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Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail (BK Currents Book) Hardcover – February 1, 2008
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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.
Top customer reviews
To those who argue that Polak is anti-charity, or that he believes the free market will solve anything: you didn't read the book carefully as there no fewer than three places where the author admits that government and charity are necessary in the fight against poverty. This book is titled "when traditional approaches fail" - not " traditional approaches should be completely abandoned." Sure, Polak can get pretty cavalier when characterizing his opponents, and it's a weakness of the book, but it doesn't detract from the validity if his argument, nor does he spend the book trashing NGOs and the like.
Read this if you have the time and are genuinely interested in design for the developing world. Reading about treadle pumps and drip irrigation is really boring if you're not concerned with the repercussions.
One of the big unanswered questions - how to achieve the scalability needed to eradicate poverty - is only touched on briefly in the final pages when Polak dismisses detractors that say off-season growing by larger numbers will bring down prices by countering that the demand will increase as income increases among the poor. But if the only new people who have money to create the demand are growing the vegetables, why would they buy them? I would love to read an economist's critique of Polak's ideas.
Regardless of whether the book is amazing or not, everyone should at least go and find out about Paul Polak, his ideas, his work, and his detractors.
The problem with the book is that it is very repetitive. Nearly same sentences repeat various times throughout the book, sometimes separated only by a couple of pages. If the editor had simply removed the repetition and released a slimmer book, the flow would have been much better. Despite this problem it's a book worth reading.
A few highlights...
Poor people are poor because they don't have enough money
Kind of obvious ... it's what the poor tell you when you ask them ... but Polak argues that the "poverty experts" have much more complicated answers which is why they are so often distracted from actually helping the poor become not poor. Poverty experts argue that the poor are poor because (a) they don't have power; (b) they are uneducated; (c) they get sick/disease too often; (d) they need clean water; (e) they need better seeds/fertilizer (or no fertilizer); etc. etc. etc. and the granddaddy of all ... they need ALL of these things before they can have any hope of moving out of poverty. Polak argues that "finding a practical solution requires a different strategy ... finding the simplest single `lever' capable of producing the biggest positive result." The answer is - increasing income.
#1 Way for Small Farmers to Earn More Money
Polak believes that growing high-value vegetables, fruits and herbs as a cash crop during the dry season using drip irrigation is the #1 opportunity for small one-acre farmers (and even "landless" people) to earn upwards of $500/year which is enough to start them on the positive cycle towards getting out of < $1/day poverty. IDE has focused R&D on building a drip and sprinkler irrigation products affordable and sturdy enough for these farmers. Combining this with their affordable treadle pumps and a few other inventions to assist with water movement and storage, provides a scalable, practical solution.
See my full review: [...]
Most recent customer reviews
I recommend this book for those who wish to do something productive and resourceful with their time for...Read more