Post 40: What One Man Can Do to Alleviate World Hunger

Yesterday most of us joined our families and enjoyed the traditional Thanksgiving feast.  This makes is a relevant time to remember that some 800 million persons – or 10% of the world’s population are victims of hunger and “are undernourished on a daily basis.”  I bring this to our attention not to instill guilt or to take away from the pleasures of the table yesterday.  Our country has done much to confront the problem of world hunger through support for international development programs, especially the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations, the  U.S. Food for Peace program launched by President Kennedy in the early sixties and even by tens of thousands of Peace Corps volunteers who have started micro projects in local communities that produce food and income.

Poverty is the principal cause of world hunger. So what does seem appropriate as we consider Thanksgiving is to celebrate those individuals who have devoted their lives to alleviating it. One such individual, Dr. Paul Polak, died last month after close to forty years of extremely creative and practical service to the world’s poor.  His obituary, written by Donald G. McNeil Jr. in The New York Times (October 20, 2019), tells the story.

Dr. Paul Polak, a former psychiatrist who became an entrepreneur and an inventor with a focus on helping the world’s poorest people create profitable small businesses, died on Oct. 10 in Denver. He was 86.

Dr. Polak (pronounced POLE-ack) … advocated training people to earn livings by selling their neighbors basic necessities like clean water, charcoal, a ride in a donkey cart or enough electricity to charge a cellphone.

Although the nonprofit companies he created did accept donations, their purpose was to help poor people make money. His target market was the 700 million people around the world surviving on less than $2 a day, and he traveled all over the world seeking them out.

Before embarking on any project, said Dr. Polak would interview dozens of villagers.

“I’ve interviewed over 3,000 families,” he said in 2011. “I spend about six hours a day with each one — walking with them through their fields, asking them what they had for breakfast, how far their kids walk to school, what they feed their dog, what all their sources of income are. This is not rocket science. Any businessman knows this: You’ve got to talk to your customers.”

His most successful project was in foot-powered treadle pumps to pull water out of the ground. Beginning in 1982, he sold millions for about $25 each in Bangladesh and India, he said. The company he created for the project, iDE for International Development Enterprises, now operates in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

The cost included the mechanism, which could be built in a local welding shop, and drilling the well. Dr. Polak’s organization trained thousands of welders and drillers. The customers — small farmers — supplied the foot power and long bamboo handles for the pumps, the device resembling a crude elliptical trainer.

To sell them, Dr. Polak ran a publicity campaign: a singing, dancing Bollywood-style movie about a couple that could not marry because her father could not afford a dowry. But once he bought a pump and could grow vegetables in the dry season, when they fetch more money, love triumphed.

“O.K., somewhat cheesy,” Dr. Polak admitted, “but we bought a van with a video setup and took it to villages. A typical open-air audience was 2,000 to 5,000 people.”

By contrast, he said, the World Bank was subsidizing expensive diesel pumps that drew enough water to cover 40 acres. They were handed out by government agents, who could be bribed, he said, and the richest landowner would thus become “a waterlord,” who could drain the aquifer supplying everyone else’s wells and then charge them for water.

 “It was very destructive to social justice,” Dr. Polak said.

Another franchise company he started in India was Spring Health, which uses battery power to convert salt into chlorine. The bleach is used to disinfect local water, which is then sold door-to-door in refillable containers.

Franchisees get caps and shirts with distinctive blue raindrops, and street theater troupes help uneducated people make the connection between dirty water and diarrhea, which sickens millions of children every day and, when chronic, can leave them mentally and physically stunted.

Dr. Polak wrote two books about his ideas and experiences, “Out of Poverty” in 2008 and, with Mal Warwick, “The Business Solution to Poverty” in 2013.

In 2007, he helped arrange an exhibit, Design for the Other 90 Percent, at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in Manhattan. It displayed the kind of simple products he endorsed: drip-irrigation systems, inexpensive eyeglasses and 20-gallon plastic water containers in the shape of a wheel that could be rolled instead of carried on the head.

Dr. Polak practiced psychiatry in the Denver area for 23 years and, for extra income, bought and managed small apartment buildings, drilled for oil and invented an oil-well pump jack. By 1981, he could afford to think about giving up medicine and focusing on real estate.

“But, instead of trying to become a Bill Gates or a Donald Trump, I came to the realization that, beyond having enough money to cover my basic living expenses, the marginal value of accumulating more wealth was not really useful,” he told an interviewer this year.

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