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

6 Star Special, Peace, Poverty, & Middle Class
Amazon Page
Amazon Page

5.0 out of 5 stars Six Star Special

September 20, 2009
Paul Polack
This book is a “beyond five stars” book and will be so rated at Phi Beta Iota, the Public Intelligence Blog where I can do things Amazon does not provide for, including reader access to my 1400+ non-fiction reviews via any of 100 different categories.

This single man, this author, has lifted 17 million people out of poverty by focusing on the needs of the one-acre and below subsistence farmer living on $1 a day. I get goose-bumps just thinking about the magnitude of both the accomplishment, and the implications of the accomplishment.


Early on he talks about “Open Eyes” and I am adding this to my “Open Everything” presentation. I am completely absorbed by both his twelve-step description of achieving human to human communications and understanding of what is needed by the bottom billion, and his concise, respectful, but devastatingly brutal description of all of the international assistance and donor managers as being largely cut off from reality, persisting in offering HOME country solutions without even understanding the HOST country problems. I a most impressed that this book and the thirty years invested by the author in this work is based on LISTENING to 3,000 poor farming families.

Two huge bottom lines permeate the book:

1) COST MATTERS. Subsistence farmers can afford $2-50 dollars depending on how it can visibly be seen as contributing to their getting a return on investment.

2) MONEY WORKS. The author is politely brutal in observing that the UN Millenium Goals are unachievable as things now stand for the simple reason that they try to impose solutions by sector rather than focusing on the common denominator for achieving all of the UN Millineum Goals: increase subsistence wages from $1 to $3, $4, $5 dollars a day, and the beneficiaries, who are VERY intelligent, VERY creative, VERY hard-working, make their own logical choices and invest quickly in education, health, sanitation, etc.

The author focuses early on the myths of poverty, such as the myth that one can donate the world out of poverty. or that big business will eventually turn its attention to the lower end of the marketplace. While the author is critical of C. K. Prahalad and the book that made me into “intelligence officer to the poor,” I speak of course of The Fortune at the Bottom of the Pyramid: Eradicating Poverty Through Profits, he does attend to the work and I am happy to blend the best from both of them.

The author is most compelling in observing that the poorest of the poor have what Buckminster Fuller would call TIME-ENERGY that can be brought to bear at a cost of 5 to 10 cents on the hour (it takes ten minutes to earn a dollar in the USA, two days to earn a dollar in Bangladesh). His goal is to reach 500 million FAMILIES with low cost pumps, low cost latrines, low cost drip irrigation etc.

On page 52 he quotes someone else on the matter of the poor being poor in part because they have no voice in the circles of power, and I start thinking CISCO-NOKIA and make a list: voice; access, education (one cell call at a time, a concept pioneered by the Earth Intelligence Network), health information, certification as an organic producer, information about meeting quality stnadards for wholesalers, even the transfer of money TO the cell phone.

Three words recur: AFFORDABILITY, MINIATURIZATION, and EXPANDABLE. Affordable to someone who makes $1 a day; small enough to be effective on a courtyard plot or land, a rooftop garden, or a quarter acre plot; and easily expandable so that profit and success can go outwards from the kernel.

The author points out that only 1% of all farming today is using drip irrigation, and that if we could reach the billion extreme poor that do not, this would be a double-win.

He also focused on water storage, including through the direction of monsoon waters into wells and thus back into the aquifer, and I am hugely impressed that he cites a Hindu religious organization that made this one their missions and it worked–in the same country, India, where aquifers have been dropping a meter a year.

I learn the landless are not actually landless–from rooftop to side yard to “open land” they can earn money if given the tools and knowledge. Diluted urine can be a substitute for fertilizer. Family wash water can go into irrigation.

He lists the following obstacles, and after each one I enter “Nokia” for two reasons: one, I know Nokia is thinking about this, and two, I believe Nokia needs to make the leap from one call at a time to World Brain.

Lack of Hope — Nokia

Clouded Vision — Nokia

No Intellectual Property Protection — Nokia

Subsidies Killing Innovation — Nokia

Corruption — Expose it via Nokia

Isolation — Nokia

Lack of Information — NOKIA

Poor Access to Credit — Nokia

The author provides a RIVETING description of all that he and his partners did to education millions, including traveling entertainment troupes and a full-length movie with top Bangladesh actors featuring the treadle pump as a persistent sub-plot.

He spends time on low end transport including motorcycle trailers, Chinese rototiller trailers, donkey carts, and richshaw vans, and in passing notes that 1 billion people are out there who would pay $2 for a pair of corrective glasses, in the case of a farmer, vital to know what seed is in what package.

He discussed value-added processing, e.g. drying and husking nuts at the point of pick-up, which reduces transport volume and cost as well as rot damage.

Chapter 9 focuses on slums as enterprise zones and there is a wealth of information here, enough to inspire an entire new cadre of poverty-eradication entrepreneurs.

On page 186 he notes the two major flaws of all international development assistance has been first, going through (corrupt and ineffective) governments; and second lack of metrics to assure productive outcomes. This validates the Peer to Peer giving initiatives that are emerging, and I just think to myself that what we really need is a Global Range of Needs Table that is universal and can connect the billion rich (80% of whom do not give to organized charities) directly with the five billion poor, to include ad hoc team giving (Tanzanian farmer needs part for 1950’s Rumanian water pump; tourist load need; Rumanian engineer offers up part; German pays for FedEx, NGO worker agrees to receive and deliver and post completion photo).

The book gains from the interweaving of a single family as a case study, experiencing a ten fold increase in annual income over the course of years (more than three, less than a decade).

The conclusion is brilliant and effective, and in particular related the eradication of poverty to each of the other major goals (climate change, biodiversity, global pandemic, education). There is no question but that the UN High Level Panel got it right in making Poverty the number one high-level threat to humanity, and this author’s work is priceless in offering up a proven solution and proven route to eradicating poverty.

I put the book down thinking to myself, “End the Fed, End the UN, End Big Government.” It is now very clear that these large organizations do not adapt, do not scale, and are too easily corrupted. Instead, peer to peer, full disclosure and transparency, and bottom up solutions appear to be needed if we are to evolve beyond our current paradigm of Big Government, Banks Too Big to Fail, and Rule By Secrecy/Empire Over Democracy. Books like Human Scale need to come to the fore, along with the failing grade for big books such as Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America and The Next Catastrophe: Reducing Our Vulnerabilities to Natural, Industrial, and Terrorist Disasters

One final note: this author appears to have led a design revolution and I learn from this that we not only need to be focused on sustainable design for the 10% at the top, but on affordable, minuaturizable, extendible design for the other 90%. This man, this author is nothing less than a superb candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize, easily the equal of the micro-credit czar whom I admire along with so many others, author of, among other books, Banker To The Poor: Micro-Lending and the Battle Against World Poverty.

There are other books that I respect in this area, including The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries are Failing and What Can Be Done About It and The Real Environmental Crisis: Why Poverty, Not Affluence, Is the Environment’s Number One Enemy as well as Pedagogy of the Oppressed. See the Public Intelligence Blog for easy access to all of my reviews in sortable searchable connected form.

A note of praise for Berrett-Koehler Publishers, whose endnote speaks to their being dedicated to Creating a World that Works for All (this is not an original phrase, but it is a good one–see for instance Tom Atlee’s The Tao of Democracy: Using Co-Intelligence to Create a World That Works for All and the speak of “Opening Up New Spaces.” I am impressed and will be more alert to their offerings in the future, as I am with New Society Books and Wharton Publishing.

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