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  • The "Poverty Stoplight" Approach to Eliminating Multidimensional PovertyBusiness, Civil Society, and Government Working Together in Paraguay
  • Martin Burt (bio)

Innovations Case Narrative:
Fundación Paraguaya

Over the past few years, my team at Fundación Paraguaya (a 28-year-old nonprofit development organization that works in Latin America and Africa) and I have been developing a practical methodology and tool that allows poor families to self-diagnose their level of poverty as a first step in developing a personalized strategy to lift themselves permanently out of poverty. We call it the "Poverty Stoplight" approach to eliminating multidimensional poverty. Our tool uses stoplight colors (i.e., red, yellow, green), photographs, maps, electronic tablets, and simple software to create innovative maps that enable the poor to see and understand the ways in which they are poor. The methodology and tool also allow businesses, nonprofits, and governments to support families' efforts to pull themselves out of poverty in efficient, targeted ways. Our 20-minute visual survey methodology simplifies gathering data on poor families while encouraging and facilitating a focus on the gaps these families need to close to overcome their various poverty-related challenges. Not only the poor stand to benefit from this social innovation; governments and other actors in the field, such as businesses and social-minded software developers, can benefit as well. This tool also can be useful and cost effective for microfinance institutions that are in the business of fighting poverty but often find it difficult to address the chronic social problems affecting their clients.


In December 2008, right after the evening graduation ceremony held at our self-sufficient agricultural high school in rural Paraguay, I witnessed an event that would change the way I thought about development and social change. On the [End Page 47] school patio, under the mango trees and surrounded by classrooms and dorms, the 50 students had, on their own initiative, set up a gala dinner: 50 tables were covered with white cloths and set with wine glasses, silverware, and plates for the main course and bread. Led by valedictorian Liz Marina Gonzalez, the students, their parents, and their guests promenaded out of the chapel where the graduates had received their high school diplomas, while the master of ceremonies asked the public to sit at designated tables. As the afternoon gave way to a pleasant summer evening, the recently graduated students appeared wearing dark suits and long dresses. The loudspeakers began playing a waltz, and the students walked to their parents and invited them to dance.

As strains of "The Blue Danube" waltz surrounded us, I couldn't help but think how far these students had come. Most of them had arrived at our school essentially barefoot and hungry merely three years earlier, cashless and owning only the clothes on their backs. Most had barely finished ninth grade in a precarious rural school. Now they were performing ("mimicking" is probably a better word) a typical middle-class tradition in Paraguay, turning a graduation celebration into a prom. Of course, no one on the floor that evening—neither the students nor their parents—had ever participated in such an event before. Most likely they had seen something similar on Paraguayan TV or in the Sunday paper.

But there they all were, dancing in formal dress. Liz Marina, who graduated first in her class and would become first a teacher at the Curuguaty Agricultural School and then an agricultural extension agent for the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock, danced with her father. Maricel Merlo, who had arrived penniless three years earlier from the San Pedro region and would become a microfinance and "village bank" microcredit advisor after graduation, danced with her brother. Sebastian Escobar, a member of the indigenous Enxlet tribe, who would return to his community and develop his family's farm, danced with his mother.

These were a group of extraordinary achievers born to poor farmers. If there is one precondition to being poor in a country like Paraguay, it is to be born a campesino, or rural peasant. Being an adolescent girl or a member of a native indigenous community practically ensures this outcome. And yet, these young people had overcome the...


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