Touching the Untouchables

by Paul Polak More than 160 million people in India are considered "Untouchable"—people tainted by their birth into an irrational caste system that defines them as impure and less than human. Ghandi called them Harijans, or “children of God” and launched campaigns to improve their lives, but in spite of his efforts, Untouchables in India are still not allowed to drink from the same wells as upper class Hindus, or attend the same temples, or drink from the same cups in tea stalls. They spend their lives doing menial jobs like cleaning toilets, and are frequent victims of violence. Jacob Mathew, my partner in a…

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The Birth and Death of Big Institutions

By Paul Polak The failure of development is closely tied to the ossification of big institutional structures. The World Bank was born as a vehicle for reconstructing Europe after World War II, a task it carried out with amazing success. But when it morphed into a massive institution to address global poverty, it didn’t do so well. Schumacher launched a revolution in design with his admirable book, Small is Beautiful, but the appropriate technology institutions that emerged from it became ossified, failed to address market forces and died. The Politics of Innovation I define institutions as radical ideas cast in concrete. The radical notion that…

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Applying the Design Revolution to the Woes of Big Canals

By Paul Polak The 13,324 miles of canal system in Pakistan’s Sindh province irrigates 12 million acres of land. That’s a canal that’s long enough to cross the United States three times! This canal system and others like it make as significant a contribution to feeding the world’s growing population as the introduction of the green revolution’s miracle seeds. But big canals come with big problems. Namely, rampant corruption, water wastage, numbingly inefficient operation and maintenance as well as millions of acres of productive land ruined through water logging and salinization. Because of water losses from evaporation, leakage, evaporation, poor operation and maintenance and prehistoric…

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How to Triple the Income of Sprinkling Can Farmers in Asia and Africa

by Paul Polak There are at least 50 million poor farmers who use sprinkling cans to irrigate quarter acre vegetable plots and sell what they grow to customers in cities and towns in Asia and Africa. I  have interviewed hundreds of them, and have no doubt that they can double or triple their incomes with access to improved affordable irrigation, farming methods, and access to markets. Here is a case in point. In August, 2009, Bob Nanes, (IDE Ghana), Sue Haley (IDE Africa) and I visited 14 sprinkling can farmers who produce vegetables for the million or so people who live in Kumasi, Ghana. Here’s…

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Big Dams or Sprinkling Cans?

By Paul Polak Everybody in the world knows about big dams. They do irreparable damage to the environment and the  millions of people they displace, but we need to keep building a few of them to feed the nine billion people we expect will live on planet earth when its population stabilizes. Ten years ago, ten world experts both for and against big dams formed the World Commission on Dams and reached a stunning consensus on the path forward, which the World Bank promptly decided to ignore. But there has been no World Commission on Buckets and Sprinkling Cans, although some 50 million poor farmers in Asia…

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Death of Appropriate Technology II : How to Design for the Market

by Paul Polak The single biggest reason that the appropriate technology movement died and most technologies for developing countries never reach scale is that nobody seems to know how to design for the market. Over the past 30 years, I’ve looked at hundreds of technologies for developing countries. Some provided elegant solutions for challenging technical problems. Some were big and clumsy. Some  were far too expensive. Some of were beautifully simple and radically affordable. But only a handful were capable of reaching a million or more customers who live on less than two dollars a day. If you succeed, against all odds, in designing a…

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