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Symbol of HOPE Award
Dr. Paul Polak is the founder of Colorado-based non-profit International Development Enterprises (IDE) and is dedicated to developing practical solutions that attack poverty at its roots.
Before establishing IDE, Dr. Polak practiced psychiatry for 23 years in Colorado. To better understand the environments influencing his patients, he would visit their homes and workplaces. After a trip he made to Bangladesh, he was inspired to employ the same tactics he pioneered as a psychiatrist and to use the skills he had honed while working with homeless veterans and mentally ill patients in Denver to serve the 800 million people living on a dollar a day around the world.
At the age of 48, Dr. Paul Polak made a transition in his life from psychiatry to learning as much as he could from small landholding farmers. In 1981, Dr. Polak started the non-profit organization International Development Enterprises (IDE). It was under the umbrella of this organization that he was able to begin his mission of impacting the lives of poor people in developing countries. He gathered information from speaking with thousands of small landholding farmers and has successfully applied it to his mission of alleviating global rural poverty. Dr. Polak claims that many people asked in the beginning for an explanation as to why he stopped being a psychiatrist and what provoked him to transition his work into poverty alleviation. His response is that there really was no change. Poverty plays such a critical role in the incidence and prevalence of all forms of illness. It has been nearly thirty years and he still believes that the most significant and positive impact he could have on world health is through finding solutions to ending poverty.
Dr. Polak and IDE have spearheaded a revolution in design to bring affordable technologies to the world’s poorest people—the subsistence farmers. IDE is an organization that has special competencies in market-based approaches to rural livelihoods through low-cost water control systems and micro-irrigation. When adopted, these methods of water control enable small farmers to participate in markets for high-value crops to generate supplemental income. IDE works to identify and remove smallholder constraints at three levels: 1) input and technology supply, 2) on-farm production, and 3) market infrastructure and improved access to markets. To date, IDE has helped to establish 100 small manufacturers of micro-irrigation equipment, plus thousands of distributors and service technicians who have worked with local farmers to install nearly 2.1 million micro-irrigations systems in Asia and Africa.
In the process of finding answers to ending global rural poverty, Dr. Polak has helped to transform established thinking about international development. Challenging the perception that poor people need charity to rise above subsistence poverty, he founded IDE on the principle that the rural poor are natural entrepreneurs who, if given the opportunity, will invest their own limited resources to generate additional income and to ensure their families’ well-being. Dr. Polak likes to say that between “giving a man a fish” and “teaching him to fish,” IDE does neither—instead, it sells him a fishing rod. This innovative approach to poverty alleviation has taken off in recent years with the idea of “social entrepreneurship” that is currently generating much excitement, discussion, and research.
Western technologies intended for large, commercial farms are inappropriate to the needs of poor, subsistence farmers. Dr. Polak has seen firsthand the results of the gaps in design and has made it his life work to find ways to bridge these gaps. Based on his experience and his interviews with more than 3,000 farmers, IDE has pioneered a market-based approach to poverty alleviation called PRISM (Poverty Reduction through Irrigation and Smallholder Markets) that enables large numbers of poor farmers to increase their income and improve their livelihoods through the purchase and use of affordable, income-generating technologies.
The impact goes beyond increasing incomes for rural families. There have been major boosts in the health of communities through enhancements in nutritional value from the expansion in food supplies. Families are healthier who are involved in IDE programs, which is credited to not only increases in food supplies but also an expansion in the variety of crops thereby providing improvements in nutritional intake. In addition, IDE has expanded links with supermarkets and vegetable export companies to help farmers sell their surplus crops further increasing their standard of living.
Dr. Polak’s market-based approach to poverty eradication is changing the perception of the causes of poverty and thereby the causes of food shortages felt by so many whose livelihoods are rooted in food production. His approach to meeting these challenges is spurring a whole new generation of enterprises to use the same principles in problem solving for the poor. This new, “social entrepreneurship” phenomenon still maintains Dr. Polak at the forefront as a leading figure in the movement to place innovation in service to the poor. He has been a major inspiration for the creation of the Design Lab at Massachusetts Institute of Technology where students have taken on the major tasks of applying his principles to design and finding solutions to the other 90% of the world’s population who have previously been left behind in design solutions. Stanford University has begun to offer classes in social entrepreneurship through their business school. Paul Polak has advised these classes in a variety of their endeavors and his model for success in poverty eradication has been fundamental to the class curriculum.
Under Dr. Polak’s leadership, IDE has helped over 3.5 million dollar-a-day families (17 million individuals) to increase their income by $250 a year on average. However, the impact of his work has only begun to be felt: IDE’s goal is to improve the lives of 30 million additional families by 2020.