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12 steps with Paul Polak

Craft & Design Energy & Sustainability

Last summer, I went with several youth leaders from Learn 2 Teach, Teach 2 Learn to hear Paul Polak speak. He was one of the opening speakers for the IDDS conference hosted by D-Lab at MIT.


He appeared on Fresh Air last year:

Paul Polak, founder of the nonprofit International Development Enterprises, has spent 25 years working to eradicate poverty in Bangladesh, India, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and other countries in the developing world.

His perhaps-surprising conclusion: Government subsidies for the rural poor often make things worse.

Instead, Polak teaches families and farmers — many of whom live on a dollar a day and own perhaps an acre of land — how to increase crop yields with simple technologies, such as cheap, foot-operated water pumps and inexpensive drip hoses for irrigation.

Paul Polak has been working hard and realistically to create solutions to some of the world’s most challenging poverty.

Below are his twelve steps to Practical Problems Solving:

  • Step 1: Go to where the action is
  • Step 2: Talk to the people that have the problem and listen to what they have to say
  • Step 3: Learn everything you can about the problem’s specific context.
  • Step 4: Think big and act big
  • Step 5: Think like a child
  • Step 6: See and do the obvious
  • Step 7: If somebody has already invented it, you don’t need to do so again.
  • Step 8: (part 1) Make sure your approach has positive measurable impacts that can be brought to scale
  • Step 9: Design to specific cost and price targets.
  • Step 10: follow practical 3 year plans.
  • Step 11: Continue to learn from your customers.
  • Step 12: Stay positive: Don’t be distracted by what other people think.

The work of Paul Polak is worth checking out, and his approaches could be adapted to many possible challenges in the world.

8 thoughts on “12 steps with Paul Polak

  1. Fred says:

    Access to energy is the prime determinant of your place on the scale from poverty to prosperity.

  2. Gorana says:

    Rich people and organisations, especially big corporations, do not want want poverty to disappear.

    The question is why? This all is about profit and power.

    When someone owns (a lot?) less than average, they will just try to survive. They will ask just for enough money for hood and life. This leads to low wages, which lets corporations build factories there and produce stuff for as much as 10c. You will later see same product sold as luxory good for as much as 100-200 dollar.

    Another thing is power. If you keep someone in poverty, they will just request to get so much for survival. They will not requre stuff like cars or large houses. Just food and a roof over their head. Through control of how much people in poverty own, they (rich ones) control what these people think and do. They control how these people live. They have power over their lives. At the end they control who survives and who dies.

    And final thing, people who are in poverty, usually do not have knowledge to know it better. So these people are easily exploited and their land is even easier to be exploited.

    Just look at Africa and see how poverty is forced over them.


    1. LexiRedLion says:

      Wow, Gorana. What a positively ignorant thing to believe, that corporations want people to be impoverished? If everyone is broke how can they possibly buy what the company is selling? Larry Ellison, Warren Buffet, and Bill Gates can use only so many cars, boats, planes, houses, shoes, computers, Zippo lighters, and iPods. From each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs, huh? You don’t think Marx, the guy making the rules, was going to be a commoner, do you? Sorry, pal, but The Party allows only so many members. Life might be good for the members, but for the remaining 99% of the population life is gonna suck.

      You’re completely mistaken about the reason for poverty. It isn’t corporations, it’s lousy government. Third world countries aren’t poor because Big Whitey and his Big Money keep them down, they’re poor because their own government steals from them. They have no established rule of law nor do they have property rights; the law is whatever the dictator says it is at any given moment AND he owns everything.

      Now to Polak. He seems to me a bit short sighted on the Big Picture. He’s completely wrong on Practical Problem Solving Step #7 (If somebody has already invented it, you don’t need to do so again). If that were the case Japan would still be a third world country. They made tremendous strides in taking what was already invented and *improving* it. If he were in charge, we might all still be reliant upon steam and living in sod houses – that engine was already invented and sod works just fine so no need to re-do ’em, yes? According to his logic, anyway.

      Also, I can think of a few more revolutions Polak needs to add to his list. Without these – at a bare minimum – it matters not if there exists abundant supplies of water, food, and design (I’ve no idea what he means by “market revolution”):
      1. Established laws and rights, especially those rights of movement, association, speech, property, and arms – pretty much all original amendments to the US Constitution
      2. A government that serves the the people
      3. A government that enforces those established laws and rights

  3. CWK says:


    The places in the world with the worst poverty (Haiti, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe) have no rich corporations using their cheap labor. China, where you do see 10-cent labor making 100-dollar iPods and whatnot, has and continues to make enormous economic progress in the past 30 years.

    Likewise, a lot of the excitement about China and India is about the idea of 2 billion people getting richer and being able to buy more consumer crap. Dirt-poor people do not buy iPhones or expensive designer goods.

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