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November 20, 2011

For-Profit Entrepreneur Brings Good Things to Bangladesh



PolakPaulEntrepreneur2011-11-09.jpg"INVENTOR Paul Polak creates cheap and effective devices to help the poor." Source of caption and photo: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.



(p. D4) If necessity is the mother of invention, Paul Polak is one of its fathers.

For 30 years Dr. Polak, a 78-year-old former psychiatrist, has focused on creating devices that will improve the lives of 2.6 billion people living on less than $2 a day. But, he insists, they must be so cheap and effective that the poor will actually buy them, since charity disappears when donors find new causes.

Inventing a new device is only the beginning, he says; the harder part is finding dependable manufacturers and creating profitable distributorships. The "appropriate technology" field, he argues, is "dominated by tinkerers and short of entrepreneurs."

His greatest success has been a treadle pump that lets farmers raise groundwater in the dry season, when crops fetch more money. He has sold more than two million, he said.


. . .


Q. What got you interested in poverty?


. . .


Q. And in third-world poverty?

A. My wife's a Mennonite, and they had programs in Bangladesh. It had hit me between the eyes that homeless people in Denver were living on $500 a month, but there were people overseas living on $30 a month. So I took a trip to Bangladesh.

Some farmers were using hand pumps, but biomechanically, that's a lousy way to raise water. A Mennonite guy had invented a rower pump that would pull up enough to water a half-acre of vegetables. They had installed 2,000 over five years, and those farmers seemed to be making a lot of money, so I said, "Why don't we do a project, with an objective of selling 25,000 a year?"

We hit that pretty quickly. One or two Mennonites objected -- they considered the idea of selling something to poor people immoral. But we kept at it, and then we found the treadle pump. It was brilliantly simple, it could be manufactured by local workshops, and a local driller could dig a 40-foot well and install it for $25. Studies showed that farmers made $100 in one season on that investment.

We talked to 75 little welding shops where they make things like bedsprings, and jawboned them into making treadle pumps. We went to people who sold things like toilet bowls, and cut a deal with them to be dealers. We trained 3,000 tinkerers to be well-drillers. We hired troubadours to write songs about treadle pumps, and we'd pass out leaflets when they performed. We even produced a 90-minute Bollywood movie.


. . .


Q. What's the biggest mistake aid agencies make?

A. As we were developing our pump, the World Bank was subsidizing deep-well diesel pumps that could cover 40 acres. The theory was that you'd get a macroeconomic benefit, but it was also very destructive to social justice. The big pumps were handed out by government agents; the government agent was bribeable. The pump would go to the biggest landholder, and he'd become a waterlord.

Q. There have been some well-known failures in this field, like One Laptop Per Child and the Playpump. Can you say why?

A. The laptop was a middle-class device that doesn't communicate with people who don't read and write. It cost $100, plus it used the charity model -- buy two, give one away. The Playpump, which was a children's merry-go-round that pumps water, cost $11,000. Women in Africa walk for hours to a well, and then jiggle the pump handle for 60 seconds. This replaces the jiggling. How important is that? And they break. For $11,000, you could dig five wells and eliminate the walk.

Q. What are your principles for success?

A. In 1981, I said, "I'm going to interview 100 $1-a-day families every year, come rain or shine, and learn from them first."

Over 28 years, I've interviewed over 3,000 families. I spend about six hours with each one -- walking with them through their fields, asking 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.



For the full story, see:

DONALD G. McNEIL Jr. "A CONVERSATION WITH PAUL R. POLAK; An Entrepreneur Creating Chances at a Better Life." The New York Times (Tues.,September 27, 2011): D4.

(Note: ellipses added; bold in original.)

(Note: the online version of the article is dated September 26, 2011.)





December 19, 2009

Safe Drinking Water Matters More than Global Warming



(p. A17) Getting basic sanitation and safe drinking water to the three billion people around the world who do not have it now would cost nearly $4 billion a year. By contrast, cuts in global carbon emissions that aim to limit global temperature increases to less than two degrees Celsius over the next century would cost $40 trillion a year by 2100. These cuts will do nothing to increase the number of people with access to clean drinking water and sanitation. Cutting carbon emissions will likely increase water scarcity, because global warming is expected to increase average rainfall levels around the world.

