March 1, 2014

How to Attack Poverty and Influence People

Using market solutions; tracing inequality’s origins; looking at America’s first self-help guru

The Business Solution to Poverty: Designing Products and Services for Three Billion New Customers

by Paul Polak and Mal Warwick. Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2013.

Why is it that people who make speeches, often very good speeches, think they can write a book? Memo to would-be authors: A PowerPoint deck does not make a book. An outline, maybe—but not a book.

Much is being written about the 2.7 billion people who live on less than $2 a day and the opportunity to transform them into a lucrative market. An extremely worthwhile endeavor, no question. Those people need goods and services just like the rest of us, and as developing countries turn into emerging markets, millions of the previously destitute will claw their way up into the middle class. Paul Polak is the founder of Windhorse International, a for-profit company that designs, produces and sells extremely affordable but high-tech products, such as water-treatment devices, and creates local distribution channels so these products reach the extremely poor. He has dedicated his life to finding market-based solutions to poverty and is the author of the well-received 2009 book Out of Poverty. I will, therefore, blame this book’s failings on his co-author, Mal Warwick. Co-founder of the global nonprofit Business for Social Responsibility, Warwick is also the author of a couple of how-to books that use the speech-making dictum of, “Tell them what you’re going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what you told them.”

This book is heavily based on Polak’s earlier book, mentions several of the same innovations—a low-cost drip irrigation system, for instance—and is self-promotional and self-congratulatory. All of the examples of successful projects come from their own work, primarily Polak’s, while the examples of failures are from others’. It is also thick with bullet points, highlighting and, just in case you still missed them, Takeaways 1 through 20, which are then, yet again, listed at the back.

The lessons are certainly sound, but the authors are overly dismissive of government or private anti-poverty programs and selective in their choice of which ones to cover—usually those that have failed. They also dismiss poor people in developed countries since they already have a roof over their head, heat, a TV and maybe a car. Polak and Warwick seem unaware of their heavy-handedness, saying at one point, “OK, let’s not beat the obvious to death.” That’s on page 23, yet they do just that for 200 more pages.


The Great Escape: Health, Wealth, and the Origins of Inequality

by Angus Deaton. Princeton University Press, 2013.

Angus Deaton, a professor of economics and international affairs at Princeton University, loved the movie The Great Escape. You know, the one where Steve McQueen tries to jump his motorcycle over a barbed wire fence to escape pursuing Nazis. In this book, Deaton uses that image—evoking the desperate and often-unsuccessful attempt to escape insurmountable odds—to explain how people and nations have historically pulled themselves up by their cement-filled boots into prosperity, and how that necessary progress results in inequality. It’s not an unfamiliar theme, but unlike other authors who look at the same phenomenon, he combines economics and health rather than addressing them as isolated issues. He understands that well-being is a combination of the two, and that one is most often a condition of the other.

Unfortunately, his writing is too often digressive and just plain wordy. In the final chapter, “How to Help Those Left Behind,” he beats around the bush for 55 pages and then says, succinctly and well, what he recommends: The developed world cannot impose progress. History proves that nations develop “in their own way, in their own time, under their own political and economic structures.” When we use aid to foster our own political ends, we impoverish “ordinary citizens … for our own benefit. That we pretend it is helping them merely adds insult to injury.”

Instead, Deaton recommends reforming incentives to drug companies and lifting trade restrictions. In general, he says, we need to simply get out of the way or at least stop slowing things down. The authors of both this book and the one reviewed above advocate a surprisingly obvious strategy: Accept emerging markets as they develop individually, and stop trying to turn them into versions of ourselves.


Self-help Messiah: Dale Carnegie and Success in Modern America

by Steven Watts. Other Press, 2013.

Dale Carnegie’s blockbuster best-seller, How to Win Friends and Influence People, is brisk, chatty, familiar and anecdotal. It still sells more than 100,000 copies every year. The reader feels that the writer would be a really nice guy to know—warm, genuinely interested in you, the kind of friend you need when your life is not going so well. Self-help Messiah, Steven Watts’ biography of Carnegie, is none of those things.

The book is at its best when pointing out the socioeconomic forces at work when Carnegie’s book was published in November 1936. The Great Depression meant that no one’s life was going all that well, and the upbeat message and simple advice—smile, be a good listener, let the other person think it was his or her idea—resonated with a generation looking for any way to move back into the “win” column. Carnegie himself was looking for that. He had bounced from profession to profession with little success. He kept a file all his life called Damned Fool Things I Have Done, mostly about social missteps that caused someone else pain. His own trajectory from a hardscrabble childhood in rural Missouri to overnight fame and fortune as a best-selling author and the first-ever self-help guru made his advice all the more believable. If it could work for that guy, it could work for me.

This book, however, substitutes breezy self-assurance for thoughtful analysis. It’s repetitive and, as journalists say, it “empties the notebook.” Everything the writer discovered seems to have ended up in the book, regardless of how trivial. It is disconcertingly reverential. The cover image of light radiating from Carnegie’s head is the first hint. Franklin Roosevelt may have ended the Great Depression, but Dale Carnegie apparently saved the nation from despair.

There is also a huge angle that the book ignores. Carnegie’s emphasis on image and presentation marked a significant departure and perhaps the beginning of a belief that we could get by with flash rather than substance. Self-help Messiah needs more thought and less minutiae.