Jan 26, 2009

Book Review: Out of Poverty – What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail

Ninety percent of the world’s designers spend all their time working on solutions for the richest 10% of the world’s customers. A revolution in design is needed to reverse this ratio and reach the other 90%.”

Paul Polak’s book, OUT OF POVERTY – What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail, chronicling his twenty-five years in alleviating poverty, presents two reoccurring themes:

• Keep it simple (i.e., affordable)
• Know your audience

How apropos for those of us in the communications field – whenever we have a client’s problem to solve, the best approach is to break it down to its simplest form and to gain an understanding of the audience.

It is enlightening to learn that the same method can be applied to solving social problems, in this case, poverty. Mr. Polak stresses the importance of thoroughly knowing the people you want to help. Don’t assume anything, especially, do not think of poor people as a burden, but look at them as an economic opportunity. Poor people aren’t poor because they are uneducated, subjugated or sick. Quite the contrary, says Mr. Polak, they are poor because they aren’t making enough money. Although this is a simple and circular idea, it is true. To eradicate poverty anywhere in the world, the answer isn’t just how to educate, how to bring people to power, how to vaccinate children, it’s how do you help small farmers, merchants and artisans make the money they need to support their families. In one of his examples, it was finding an affordable drip system that would let one-acre farmers irrigate their land, allowing them to grow and sell more of their product. As the wealth of these farmers grew, they decided how to spend their money to better their lives – healthier food, needed medicine or education for their children. And how did Mr. Polak come to be able to develop this drip system? He talked and lived with the people he wanted to help, then worked with designers who understood the need of affordability and simplicity in the products they developed. Seems so simple and logical, so why is it that governments and multinational corporations are spending billions of dollars each year and there is still poverty in the world? Because they are looking at poor people as charity cases not as entrepreneurs and believing the answer has to be bigger to be better.

Mr. Polak’s personal journey is beautifully written and provides stories of the people he worked with and has helped. His book not only provides inspiration but also concrete ideas on how to empower the poor. His goal is to create an effective working model that will energize a revolution in solving the world’s poverty – and designers are at the forefront. By truly understanding the needs of poor people and using our creative thinking, skills and abilities as designers and problem-solvers, we can find viable, innovative solutions.
Thinking simply can do great things for the world.

About the author: Paul Polak is the founder of International Development Enterprises (IDE), which assists rural farmers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Ethiopia, India, Myanmar, Nepal, Vietnam, Zambia and Zimbabwe. He is the recipient of the Scientific American Top 50 Award for agriculture policy and the Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year award. In 2007, IDE received a $13.4 million grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Mr. Polak currently heads D-Rev: Design for the Other 90%, which helps multinationals profitably develop affordable products to help the world’s poor.

For more info on Mr. Polak, IDE and his book, visit http://www.paulpolak.com/
For more info on the exhibit inspired by Mr. Polak’s work, “Design for the Other 90%”, visit http://other90.cooperhewitt.org/

Reviewed by Deborah Plunkett

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