Brave Thinkers

Illustration by Quickhoney

Name: Paul Polak
Job: Founder of International Development Enterprises and D-Rev
Why he’s brave: His companies treat the poor as consumers and entrepreneurs.
Quote: “Talk to the people who have the problem and listen to what they have to say.”


Criticizing charities and development groups—for bloat, condescension, or naïveté—can be a convenient excuse to forget about the excruciating reality of poverty and inequality. But not for Polak, whose complaint with conventional charities is that they fail to consider the market potential of the world’s 1.2 billion poor people. Treating the poor as potential consumers and entrepreneurs, he believes, is the best way to help them achieve self-sufficiency. Operating under the guideline “Cheap is beautiful,” his companies sell affordable and useful tools—like manual-treadle pumps for irrigation, or solar-powered water purifiers—that poor people can use to make a living selling products to their peers. For instance, a farmer who buys a treadle pump for $8 can use it to transport groundwater to his fields during the dry season, when crops fetch higher prices, and quickly recoup his investment at the local market. Polak thinks that profitable markets in impoverished areas will spur more prosperity than offering direct donations, financing large infrastructure projects, or relying on government initiatives. “The single most important thing they need to get out of poverty is to find a way to earn more money,” he writes in his book, Out of Poverty. “This is so obvious that people tell me that it is a perfect example of circular logic. But the sad fact is that it isn’t at all obvious to the great majority of the world’s poverty experts.”

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