Prescriptions for helping poor people help themselves
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
LONDON: He had two wives, three children and two acres of land scattered in the hills of Nepal. One acre produced maize, pulses and monsoon vegetables to feed them, and the other monsoon rice. In good years they made $100 by selling surplus rice, but in bad ones they ran out of food before the monsoon harvest. Like 800 million other people in the world, Krishna Bahadur Thapa and his family had less than $1 a day to live on. How could they escape from poverty?
That was in 2001, and their fortunes have since been transformed. Installing a cheap irrigation system enabled them to grow cash crops, like cucumbers and cauliflowers. They could then afford to buy fertilizer, better seeds, livestock and, eventually, more land to grow oranges. Both of Bahadur’s wives are illiterate, but his grandchildren can stay on at school for as long as they wish. Their expectations of life are very different from their grandfather’s thanks to his hard work, and someone else’s design ingenuity.
The story of the Bahadur family is told in “Out of Poverty,” a book by the American inventor and entrepreneur Paul Polak. As founder of the nonprofit organization International Development Enterprises, Polak has spent the last 25 years helping people, particularly poor farmers in developing countries, to move out of poverty. He describes his experiences and the lessons learned in his book, as well as prescribing his formula for ending poverty, which boils down to helping poor people to help themselves, with design playing an important supporting role in their self-improvement. Polak comes across as opinionated and occasionally cranky, as you would expect from a man who describes himself as “a troublemaker”; but he is also knowledgeable, pragmatic and determined to improve the lives of millions of poor farmers.