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Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail (BK Currents Book) Hardcover – February 1, 2008

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Editorial Reviews


""Out of Poverty by Paul Polak, offers optimism. Optimism not just for those fighting poverty and those fighting to get out of it, but for any company interested in a basically untapped 1 billion-person market."" -- Jessie Scanlon ""February 22, 2008; BusinessWeek""

From the Publisher


My fifteen-month-old grandson, Ethan, has fallen in love with a neighbor's driveway. It sits two houses down from where he lives in Sebastopol, California, and it seems to overflow with small, multi - colored stones. He stops there when I take him for a walk, and then he refuses to leave. He picks up a handful of stones and inspects each one carefully. He places them one after another in my hand, watching intently, and I give them back to him one by one until his hand is full again. I don't know who has given him the job of turning every little stone over and over in his hand until he understands its very essence, but that's the job he has accepted, and he's not leaving until it's done. He plops down on his butt and cuffs the stones into a pile, looks at me, and knocks it down and giggles. He can keep this up for hours, and if I pick him up to take him home, he cries. His playful curiosity is infectious, and I think I must have inherited a lot of genes from Ethan, because I operate just as he does. I live to play and to satisfy my curiosity.

For the past twenty-five years, two questions have kept my curiosity aroused: What makes poor people poor? And what can they do about their poverty?

Because of these infernal questions, I've dozed off during hundreds of long jeep rides with good companions over dusty, potholed roads. I've had thousands of conversations with one-acre farmers with dirt on their hands. We've walked along their patches of ten-foot-high black pepper vines in the central hills of Vietnam beside jungle permanently scarred by Agent Orange. We've strolled together through their scattered quarter-acre plots in the drab brown winter plains of the Gangetic delta in Uttar Pradesh, and they have offered me more cups of steaming tea than my seventy-three-year-old kidneys can take. I love discovering new things from people nobody else ever seems to listen to, and I love talking them into trying out some of the crazy ideas that we come up with together. I have learned more from talking with these poor farmers than from any other thing I have done in my life.

This book will tell their story and describe some of the things these people have taught me. It will tell the story of Krishna Bahadur Thapa and his family, and of how they moved from barely surviving on less than a dollar a day to earning forty-eight hundred dollars a year from their two-acre farm in the hills of Nepal. I tell many stories like Baha - dur's in this book, and I hope that each one of them satisfies another small bit of your curiosity about how people who are extremely poor live their lives and dream their dreams. Best of all, what I learned from these people has been put to work in straightforward strategies that millions of other poor people have used to end their poverty forever.

Each of the practical solutions to poverty I describe is obvious and direct. For example, since 800 million of the people whose families survive on less than a dollar a day earn their living from small farms, why not start by looking for ways they can make more money from farming? And since these farmers work for less than a dollar a day, why not look for ways they can take advantage of their remarkably low labor rates by growing high-value, labor-intensive cash crops and selling them at the time of year when these crops will fetch the highest prices? If it is true that common sense is not really common, and that seeing and doing the obvious are even less so, then some of the conclusions I draw from my conversations with poor people will surprise you: they certainly fly in the face of conventional theory and practice in the development field.

I hate books about poverty that make you feel guilty, as well as dry, academic ones that put you to sleep. Working to alleviate poverty is a lively, exciting field capable of generating new hope and inspiration, not feelings of gloom and doom. Learning the truth about poverty generates disruptive innovations capable of enriching the lives of rich people even more than those of poor people.

The first section of the book explains how I became curious about poverty, describes the process I learned for finding creative solutions to just about any major social problem, and challenges the three great poverty eradication myths that have inhibited doing the obvious to end poverty.

The next section, Chapters 3 to 8, describes what many small-acreage farmers have taught me, a practical approach capable of ending the poverty of some 800 million of the world's dollar-a-day people. For poor people themselves, there is little doubt that the single most important step they can take to move out of poverty is to learn how to make more money. The way to do it is through grassroots enterprises --just about all of the poor are already tough, stubborn, survival entrepreneurs--and they have to find ways to make their enterprises more profitable. For small-farm enterprises, the path to new wealth lies in growing market-centered, high-value, labor-intensive cash crops. To accomplish this, poor farmers need access to affordable irrigation, a new generation of farming methods and inputs customized to fit tiny farms, the creation of vibrant new markets that bring them the seeds and fertilizers they need, and open access to markets where smallacreage farmers can sell their products at a profit. This range of new products and services for poor customers can only be created by a revolution in current design practice, based on the ruthless pursuit of affordability. Chapter 9 describes how the principles discussed in the earlier chapters can be applied to helping poor people living in urban slums and on the sidewalks of cities in developing countries.

In the wrap-up section, Chapter 10 describes the central role poverty plays in most of the problems facing planet Earth; Chapter 11 describes what donors, governments, universities, research institutions, and the rest of us can do to end poverty; and Chapter 12 tells how Bahadur and his family finally moved out of poverty.

