Romanoff and iDE seek long-term free market solution to poverty

The Colorado Statesman

Former House Speaker Andrew Romanoff no longer has the sparkle for politics that once beamed from his eyes. These days, the Denver Democrat and former U.S. Senate primary candidate has found the motivation for a new drive — eradicating poverty in the world’s poorest, most rural areas.

At the helm at his new post since last year as a senior adviser for Lakewood, Colo.-based International Development Enterprises (iDE), Romanoff’s mission could be one valued by even the most conservative of Republican candidates. Rather than handing out assistance in the form of money and food, Romanoff and his enterprise is focused on a long-term free market solution to poverty. International Development Enterprises, founded by longtime Coloradan Paul Polak, targets poor rural communities and provides them with income opportunities, focusing many of its efforts on farming. The nonprofit enjoys the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation in accomplishing its mission of providing modern education and tools to rural farmers. The goal is to boost their income through sustainable development — even if it’s only from $1 per day to $2 per day.
“We look at a country like Zambia as a land of entrepreneurs, as a land of business people and customers,” Romanoff said on Tuesday during remarks before the City Club of Denver.

Andrew Romanoff, who served as Speaker of the House in Colorado and ran for the U.S. Senate in 2010, is now a senior advisor for International Development Enterprises. This photo from Ethiopia shows Romanoff and some local village children. Romanoff is trying to help them and others “climb the ladder to prosperity.”

For Romanoff, who has traded a commute to the Capitol for regular long flights to Sub-Saharan Africa, his new mission is one that he says is just as, if not more rewarding than his former career in politics. He says the two careers are hard to compare, but he says he has found a passion for his work at iDE that has allowed him to focus solely on his new work, while putting the politics of his former life behind him.

“It’s just totally different; it’s less stressful than a political campaign,” Romanoff said quietly following his remarks at the Brown Palace Hotel. “When you’re at the legislature you get 120 days a year to get some stuff done; when you’re running a political campaign you get until the next election is coming up — I think this is going to take a long time.”

Romanoff has taught in Colorado and in Central America, worked in Nigeria for the National Democratic Institute, and served as a Scholar in Residence at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs. He recently returned from a trip to Africa, one on which his mother Gayle “Cap” Caplan accompanied him. Romanoff spoke of the progress his organization is making by focusing on the world’s poorest people, about 1 billion human beings who live on $1 per day or less. It may not seem like it, but the starting goal of iDE is ambitious: to bump the world’s poorest people into a lifestyle of $2 per day.

Andrew Romanoff plays with a young African child outside her home during one of his trips to an impoverished nation on behalf of iDE.

Romanoff offers Anita Mwembe as an example, a farmer from Zambia who was trained in irrigation farming to make her enterprise a year-round business. Mwembe watched as her family’s income doubled from $1 per day to $2 per day.

“I know that doesn’t sound like much, especially in a country like the United States where an extra dollar won’t even buy you a cup of coffee, but in a place like Zambia, an extra dollar of income per day may be enough to send a child to school, or buy a doctor when the kids get sick, or to buy a new house,” explained Romanoff.
While most of the houses in Mwembe’s village are made of mud, her family has been able to afford a house that is made out of brick. Mwembe is an example of how Romanoff and iDE are helping impoverished people “climb the ladder to prosperity.”

The tools and education that iDE provides are simple, but the rudimentary training and equipment is a calculated move on iDE’s part. The organization wants communities in Sub-Saharan Africa, Central America and Asia to continue using the tools and knowledge that is brought to them. Simple treadle pumps that can be easily operated and built, latrines that sell for as low as $10 and water purifiers that can be purchased for about $11 — this is the future of farming and living in the world’s poorest communities, says Romanoff.

International Development Enterprises has even taken the process into the marketing phase, bringing advertising and marketing strategies to impoverished communities. One commercial offered by Romanoff, shown on a “movie truck” driving across a local village in India, sings praise to irrigation technologies. The mini-plot involves a young suitor fighting for the love of his desired bride. The woman has little to do with the young suitor until he introduces the irrigation technology.

Gayle “Cap” Caplan and her son, Andrew, in Africa during a trip there this past summer.

“She’s admiring his equipment — his irrigation equipment,” jokes Romanoff during a viewing of the commercial.
The happy couple rides off into the sunset, just as iDE rides off when their mission is accomplished. But not before leaving a legacy of knowledge and technology that allows the world’s poorest communities to begin climbing to a place where they are regular contributors to the world’s economy.

In the coming weeks, iDE will be moving into a location in central Denver with at least 20 Colorado-based nonprofits dedicated to international development. The “Greenhouse Project” will be a sort of clearinghouse for international development opportunities. There are hundreds of nonprofit collaborations across the nation, but none dedicated to international development. Romanoff says in the coming weeks, iDE will be announcing a location for the Colorado collaboration, but he is not yet ready to discuss details. The move is expected by next summer.

“We all have an interest in eradicating extreme poverty,” said Romanoff. “The idea is that instead of working in isolation, we should all just work together.”

For information on International Development Enterprises, visit www.ideorg.org.

Andrew Romanoff joined IDE as a Senior Advisor in 2010. He won election to four terms in the Colorado House of Representatives, including two terms as Speaker of the House. Romanoff earned national acclaim as one of the most effective legislative leaders in America. His work was honored by more than 50 state and national organizations, including Governing magazine, which named him in 2008 as a Public Official of the Year.
Romanoff has taught in Colorado and in Central America, worked in Nigeria for the National Democratic Institute, and served as a Scholar in Residence at the University of Colorado’s School of Public Affairs. Romanoff earned a Bachelor’s degree with honors from Yale, a Master’s in public policy from Harvard, and a Juris Doctorate from the University of Denver.

Peter@coloradostatesman.com