Sunday, March 02, 2008

Book Review: Out of Poverty

Revolutionary [rev·o·lu·tion·ar·y]:
1. Marked by or resulting in radical change (American Heritage Dictionary)
2. Outside or beyond established procedure (
3. Paul Polak and his book Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail

How can concepts so simple and so obvious be so revolutionary? Paul Polak has often wondered the same thing over the past 25 years as he has challenged the status quo to bring common sense solutions to a fraction of the 1.1 billion humans who struggle to survive on less than $1 per day. International Development Enterprises (IDE), the Colorado-based non-profit organization that Polak founded, has helped over 17 million people out of dollar-a-day poverty since 1981. However, despite IDE's inspiring results to-date, much more needs to be done on a variety of fronts to eradicate extreme global poverty.

To put a human face on global poverty and IDE's work, Polak weaves the story of Nepalese farmer Krishna Bahadur Thapa throughout the book. Using IDE's affordable micro-irrigation technologies, Thapa increased his income from less than $1/day to $4,800 per year. With this increased income, he has been able to provide the necessities of life for his family. See below for a breakdown of how small-acreage farmers in one Nepalese village invest the new income they earn from growing vegetables:
  • 38% Additional food to meet family's needs
  • 17% Reinvested in agricultural production
  • 13% Education
  • 9% Clothing
  • 8% Festivals
  • 7% Home Improvements
  • 6% Medicine
  • 2% Savings
Polak provides numerous practical lists to help the reader understand global poverty and methods to combat it. The first such list is found on page 10 and includes 4 key things Polak has learned from talking to hundreds of poor people throughout the world:
  1. The biggest reason most poor people are poor is because they don't have enough money.
  2. Most of the extremely poor people in the world earn their living now from one-acre farms.
  3. They can earn much more money by finding ways to grow and sell high-value labor-intensive crops such as off-season fruits and vegetables.
  4. To do that, they need access to very cheap small-farm irrigation, good seeds, and fertilizer, and markets where they can sell their crops at a profit.
As he shares lists such as the one above, Polak is embarrassed by the simplicity of his advice. Nevertheless, he is convinced that people have generally overlooked the obvious when it comes to poverty alleviation and international development. Indeed, his next list, 12 Steps to Practical Problem Solving, starts with (1) Go to where the action is, and (2) Talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they say. Revolutionary ideas? They shouldn't be. Universally followed? Certainly not. Polak's other lists include The 3 Great Poverty Eradication Myths, Guidelines for Affordable Design, Practical Things You Can Do to End Poverty, and many others.

After reading Out of Poverty, I am planning an international field trip so I can speak with people who are living in dollar-a-day poverty. I plan to go to where the action is, as Paul encourages us all to do. I don't yet know how I'm going to help a million people out of $1-a-day poverty, as I set a goal to do nearly two months ago, but Polak's advice will help me on the journey. Out of Poverty joins Mountains Beyond Mountains and Leaving Microsoft to Change the World as the books (other than scripture) that have been most influential in shaping my life's work.

Let the revolution begin.


Salame Wants said...

Didi you go?

Salame Wants said...


I will be going in feb 2015. Paul farmer was initially who i had heard of and am currently reading paul polak's book. Would like to hear where youve been since this post? Any follow through?