Innovation Can Help Defeat Poverty

More than 1 billion people on Earth earn less than $1 a day. Two billion earn less than $2, and 5 billion earn less than $10 per day. Roughly 1.6 billion people have no access to electricity. Some 1.2 billion lack clean water. And 22,000 children die from preventable causes each day. Of the world’s total population of 6.5 billion, 90 percent have little or no access to most of the products and services many of us take for granted.

Two remarkable Colorado men have led the way in helping to find innovative solutions to global poverty. Neither believes it is possible to donate people out of poverty, but rather they advocate that businesses and nonprofits provide low- cost, profitable means for people to earn their way out of financial impoverishment.

Longtime Coloradan Paul Polak, the author of “Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail,” seeks to foment a revolution in how businesses design, price, market and distribute their products. He believes that when industry designs products that are “radically affordable,” with low profit margins and vast market potential, and utilizes profitable “last mile” distribution channels, hundreds of millions of people can lift themselves out of poverty and the businesses selling and distributing the products will prosper.

In 1982, Polak founded International Development Enterprises (, a Colorado nonprofit that has received millions in grants from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, among others. IDE works with farmers in rural areas all over the world, empowering them to develop their land, create new businesses and establish market-based economies. To date, IDE’s solutions have helped more than 19 million farmers lift themselves out of poverty. See Polak’s recent TEDxMileHigh talk  “The Future Corporation”.

Bernard Amadei is another Colorado visionary who has led a global movement to inspire engineers to design solutions for the other 90 percent of the planet’s inhabitants. In 2000, Amadei learned that in San Pablo, Belize, schoolchild ren spent their days retrieving water from a nearby river instead of going to school.

Along with eight engineering students from the University of Colorado at Boulder, he designed a sustainable clean-water-delivery system powered by a local waterfall at a cost of $14,000, solving the community’s water needs and freeing the children to pursue their education.

In 2002, Amadei founded Engineers Without Borders (, a Boulder-based nonprofit organization, to support community-driven development programs across the globe by collaborating with local partners to design and implement sustainable engineering projects. EWB now has more than 12,000 members working in 48 countries on 400 projects. Amadei sees “huge opportunities for doing well by doing good” by empowering the world’s poor “in a respectful way where we create capacity at the local level.” Watch Amadei’s recent TEDxMileHigh talk “Technology with Soul”.

On July 8, IDE and Redline (, a diverse urban laboratory where art, education and community converge, are bringing “Design for the Other 90%,” a Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum exhibit, to Denver. This exhibit shows how innovative design can be a dynamic force in saving and transforming lives around the world (

Other organizations addressing these issues include D-Rev (, a nonprofit technology incubator delivering affordable products that improve the health and income of people earning less than $4 per day; Kickstart (, a company that designs products, business models and markets that help the rural poor make money; and Global Giving (, a nonprofit connecting donors to more than 1,000 pre- screened grassroots charity projects around the world.

Polak, Amadei and others understand that “if you give a man a fish, he will eat for a day; if you teach a man to fish, he will eat for a lifetime.” And, if you help create markets for him to sell the fish, he will lift his family and others out of poverty.

Supporting businesses and nonprofits that work to develop innovative products that are affordable, scalable and profitable will provide unparalleled opportunity and hope for the other 90 percent.


Nonprofit of the  Month

Project PAVE empowers youth to end the cycle of relationship violence through prevention, education and early intervention. Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Project PAVE has supported more than 100,000 children who experienced domestic violence, child abuse/neglect, sexual harassment, peer/sibling abuse or teen dating violence. PAVE provides effective, culturally relevant violence- prevention education, victim identification and counseling services to elementary, middle and high school students in underserved Denver communities.


Bruce DeBoskey is a Denver-based philanthropic adviser. Reach him at