Emphasize Earning, Dump Dependency

Is international poverty best fought by distributing aid or by selling inexpensive products with names such as MoneyMaker?

The "Design for the Other 90 Percent" exhibit at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum here is now in its last few days, and I suspect few of you will be able to visit it, so here is the executive summary: Poor people are not helpless.

Among the products at the exhibit: the Super MoneyMaker Pump, a user-powered treadle pump — it operates like a gym stair-stepper — that allows a farmer, or his children, to irrigate two acres in eight hours. Another product is the MoneyMaker Block Press, which allows half-a-dozen workers to produce each day 600 strong and durable building blocks made from soil mixed with a small percentage of cement.

Some like the pretty sight of women and girls, particularly in Africa, walking along the road balancing jugs of water on their heads. Nice for a snapshot, but when people do that mile after mile, day after day, some end up crippled. Far better to sell a low-cost Q-Drum, a big, lime-green plastic doughnut, wide as a truck tire but hollow, with a screw-in cap on one side. Even a child can put a rope through the Q-Drum’s hole and roll 20 gallons of water to a village.

Some formerly intractable problems have simple solutions. For example, contaminated drinking water often spreads waterborne diseases such as typhoid, cholera and dysentery. Solution: the LifeStraw, a 10-inch-long plastic tube with an interior carbon filter that, when water is sucked through it, removes dangerous particulates. Second solution: Aquastar Plus, which exposes water put into a bottle to ultraviolet light, making pathogens non-infective.

And three cheers for the Big Boda load-carrying bicycle, which has a large steel cargo support and an extended wheelbase that lowers the center of gravity, so an ordinary person can cycle hundreds of pounds to market. What about the problem of food spoilage in hot climates due to lack of cool storage areas? Solution: a pot-in-pot cooler made up of two nested earthenware pots, with sand and water in between. The evaporating water draws heat from the inner pot and can keep produce such as tomatoes cool for up to 20 days, so that farmers have more time to sell their crops.

The exhibit has a truly radical ethos. Some well-intentioned folks ask why would anyone have to work something like a stair-climber for hours to pump water when we have motorized pumps? But in the words of Martin J. Fisher, cofounder of KickStart International, affluent people "buy time-saving and labor-saving devices, and many of those aren’t that relevant for the poor. They have a fair lot of time and labor. What they don’t have is very much money." KickStart International says it has helped 230,000 people to sweat their way out of poverty.

Should we give these pumps to the poor? No: KickStart insists on selling its pumps because "no giveaway program can be sustainable. By selling our pumps, we create a sustainable supply chain." Paul Polak, founder of International Development Enterprises, tells reporters, ”When you give things away, you lack discipline in how you design them because you don’t have to get feedback from the customer."

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit emphasizes small: Don’t build hydroelectric dams; construct cheap shelter that people can buy to protect themselves from the elements. The exhibit embraces using human power rather than machines and gasoline, because machinery requires continued infusions of Western cash. The goal is for local economies to function independently: People power can crank radios, pump water and drive bicycles.

The Cooper-Hewitt exhibit displays ingenious inventions but also forces us to confront our own charitable notions. Do we emphasize giving to the poor rather than letting those who are able-bodied glean their sustenance through hard work? Do we ignore sustainability and create long-term dependence?