The Poverty Stoplight: learning from a promising new participatory methodology

Published on 28 February 2020

Marina Apgar

Research Fellow

I recently had the pleasure of talking with Martin Burt during the launch of his book Who Owns Poverty at IDS. The book describes a new social innovation tool ‘the Poverty Stoplight’, developed by Martin and Fundacion Paraguaya, which has fast been gaining traction among the development research community. The tool, which was first applied in local work on a microfinance programme in Paraguay, is now being applied in 28 countries in diverse contexts, from the Roots for Renewal grassroots re-entry work training programme for formerly incarcerated young black men in New Orleans, to applications at country-wide scale such as the Ecuadorian government using it to inform their poverty policies.

So, is this new participatory method one to stop and engage with?

Focused on participatory and complexity aware monitoring evaluation and learning (MEL), I am confronted daily with a range of new, often seductively simple and practical tools. Many are tech-enabled, such as the numerous beneficiary feedback mechanisms that seemingly cut through so much noise to get to the ‘real’ voices, but can easily become smokescreens of tokenistic participation behind which development continues as it always has, so I admit when I hear of yet another new method I engage with a fair amount of scepticism.

But after reading the book, hearing Martin’s own version of the Poverty Stoplight story, and engaging with it through the doctoral work of Juan Pane Solis, I share a sense of enthusiasm for this promising methodology; enthusiasm for a return to the known Freirian-inspired theory of change of participatory methodologies applied as interventions that trigger agency and self-efficacy for people to become protagonists of their own process of overcoming poverty. Knowing how many green, orange or red indicators (Poverty Stoplights) a family has at any point in their journey of implementation of their own life plan can enable measurement of multidimensional poverty in context. The combination of a focus on process, empowerment and hard measurement is behind the accolades that the methodology is receiving.

Here are my three take-aways in the form of portable learning for ongoing methodological innovation:

  1. The Poverty Stoplight responds to complexity through participatory simplicity. The elegance of the methodology shows us that simplification is not about chasing the perfect metric to simplify into a dashboard to be used by executives in far-away boardrooms for their benevolent decision making. It is about having a simple yet contextually appropriate way of ‘measuring what we value’ and of truly bringing people into the process. After all, we know what we value and what matters to us – navigating complexity is what we human beings do best and we do it every day. And as Martin grappled with how to make the methodology work he did his own doctoral research to scrutinise deeply its validity and reliability. He was confronted with trade-offs that drove the simplification process downwards. Given that a family living in poverty in Paraguay was the real end user of the tool, opting for simplicity likely limited some statistical validity, but as a practitioner one can make that choice. Indeed this is the reality I often face in my own work with marginalised people in conditions of uncertainty. Finding a ‘good enough’ measure based on what people really value is far more practical than seeking measurement perfection that has little possibility of creating any real change. The point is that we do so knowingly.
  2. Fundacion Paraguaya’s journey of developing the Poverty Stoplight reminds us that the central craft of participatory development that accompanies methodological development is experiential learning by doing in context. This comes to life in Martin’s book and is a rare gift because we normally only hear about how brilliant the final polished product is, not the messy process through which it came to be. These stories are never linear nor easy. Martin narrates a critical moment when confronted with staff sceptical of the validity of the method as an addition to their existing microfinance programming. He had to be creative and chose to hold up a mirror to turn the tool on themselves – NGO staff thus became beneficiaries of an empowerment tool. This had a transformative effect on the individuals and organisation itself, enabling the difficult mental shift from the problem being ‘out there’ to the problem starting ‘in here’. To say that we are all poor in some way is to conclude that we need to support all people moving towards wellbeing and living to their full potential, an acceptance of our common humanity. In the world of action research that I inhabit, we describe this process as bringing the first, second and third person together. Others talk about being reflexive as researchers and practitioners. Whatever your starting point and your framing, the point is that we are all just as much part of the problem as we are part of the solution and thinking about our tools is not external to thinking about our own role in the development process. All good participatory practice is the result of practitioners who are open to exploring themselves within the journey.
  3. The two previous points brings me to the third, which is the thorny issue of whether there is an optimal scale (to borrow a term first developed by IDRC in its development of scaling science) for participatory methodologies, rather than a promise of ever increasing scale. If we take seriously the need to design empowerment in context, coupled with the central importance of reflexivity – in other words paying attention to the quality of process through which we apply a method – then how far and how fast can we travel before we fall in to the trap that many before have fallen in to: of the political being treated as a technical issue in a vacuum, thus losing all transformative potential?

If I have one reflection for how the Poverty Stoplight and what it offers can be furthered it is that while it is bravely advocating for the ownership of understanding what poverty means to be handed to the poor it could go further in opening up potential for transformation through also giving people the power to respond. I agree we must push the machinery of development to listen more intently to local definitions of poverty but we could also choose, when appropriate and possible to take a more radical stance in needing to rethink our own role. In my own experience I have found it constructive to reorient towards a role of intentional networkers, becoming brokers of solution-finding processes rather than first responders to the ‘needs’ of the poor.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.


Related content