little (ideally just a tiny bit more than they do now) to get a lot more income so that they get their money back in a few months. This might mean buying a treadle pump that will only last two years. But if it pays back in three months, they can afford to buy a better one in two years.
These people are so poor that they cannot afford a drought or a flood that wipes out a crop year. As a result, they will not commit all of their scarce resources to an innovation. Even a good innovation will do them no good in a flood. As a result, they will starve or have to become beggars.
If you really want to understand how you can help poor people, read and follow the advice in this book. Poor people will be glad that you decided to take the time to listen and act appropriately.
I am not really someone who gets excited about books on poverty, poverty alleviation, and “social” work in general. Not out of callousness or unconcern with those affected by these issues. I just find most writing on this subject very intellectually shallow, and filled with do-good rhetoric without any concrete realizable effects. In fact, the total lack of success of all well-meaning and over bloated poverty reduction programs, both in the West and the Third World, have made me a bit cynical about the prospects of investing any measure of intellectual effort into trying to understand these problems and appreciate the solutions that really work. So with all that in mind, I was quite amazed with how interesting, educational and inspiring “Out of Poverty” turned out to be.
There are two main features of the book “Out of Poverty” that make it stand out compared to all the other poverty and poverty relief accounts that I’ve come across. The first one is that this is a very hands-on down-to-earth approach to understanding and working with poor people. The author is not a first-world think tank wonk who spends most of his time immersed in the library of some ivory tower institution. He spent a considerable amount of time talking to, and most importantly listening to poor people from around the world. Every page of this book exudes the sense of trust that people who are most affected by poverty are the ones who understand their predicament the best and are able to provide the best insight for the possible solutions to their problems. Which brings me to the second distinguishing feature of this book: its unwavering belief in the enterprising spirit of every human being. There is no stronger antidote to the patronizing cynicism that permeates thinking and discussion of the global poverty than reading this book. The author gives examples, in page after page, of the ingenuity and willingness to try new things exhibited by the small farm owners from all corners of the world. This is a welcome and refreshing alternative to the often bleak outlook that many of the World organizations and institutions often exhibit when it comes to actually believing in ability of the poor to uplift themselves out of poverty by the dint of their own efforts.
The book is not without its shortcomings. It feels repetitive and overly focused on just a few topics and products that the author is intimately familiar with (treadle pumps and drip irrigation). There are a few attempts to extend insights from these very successful programs to dealing with poverty in other settings, but they seem naive and not well thought out. (Most of the poorest of the poor in the West have some social and psychological issues that would make them inadequate candidates for an enterprising approach to wealth creation.) Nonetheless, I still think that the insights gleaned from this book are very valuable and an important step in the right direction even for those situations.