Empowering the poor through innovation and technology

30-second summary

  1. The Poverty Stoplight is a visual dashboard that allows poor households to self-diagnose their level of poverty. This data is then sent back to governments and development organisations to improve the targeting of their aid programmes.
  2. Its founder, Martín Burt, says the dashboard combines technology with practicality: “It showcases small, understandable, achievable and actionable indicators, and then the work of poverty alleviation becomes much more feasible.”
  3. Burt also believes that poverty can be solved this generation: “My bet – and my belief – is that when you combine family empowerment with technology, real transformative change is within our reach.”

“We want to create a world without poverty, one where we all want to live,” says Martín Burt. And so say all of us. Burt, though, is more than just talk. Far more.

Thanks to the efforts of his organisation and measurement tool, Poverty Stoplight, poor people around the world are being given a new and powerful way to lift themselves out of poverty and into more prosperous times for themselves and their families. It’s simple – yet oh so effective.

“The Poverty Stoplight is a visual survey using illustrations,” explains Burt. “It allows heads of households to very quickly self-diagnose their level of multidimensional poverty and visualise it in a dashboard, rather than an index or report – so it’s nice and easy to understand. With a dashboard you can showcase this in small, understandable, achievable and actionable indicators, and then the work of poverty alleviation becomes much more feasible.”

How it works

Using an app that can be used on computers, tablets or mobile phones, families take a self-evaluation visual survey to produce a poverty map that allows them to see the details of their poverty on a dashboard. Families select images, categorised as red, yellow or green, that resemble their reality for each poverty indicator.

Take access to clean and safe drinking water, for example. Here, if the water that the family drinks is unsafe or the family has to bring it from outside their home – whether from a river, stream or other source – then they choose red. Yellow indicates that the family does have access to clean and safe water, but it’s not constantly available. And then there’s green: the family has access to safe drinking water at home for most of the day via a tap.

The results clearly show families their positive outcomes in green and areas for improvement in yellow or red. And through its geo-tagging capabilities, the app can then generate poverty maps for entire communities. This allows stakeholders – governments, NGOs, development professionals and the like – to make more targeted relief efforts and to channel resources more effectively in a joint effort to eliminate poverty.

“Technology today allows poor people to be consulted,” Burt points out. “For the past 200 years, it was government and social scientists figuring out what the problems of society were – it was they who gathered the information and it was they who knew what was going on.”

This, he believes, led to social policy and poverty programmes being imposed top-down, rather than enabling any form of co-ownership with the recipients. But this is now changing.

“Technology enables us to consult with the poor and be able to have very granular information on different poverty indicators, including some that only they can answer,” he says, “such as ‘I feel I have autonomy to make decisions’, or ‘I am not vulnerable to violence’. This type of thing is very difficult to gauge from the top down.”

Lessons learned

The Poverty Stoplight has been operational since 2011, and it is being used around the world – in communities ranging from Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK to Burt’s native Paraguay to communities in South Africa. Burt says that some key lessons have quickly emerged from its deployment.

“First of all, poverty can be eliminated,” he says. “This is when a family turns a red or yellow indicator into green. Secondly, indicators have to be actionable by the poor. And thirdly, we found out that there is also a local definition of poverty in different communities in different countries. People know and understand the minimum bare requirements for the threshold that they think is acceptable in their community.”

To illustrate his point he cites the examples of water and overcrowding. “In my country, which is a poor country in South America, having one water tap in a house is a green indicator for not being poor in water. But in the US, if you do not have hot water then that’s a red indicator. Or an acceptable number of people living in a flat in London will be different to poorer cities elsewhere in the world.”

He also disagrees with the suggestion that everyone being poor in their own unique way is something that makes the job of governments much harder. “On the contrary, the fact that everyone is poor in their own unique way is something that makes the job of government much easier, because resources can be used more efficiently,” he says. “Families can identify their unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Technology now enables every family to have their customised tailor-made plan to overcome poverty – all thanks to things like cellphones and Facebook.”

The fight against poverty

After several years at the frontline of fighting poverty, Burt – importantly – remains an optimist. He, for one, does not feel overcome at the scale of the challenge and firmly believes that eliminating global poverty is a realistic objective. He does, however, think that some changes in approach are needed.

“To start with, governments or development organisations shouldn’t say that ‘one million people are in poverty’,” he says. “It’s better to say ‘300,000 households’. A five-year-old girl may be in that number, but she is part of a household and you can’t lift her out of poverty without her family and vice versa.”

And he also says that governments need to be more willing to adjust their methodology – particularly when it comes to their poverty statistics. “We are trying to persuade them to be open to new technologies and consult with the poor – it is not as cumbersome as it used to be,” he points out. “The poor need to be empowered – they are not just passive recipients of top-down government aid. After all, had that been the solution, government aid would have solved all the problems. So many millions of dollars have been spent, yet this one size fits all does not address the problem.”

Again, he returns to technology as an antidote to such problems. “The poor have cellphones and Facebook pages, and I am convinced we can solve poverty this generation,” he says. “It will be difficult, as things are still organised top down too often, but my bet – and my belief – is that when you combine family empowerment with technology, real transformative change is within our reach. It can be done – we just need to get on with it.”



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