Polak, Paul. Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler, 2008. Pp. xi + 232. Illus. Hardcover, $18.45.
Paul Polak asks: “What makes poor people poor? And what can be done about their poverty?” One part of the answer is appropriate agricultural technology. A Nepalese farmer answered the question “Why are you poor?” with “I am poor because I have not found a way to earn more money.” This farmer moved out of poverty when he gained access to drip-irrigation and grew cucumbers, which he sold out-of-season. Another story describes a farmer in Zambia who bought a treadle pump, irrigated a full acre, and doubled his income. Engineering and entrepreneurship get equal attention. The “Don’t bother” trilogy gives some of the flavor of the book: 1) If you haven’t had a good conversation with at least twenty-five poor people before you start designing, don’t bother. 2) If what you design won’t at least pay for itself in the first year, don’t bother. 3) If you don’t think you can sell at least a million units at an unsubsidized price to poor customers after the design process is completed, don’t bother. Some design challenges presented not related to irrigation are: 1) a $15 scythe for harvesting rice, corn, and wheat; 2) $1500 and a $5000 steam distillation units for essential oils; 3) a $50 gasifier for generating even heat; 4) low-cost solar dryers to dry tomatoes and banana chips for high-end markets. Some readers may have seen the “Design for the Other 90%” exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in New York. The exhibit was based on Polak’s ideas. Polak seems to have had much success with his approach, and his ideas seem entirely reasonable, although not fashionable in the “Development” community. A friend from the business world said he found the ideas sensible and comfortable. Needless to say, there is much inspiration here for engineers who want to change the world. I admired Out of Poverty very much.