Posted by: beansai | October 14, 2008

Blog Action Day 2008: Poverty

     As part of Blog Action Day’s poverty campaign, myself and others decided to read Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail by Paul Polak as a part of our new book club. We just finished reading the first half of the book and have had a discussion about the first six chapters. I think it is a really good idea to discuss poverty in a group, to tackle this issue with multiple brain powers. I found it really helpful to hear other people’s interpretations of the text. I feel that it is easy to become stuck in our own little box, in our own chiseled out perspective, and ignore the necessity to think globally, to see beyond our own backyard. I am certainly one that is guilty of such a thing and I hope to improve over time, and I think Blog Action Day is one way that I am being helped to broaden my perspective.

     So far, what I have read of Paul Polak’s book about ending poverty, I have found to be interesting and certainly eye-opening. To begin with, Polak takes a very straight-forward, matter of fact tone in his book. This book isn’t about making you feel guilty for having more than enough food on the table, for owning two computers or even one for that matter. Polak even states in the preface to the book:

I hate books about poverty that make you feel guilty, as well as dry, academic ones that put you to sleep. Working to alleviate poverty is a lively, exciting field capable of generating new hope and inspiration, not feelings of doom and gloom.

I think this is an amazing attitude to have. Polak certainly takes away the heaviness that can be associated with topics like poverty. This isn’t an add on t.v. for donations, with pictures of starving children, that work upon the guilt factor more than a person’s real sense of desire to help improve life for their fellow humans. The fact that Polak takes this positive and enthusiastic attitude toward poverty and working to change conditions, makes reading this book that much more enjoyable. Also, he doesn’t relate his mission in some wordy, academic, number-obsessive manner. I felt his tone to be very conversational and relaxed. He tells it how it is, and that’s it. No judgments passed on you, none passed on the people and communities of different countries and beliefs and social customs that he encounters throughout his work. I was very impressed by this ability of his to completely refrain from any personal subjection of the people he encountered. He is very objective and doesn’t bring any personal morals or beliefs into the book, which I really appreciated.

     What I find most interesting about this book is the fact that he strongly emphasizes how futile it is to try and donate people out of poverty. That this method has been tried ten times over and still has not produced results. In contrast to that, he goes into the details of his business, which designs products for small farmers in impoverished communities at low price points, and sells them the equipment they need. They scale down the size of the equipment, as well as the cost, to be affordable and usable for these farmers, which then increases their income. How? Because while the poor have a payment plan to pay off the equipment they have bought, the effeciency of the product at a relatively low price, increases the productivity of their crops, which increases their income and allows them to not only pay off what they have, but eventually invest in better quality products.

     I found it interesting how much Polak emphasized affordability over quality. I also felt it was very important that he pointed out that these farmers, no matter how high of quality products they received through donations, never felt a sense of ownership over this equipment, and therefore it wasn’t properly taken care of. On the flip-side, these low-quality, but affordable products, they bought from Polak’s company gave them a sense of ownership. Essentially, a sense of empowerment. This is more than just giving these people the tools they need to most effectively utilize their land. This is about giving these people a voice and a status in their community.

     Polak also encourages going out there and actually talking to the people that are living in poverty stricken conditions and listen to their needs. Sometimes what we think they need, may not actually be what is most important to them or the most immediate necessity. I really appreciated that Polak brings back the individuality to the families he encountered. Often times blanket-labeling strips away the individual and they become, simply, the poor. It is difficult to put a face and a specific need to this abstract label of “the poor”. Polak breaks down those barriers, puts names and faces to a lot of these people. Again, helping to give them a voice. He also emphasizes the importance of customizing the products to a specific regions needs. This isn’t about mass production all over the world. They take what they learn in their development of products and adapt each design for specific regions. What works in China, may not work in Africa, so they adjust accordingly.

     While I have generally enjoyed the book so far, there are some aspects that I found…well, irritating. The book is extremely repetitive. I feel like so much could have been pared down. In our discussion for the book club, some people fittingly stated that he sounded like a walking advertisement for his company. I have to agree. While I felt that he made a lot of valid points about the necessity of changing our approaches to poverty, I often got frustrated at this excessive emphasis on his company and their products and what they are doing. I think what they are doing is amazing and smart, but I don’t need to be reminded of it every single chapter. It was also difficult at this point in the book to recognize how he could pare these ideas down so that an individual person would be able to contribute in the efforts to end poverty. During our book club discussion, we began to realize that one of the ways that this book seemed to reinforce individual contribution, was by purchasing things that are fair-trade and going to farmer’s markets to support local farmers. While this hasn’t been stated outright at this point in the text, it certainly implies this connection, and coming together as a group really helped us to work toward this connection.

     At this point, I haven’t finished the book, so I can’t give a full on review, but I am planning on doing a second part to this Blog Action Day post at the end of the month. While this book isn’t perfect, and I definitely think there is room for improvement, it is certainly worth reading; especially if you are just stepping into this area and do not want to be overwhelmed emotionally or mentally.



  1. interesting. reminds of kiva which helps pair individual donors with entrepreneurs in developing countries. šŸ™‚

    saw this post via the front page of blog action day. it’s great that you’re participating. šŸ™‚

  2. I’m sorry that it took me so long to comment. I have now completed Polak’s book “Out of Poverty”. Although I agree with your well thought out review of this book ( a very well written and comprehensive review, by the way),the last chapters, though still repetitive, do make suggestions for small scale action. They also sound a bit less like an add for Polak’s organization, and place a somewhat more positive light on other groups’ efforts. We will all have a chance to comment on the rest of the book at our end of the month meeting. Again, thanks for a great BAD project.

  3. @Parsnipper – Meh, sorry it has taken me forever and a day to reply. Anyhow, I’m glad you enjoyed the half review of the book. I’m so excited that so many are participating in the club. I’m looking forward to our upcoming discussion. šŸ™‚

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