WASHINGTON — If there's a limit to what one person can do about Third World poverty, Paul Polak hasn't found it.
For 25 years, he's been the Johnny Appleseed of the treadle pump, a simple foot-powered irrigation device that's enabled millions of farmers making $1 a day in places such as Bangladesh and Zambia to produce bigger crops and earn more.
Polak, a short, upbeat, raptly attentive Denver psychiatrist, lost $2 million getting his nonprofit initiative off the ground in the `80s. Today, his backers include the U.S. government's Agency for International Development and the aid agencies of Canada, New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands and Norway.
Also aboard is the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which last month awarded Polak's organization and its Indian spinoff $27 million. The grant's purpose is to enable a quarter-million bottom-rung farmers to make $400-a-year leaps, propelled by better irrigation, into India's rural middle class.
Key to making that leap is the treadle pump, in which a farmer's Stairmaster-type leg movements draw water from a well up to 20 feet deep.
Polak doesn't give farmers the pumps; they pay $25 to $35 for them, including the fee to drill the wells. When they've sunk their own money into them, his theory goes, they get more out of them.
The payoff generally comes quickly. A treadle pump typically adds $100 or more to a farmer's income the first year, because it increases a family's workable farmland from about an eighth of an acre — the maximum that hand-carried water can irrigate — to an acre.
"Treadle pumps do work," said Andrew Natsios, former Bush administration USAID administrator, who encountered them along the India-Bangladesh border. "Farmers told us that they were producing more food and making more money."
About 2.2 million Third World farmers have bought Polak's treadle pumps since 1981, according to his nonprofit International Development Enterprises, based in Lakewood, Colo. Add to this other IDE aids to small farmers, such as drip-irrigation systems, and the total helped is 3 million. More like 15 million to 18 million, if you count their families.
"Paul's shown what one person with determination can achieve, and it's more than you'd ever have imagined," said Dr. J. Gary May, a Denver psychiatrist who's known Polak since the `70s.
Polak, a self-described "opportunist and entrepreneur," still works 80-hour weeks at age 74. "I'm an Energizer bunny type," he said in an interview. "It's not that I'm killing myself working; I'm doing what I love."
Polak's concept — exotic when he started — was to make treadle pumps a permanent self-supporting improvement in farmers' lives. That meant putting together local networks of for-profit manufacturers, distributors, retailers, well drillers and repair teams. Each would earn profits of about 12 percent.
Farmers who bought pumps with their own money not only would care for them, Polak believed, but as they got richer they'd also buy more pumps, invest in repairs and support the local pump industry.
On the other hand, Polak thought that farmers who got pumps free would use them less, use them less wisely and be unable to sustain related businesses.
His theory is mainstream thinking now in the world of international development. That's due partly to the treadle pump's success and partly to the more celebrated achievements of micro-lenders such as Grameen Bank, which make loans averaging $200 to poor people with profit-making ideas.
To be sure, the boost that International Development Enterprises gave farmers was mixed. In parts of India, for example, the overuse of treadle pumps threatens to suck aquifers dry. In Bangladesh, thousands of shallow wells dug by Polak's and other aid groups and agencies were found in the `90s to be pumping arsenic-contaminated water.
International Development Enterprises responded by testing its wells and offering cautions and remedies, according to Polak. But Bangladesh's arsenic-laden water, while perhaps less lethal than its alternative — contaminated surface water — remains a percolating environmental disaster.
Polak's response, offered without defensiveness: "What you hope for is that the good impacts far outweigh the bad, and I have no hesitation in saying, having talked to farmers that work with us, that the good outweighs the bad in everything we've done."
He describes his dismays and triumphs in a new book, "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail."
His family fled Czechoslovakia one day ahead of Hitler's March 1939 invasion and crackdown on Jews. Admitted to Canada as refugees, the Polaks prospered in the Hamilton, Ontario, area, where they founded a successful landscaping company.
After completing his psychiatric residency in Denver in 1962, Polak stayed on, and, over the years, earned renown for his imaginative work with acute-care patients. On the side, he indulged his capitalist tendencies, fixing up and selling housing units until he owned 200. He exported dried salted fish to Central America, gaining experience in serving large markets of poor people. He founded oil-drilling and equipment-leasing companies.
Encouraged by his wife, Agnes, a Mennonite, and Mennonite leaders with a calling to help the world's poorest farmers, Polak cashed out for $3 million in 1981. He took along his therapist's insight that clients say what they really need if their listener is profoundly curious.
"Paul's the real deal. He's intensely interested in everything and he never stops," said Fen Montaigne, a National Geographic writer who accompanied Polak for a week in 2001 to chat with small-plot farmers in Zambia.
"He'd stand in the baking sun for hours, talking about their problems. It was sweaty, humid, there was human waste all over the place, and he just kept on going," Montaigne said.
"It's a way of breaking through your own stupidity," Polak said. He said he'd learned from long interviews, for example, that cheap pumps appealed less to poor farmers than more durable ones and that big first-year payoffs were essential. He also learned how some treadle-pump users increased their incomes by $400 or more. (They diversified crops, used fertilizer better and took their crops to market early, before gluts drove prices down.)
That's the model behind International Development Enterprises' latest Gates grant.
Polak said the biggest challenge for his nonprofit, whose staff now totals about 550 worldwide, was persuading a tradition-bound farmer with no spare pennies to take a risk. Hence, its biggest outlays are for promotion, he said.
The strategies include free concerts, market-day demonstrations and treadle-pump acceptance campaigns that first target a village's top farmers. The biggest draw long has been a 90-minute Bollywood-style promotional movie, shown free, usually from the back of a truck in the shade of a tree. You know the plot: The farmer with the treadle pump gets the girl.
ON THE WEB
More on Paul Polak and his book, "Out of Poverty: What Works When Traditional Approaches Fail," including video interviews.
More on what Polak's approach is doing for poor farmers in India, via a You Tube clip from IDE-India.