Why you should care

Ranking their own situation red, green or amber gives families the agency to pull themselves out of poverty. 

Over midafternoon coffees and Fantas, Robyn-Lee Abrahams and Joyce Paulse — employees at my local supermarket in Cape Town, South Africa — tell me how their lives have changed in the past 18 months. “I never dreamed my daughter would go to college,” says Paulse. “But yesterday we went online together and started filling in the forms.”

Abrahams notes how she used to live hand to mouth. “But now I’ve got a savings account, which I haven’t ever touched.” The sacrifice? “I eat less chocolate now.”

Paulse and Abrahams are just two of thousands of beneficiaries of the Poverty Stoplight, a self-evaluation tool that’s now redefining poverty in countries as diverse as Argentina and the U.K.; Mexico and Tanzania; Chile and Papua New Guinea. By getting families to rank their own economic condition red, yellow or green based upon 50 indicators, the Poverty Stoplight gives families the agency to pull themselves out of poverty and offers organizations insight into whether their programs are working.

Social entrepreneur Martín Burt, who founded Fundación Paraguaya 33 years ago to promote entrepreneurship and economic empowerment in Paraguay, developed the first, paper-based prototype of the Poverty Stoplight in 2010 to help the organization’s microfinance clients escape the poverty cycle.

Instead of aggregating data for decision-makers at the top, we do it for decision-makers at the bottom.

Martín Burt, developer of Poverty Stoplight

In recent years, the tool — which remains fundamentally unchanged — has started to spread across the globe with a presence in about 30 countries. The Argentina hub — launched by Eleonora Antar of Fundación Irradia in 2016 — has thus far supplied the tool to 25 Argentine rural and urban nongovernmental organizations by more effectively mapping needs, she says. South Africa’s Poverty Stoplight version already has 52 partner organizations. And in 2017, the U.N. highlighted the tool as one of 11 solutions advancing that organization’s Sustainable Development Goals. In every country, the Poverty Stoplight maintains its fundamental difference from other poverty reduction efforts. Its results aren’t targeted at policymakers (although they can be invaluable to them). Instead, it’s a self-help tool that serves socioeconomically vulnerable communities and the organizations working with them.

“Instead of aggregating data for decision-makers at the top, we do it for decision-makers at the bottom,” says Burt.

stoplight poverty

Because poverty is multidimensional, “you can have a family with a proper toilet but no savings,” points out Burt. Determining questionnaires span six different aspects of people’s lives, including softer indicators such as community involvement, self-confidence and family violence. The survey, a series of 50 multiple-choice questions with visual cues, is aimed at households, not individuals, because “you cannot get a 10-year-old girl out of poverty in isolation,” says Burt. Confidentiality is another critical component.

Administering the survey on paper is tough, and Burt experienced a “mutiny” from his facilitators soon after starting out. He got pro bono assistance from Hewlett-Packard to digitize the tool. This allowed him to share the Poverty Stoplight with others around the world — among them Tracey Chambers from The Clothing Bank (TCB) in South Africa. She, in turn, introduced it to Laura Bergh, an innovator who, in close conjunction with TCB, pioneered a membership model for South Africa through which partners agree to share data with one another to ensure that mistakes are not repeated. “We recognized the incredible opportunity to create a community of sharing where organizations leapfrogged off each other’s learnings,” says Bergh.

One such organization is Food Lover’s Market (FLM), the supermarket chain where Paulse and Abrahams work. After rebranding the tool “Love My Journey” — because “it sounds more positive,” says the chain’s corporate and social investment facilitator Kate Marais — the group has surveyed more than 1,000 employees in all nine of South Africa’s provinces. Marais observes that budgeting and saving are nationwide problems, but apart from that, “every province is different.”

During her hourlong, one-on-one interview with Marais, Paulse opened up about her problems in a way she’d never done before. She had joined FLM in 2013, after “getting sober” but still “didn’t know how to get ahead.” When she did the survey she “thought [she] wanted a new, bigger flat,” but now she’s “accepted [her] reality” and made her current flat more comfortable by building a bunk bed, among other things. Her scorecard of reds, greens and ambers also showed her that she didn’t spend enough time on herself. She’s since managed to change her work schedule so she can go to church on Sundays and Wednesdays.

In more than 500 interviews, Marais has not once been asked for a raise, but she can see why some corporations may shy away from using the tool. There’s a “risk to business if you don’t follow up on the information, but we have the full support of our board.” All FLM employees are encouraged to take the Me and My Money course — a two-day financial literacy course in which participants are shown how to reduce debt and build savings while other follow-up programs and interventions vary from region to region.

Inspired by the success of the South African movement, the Poverty Stoplight now has 11 national hubs (and a limited presence in about 20 other countries) that adapt the tool for local conditions. Only in New Orleans is a lack of flood insurance a poverty indicator, for instance. Like a social franchise, the hubs make it their business to seek out local partners. Burt hopes to have fully operational hubs in 50 countries in the next five years.

Antar in Argentina says that while it’s impossible to assess the impact until follow-up surveys have been completed, preliminary feedback suggests the tool has been “revolutionary.” While Argentina is focusing on nongovernmental organizations, hubs in Chile and Mexico have elected to strengthen the private sector. South Africa’s Poverty Stoplight has done a bit of both but has yet to get any government clients. “Maybe they’re scared?” Bergh wonders. “The Poverty Stoplight will show whether or not your programs are working.”

For the Poverty Stoplight to make a significant dent in global poverty it will need all hands on deck. That’s why Burt is actively pursuing international accreditation. The U.N. recognition is great, but Burt would “love to get the World Bank to persuade governments to attack poverty from the bottom up.” Till now, governments and economists have been wary of the way the tool blends qualitative and quantitative indicators, but this — both Burt and Bergh say — is its greatest strength.

While the tool is a revolutionary yardstick, it cannot eliminate poverty on its own. Aware of the dangers of the tool being used for diagnosis alone, Bergh insists that all South Africa partners have follow-up programs that touch on at least two of the indicators (she has turned organizations away). Burt is pioneering gamification strategies. In one called “My Happy Smile,” families compete to fix their dental problems.

Of course, only one family can win the competition. But inspiring people to use the tool to fix their own problems, Burt calculates, makes everyone a winner.

Illustration by Peter and Maria Hoey

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