Abigail Keene-Babcock

Book Review: Paul Polak’s Out of Poverty

Out of PovertySo far, 2008 has been a great year in terms of attention to BoP and market-based solutions to poverty. Out of Poverty, a new book by Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE), just hit the shelves this month and will certainly add to this momentum. IDE’s recent receipt of a $27 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation only makes Polak’s book timelier, as widespread recognition grows for his leadership role in the BoP space and his innovative design solutions (including the treadle pump and micro-drip irrigation) that have increased the incomes of over 2.5 million dollar-a-day families living in rural areas and subsisting from small farms.

I’ve now had the opportunity to read through Out of Poverty, and am impressed that the book truly reflects the down to earth style and substance of Polak and his work. In fact, what’s most striking about Polak’s approach to attacking poverty is its straightforward, flexible, and results-based orientation.

The book covers a lot of ground quickly, challenging leading development theorists (Jeff Sachs, Bill Easterly, and even C.K. Prahalad), explaining why markets are not serving the poor, and demonstrating, piece by piece, why for-profit mechanisms have and will continue to trump charity in terms of lifting people out of poverty.On NextBillion.net, we have chronicled these arguments many times before, but I was pleasantly surprised at Polak’s ability to connect them, on the level of tomatoes and cucumbers, with the nuts and bolts of his years spent, literally, in the field. Out of Poverty strikes a good balance between economic calculations and human anecdotes, staying true to the author’s principal beliefs that one must “go to where the action is” and “talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they say,” while also pursuing only approaches that “can reach at least a million people and make their lives measurably better.”

The book is certainly worth a read, and I hope to see it appear on the development academics’ reading lists soon. Out of Poverty gets beyond the fractious discussions of “what’s gone wrong?” or “which approach is right?” and offers a welcome dose of common sense for getting people out of poverty, quickly and permanently.