For Mrs. Begum, the choice is simple. After global warming was explained to her, she said: "When my kids haven't got enough to eat, I don't think global warming will be an issue I will be thinking about."

One of Bangladesh's most vulnerable citizens, Mrs. Begum has lost faith in the media and politicians.

"So many people like you have come and interviewed us. I have not seen any improvement in our conditions," she said.

It is time the developed world started listening.




For the full commentary, see:

Bjørn LOMBORG. "Global Warming as Seen From Bangladesh; Momota Begum worries about hunger, not climate change." The Wall Street Journal (Mon., NOVEMBER 9, 2009): A17.





June 23, 2009

"Evidence Suggests" that Bangladesh Can "Cheaply and Safely" Protect Itself Against Global Warming



BeelBhainaBangladeshNewLand2009-06-10.JPG"In Beel Bhaina, a low-lying 600-acre soup bowl of land on the banks of the Hari River, in Bangladesh, land that was once under water is now full of greenery." Source of photo and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited below.


(p. A6) BEEL BHAINA, Bangladesh -- The rivers that course down from the Himalayas and into this crowded delta bring an annual tide of gift and curse. They flood low-lying paddies for several months, sometimes years, at a time. And they ferry mountains of silt and sand from far away upstream.

Most of that sediment washes out into the roiling Bay of Bengal. But an accidental discovery by desperate delta folk here may hold clues to how Bangladesh, one of the world's most vulnerable countries to climate change, could harness some of that dark, rich Himalayan muck to protect itself against sea level rise.

Instead of allowing the silt to settle where it wants, Bangladesh has begun to channel it to where it is needed -- to fill in shallow soup bowls of land prone to flooding, or to create new land off its long, exposed coast.

The efforts have been limited to small experimental patches, not uniformly promising, and there is still ample concern that a swelling sea could one day soon swallow parts of Bangladesh. But the emerging evidence suggests that a nation that many see as indefensible to the ravages of human-induced climate change could literally raise itself up and save its people -- and do so cheaply and simply, using what the mountains and tides bring.



For the full story, see:

SOMINI SENGUPTA. "In Silt, Bangladesh Sees Potential Shield Against Sea Level Rise." The New York Times (Fri., March 20, 2009): A6.



BeelBhainaBangladeshMap.jpg











"An influx of silt after a flood made Beel Bhaina higher." Source of map and caption: online version of the NYT article quoted and cited above.






July 22, 2008

Business Model More Effective than Charity at Helping Poor


YunusMuhammadSubprimeLender.jpg






Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning economist Muhammad Yunus. Source of image: online version of the WSJ article quoted and cited below.

(p. A9) In his new book, "Creating a World Without Poverty," Mr. Yunus . . . defines social business as "cause-driven" rather than profit-driven. And yet, it is not a charity: Its owners are entitled to recoup their investments, and the social business must recover its full costs, or more, even as it concentrates on creating products or services that provide a social good. It does this by charging a fee for its products and services. (One example: a business that manufactures and sells low-priced, nutritious food products to underfed children. Grameen America is also a social business.)

Mr. Yunus freely acknowledges that the free market has done a great deal for the poor. "I didn't say that what is there is wrong. I said the structure was not complete. One piece was missing. We couldn't express within the business world all the things we want to do for others."

He argues that in today's world, people whose main ambition is to help those in need tend to be pushed into philanthropy, which isn't always the most efficient way to bring about change. In philanthropy, he says, the "dollar has only one life, you can use it once . . . social business dollar has endless life, it recycles. And you build institutions." He continues, "when it's an institution you bring creativity into it. You bring innovations into it. You bring continuity into it."

Mr. Yunus argues that it's extremely difficult to bring efficiency to charity. But "the moment you bring in a business model, immediately you become concerned about the cost, about the revenue, the sustainability, the surplus generation, how to bring more efficiency, how to bring new technology, how to redesign, each year you review the whole thing . . . charity doesn't have that package."



For the full article, see:

EMILY PARKER. "THE WEEKEND INTERVIEW with Muhammad Yunus; Subprime Lender." The Wall Street Journal (Sat., March 1, 2008): A9.

(Note: first ellipsis added; other ellipses in original.)




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