My hope is that you will come away from reading this book energized and inspired. There is much to be done.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 232 pages
  • Publisher: Berrett-Koehler Publishers (February 1, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1576754499
  • ISBN-13: 978-1576754498
  • Product Dimensions: 6.4 x 0.9 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (41 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #573,575 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Paul Polak is founder of Colorado-based non-profits International Development enterprises (IDe) and D-Rev: Design for the Other 90% For the past 25 years, Paul has worked with thousands of farmers in countries around the world'including Bangladesh, India, Cambodia, ethiopia, Maynmar, Nepal, vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe'to help design and produce low-cost, income generating products that have already moved 17 million people out of poverty.

Before establishing IDE in 1981, Paul practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. to better understand the
environments influencing his patients, Paul would visit their homes and workplaces. After a trip he
made to Bangladesh, he was inspired to use the skills he had honed while working with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to serve the 800 million people living on a dollar a day around the world. employing the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist, Paul spent time 'walking with farmers through their one-acre farms and enjoying a cup of tea with their families, sitting on a stool in front of their thatched-roof mud-and-wattle homes.'

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

20 of 21 people found the following review helpful By E. Mandell on March 17, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Polak comes from a very practical, farmer-focused perspective that acknowledges the broader poverty debate but puts a premium on what the farmer wants and needs, and focuses on market-based products and solutions that help farmers get out of poverty. The drip irrigation systems, treadle pumps, water storage and other products described in the book are the definition of demand-driven and are offered at prices farmers can afford and in ways that make money for those providing the products. All of the solutions in the book are offered through markets, and always take into account scalability and sustainability (acknowledging the need for some subsidy or other financing mechanism up front to prove the case).

The power of Polak's arguments are in the examples that he weaves throughout the book. (His skepticism of "the experts" comes through in some of the examples in helpful ways as well). After having read a number of the current development thinkers, I would recommend this book above the others for its ability to start with the needs of the poor farmer, highlight solutions, explain why they are sustainable through markets, and issue a challenge to development professionals and product designers around the world for how to make money while also serving the needs of the poor who represent a large and untapped market.

The book made me want to go out and start a business that serves such large unmet needs. I highly recommend the book - a good read and a great, practical, down-to-earth reminder of what matters to people who live on less than $1/day -- affordability and practical use.
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26 of 30 people found the following review helpful By Karin Hibma on January 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
In July 2005, we met Dr. Paul Polak at the first Aspen Leadership Summit and began to understand his insights and work of twenty-five years. He described "The Four Revolutions Needed to End Poverty" in a way that inspired us as designers and problem-solvers:

"I believe that nothing less than revolutions in water, agriculture, markets, and design are needed. All four are doable and practical, and I'm committed to making them happen before I die.

How do we change how the world thinks and acts about dollar-a-day poverty? I want to make three things happen:

Change the way design is taught in the west.

Change the way design is taught in developing countries.

Create a platform for 10,000 of the world's best designers to address the practical problems of the other 90% of the world's customers."

This delightful book is the beginning of finding ways for everyone to jump in as major players, in a way that fits with their dreams. It's an education, an insightful and inspiring process and a great opportunity for us all.
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11 of 12 people found the following review helpful By Michael P. Cronan on January 30, 2008
Format: Hardcover
Paul Polack's Out of Poverty is a straightforward and entertaining presentation of his outstanding discoveries in ending dollar-a-day poverty throughout the developing world. Paul's work over the past twenty-five years has helped millions of farming families invest in their own futures and this book traces his journeys and the profound understandings that became clear to him along the way. His process is revolutionary yet downright practical and simple to implement, and astonishingly effective. It was fascinating to learn how charity can actually create greater need and it is delightfully reassuring to see that his perspectives are launching a new class of thinking in Design,the creation of markets and the eradication of poverty.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful By JustSomeDude on May 8, 2008
Format: Hardcover
An inspiring book that makes one think about the greater good that can come out of poverty eradication & how we can all be a part of it.


1. Author does not cover how he made the transition from being a psychiatrist to creating IDE. This makes it harder to understand how one can participate in this cause, even if one wanted to.

2. While the book is a great food for thought, it seems to be more focused on the destination rather than the journey. At times, it reads more like a journal which may be intentional, but this inconsistency gives the reader, a rather half baked impression.

3. Author's disagreement with major organizations such as the UN feel like a rant at times, as he only criticizes them without putting forth any concrete suggestions for bigger issues such as infrastructure (development of roads, bridges, dam development, power generation, healthcare & educational programs).

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11 of 14 people found the following review helpful By Laura June on April 14, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I felt that Polak really stretched to fill the 200 pages of this book. Many of the points he made were repeated in six different places unnecessarily. I would have enjoyed hearing more in-depth case studies of some of those farmers he has worked with or even of the successful organizations he has created. While his overall point was good, this book failed to deliver it impactfully.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Dr. Bojan Tunguz HALL OF FAMETOP 100 REVIEWER on December 29, 2014
Format: Paperback
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.
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