Amidst the wastelands of bad news spotting our planet, there are also greenbelts of good news arising from intrepid individuals who demonstrate how we can make our world a better place rather quickly. There are John Wood and Greg Mortenson, who build far-flung libraries and schools where they are critically needed. And there is Paul Polak, who founded an organization now helping millions earn their own way out of poverty.
Twenty-five years ago you would have found Paul Polak a middle-aged psychiatrist in Denver. Already he was exhibiting some unusual methods, including paying house calls on the homeless. (One of his patients was living under a loading dock.) Polak sought to understand the situations of his patients in their worlds so he could be a better doctor in his clinic.
Besides being intensely curious, he was also confident in his abilities to imagine unusual solutions and to make things happen. It seems he gained his confidence from an early age, growing up as a Czech emigrant in Canada and being a resourceful young strawberry farmer.
Field notes from the tiniest farms
In his book Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail , we read how at midlife he began traveling widely to visit the world’s poorest people, in order to have face-to-face conversations. This took him to the far corners of Nepal, India, Zambia and Zimbabwe, and into the fields, since virtually all of the poorest people scrape their existence out of tiny one-acre farms.
It’s fair to say that Polak got carried away with interviewing these people. Had he been writing a Ph.D. dissertation, his advisors might well have been satisfied with 20 interviews, but Polak conducted hundreds—and ultimately thousands—over the course of 25 years. He also read about world poverty and subsistence farming, but it was his fieldwork that molded his ideas.
“I have learned more from talking with these poor farmers than from any other thing I have done in my life,” he writes. “Everything I have to say in this book depends almost totally on having interviewed three thousand poor farm families….”
To say Paul Polak has a certain understanding of the world’s tiny farms is to say Tiger Woods has a certain understanding of golf courses.
Cultivating the seeds of entrepreneurship
What Polak has concluded from his listening labors seems at once obvious and also profound: Most extremely poor people in the world don’t make enough money on their farms. They need to change the ways they farm, adopting such tactics as growing high- value, labor-intensive crops in the off season, which can be done with affordable irrigation technology, seeds and fertilizer.
Confronted with a jarring disconnect between what traditional aid efforts have attempted and what poor farmers say they actually need, Polak pitchforks the myth that it is possible to donate people out of poverty. What works is unleashing the poor farmers’ own entrepreneurial abilities, which they generally have in good supply. What works is selling them tools they can afford and helping them use these tools to earn their own wealth.
The idea that companies should earn money selling products to the world’s poor outrages some people in aid organizations, Polak admits. But if you view the poorest people as customers, your perspective changes. Good companies listen hard to what customers have to say. While these customers have little money to spend, they do have some, and there are hundreds of millions of such customers ready to buy things that make economic sense to them.
Listen hard to one-acre farmers and you’ll hear they need inexpensive water management. Polak’s organization has enabled the purchase of millions of cheap treadle pumps (that the farmers can pedal), crude but effective water storage systems, and shockingly cheap drip irrigation tubes that waste nary a drop while suckling plump vegetables.
Once the poorest start making some money, it’s interesting how they spend it. Polak shows how income earned by Nepalese farmers first was used to purchase food, then invested back into agricultural production, and then allocated to the education of their children. Education beat out clothing, festivals, home improvement and even medicine.
30 million on a dollar a day
Like John Wood’s Room to Read foundation, Polak’s International Development Enterprises focuses on quantifiable results. This has been instrumental in its winning its second major grant from the Gates Foundation earlier this year, for $27 million. IDE has a specific goal of ending the poverty of 30 million dollar-a-day families by 2020.
In 2007 the restless Polak launched a second organization, D-Rev, to focus on designing products for the ninety percent of the world’s population neglected by most businesses and, therefore, most designers.
Paul Polak has taken charge of his education as few have. At a point in life when his peers would typically spend more time with other well-heeled professionals on verdant golf courses, Polak spent his time in the company of poor farmers on parched soil, listening to them explain how they needed an inexpensive way to store monsoon water.
After reading his book and watching his interviews, I see a man wealthy in experience. A man with an inner glow and an impish grin who enjoys being a contrarian, fortified with the confidence of knowing he’s on the right path.
I’d very much like to hear your thoughts on this man who has traveled such an unusual journey. Just click on the Comments link below. (If you’re reading this as an email, click here and you'll connect to Comments).