"If you're going to come up with a practical solution to any
problem," Paul Polak observes, "you have to first talk to the people
who have the problem and listen to what they have to say. So that's
what I did."
Psychiatrist Paul Polak was drawn to the problem of
poverty while working with poor patients, and began his efforts in
international development by talking with subsistence farmers in
Bangladesh. They are among the world's one billion people who live in
extreme poverty, which the World Bank defines as earning one dollar a
day or less.
Polak has interviewed more than 3000 of these
poor farmers, and notes, "They represent the vast majority of
dollar-a-day people in the world. And everything we've done comes from
what we learned from them."
One important lesson was
that poor farmers need better tools to make their farms more efficient,
so Polak established a non-profit organization called International
Development Enterprises, or IDE, to develop and market cheap
technologies. They include a drip irrigation system that uses plastic
bags, tubes and the power of gravity.
produces a foot-powered pump, or treadle pump, for accessing ground
water, which allows poor farmers to grow cash crops in the dry season,
when they bring higher prices. He says the system quickly pays for
itself. "It costs $8. Installed on a tube well, it costs $25. And when
a farmer makes an investment, maybe part of that is borrowed, the
average net return is $100 dollars after expenses in the first year."
IDE distributes the pumps through local businesses, providing an income for those who sell and install the devices.
embraces a business model, and in addition to his non-profit work, has
started a profit-making business to design and sell simple, practical
devices in the developing world. He says poor farmers should be
respected as business partners, not viewed as objects of charity, as
they often are.
"A great deal of development aid is delivered
as a gift," he says. "It's very clear from my experience that you can't
donate people out of poverty. Poor people themselves have to invest
their own time and money."
Polak's organization has
sold one and a half million treadle pumps in Bangladesh alone. From
Cambodia to Somalia, IDE sells simple drip irrigation systems and
low-cost donkey carts. Polak says demand for these low-tech devices is
immense, noting that there are 450 million farms of under two hectares
in the world, but most agricultural tools and products are geared to
Polak has outlined his insights in a book called
Out of Poverty, and it's required reading at the California Institute
of Technology, where engineering professor Ken Pickar teaches a course
on design for the developing world. Inspired in part by Polak, Pickar's
class has teamed up with industrial design students from Landivar
University in Guatemala to make products for poor villagers in that
Central American country.
"The most successful one
we've had recently has been a wheelchair which has been made by carving
up bicycles," he reports. "They're actually able to form a very
inexpensive sturdy wheelchair appropriate for a nation where people
live on roads which are not very good, and where wheelchair substitutes
right now in rural areas are basically putting people in a wheelbarrow,
or allowing them to crawl through the dirt."
graduates have set up a non-profit company to manufacture and
distribute the wheelchairs.
Pickar says his students look to
Polak for inspiration, not to government or international agencies, as
they tackle the problem of poverty in the developing world. "In
development, most exercises of this nature are just that, they're
exercises. They don't really result in any lasting value." He admits
they may raise money and help donors feel good about themselves, but
adds, "in terms of significantly improving the lot of people whose lot
needs to be improved, the numbers of really successful folks, you can
count on the fingers of certainly less than two hands. So when a guy is
successful, you have to say, well, maybe he's saying something we
should all listen to."
Pickar and his students are listening to
Paul Polak. So are students in similar classroom programs at Stanford
University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. And some
graduates from each school have followed Polak's lead in designing
products to improve the lives of the poor in developing countries.