Global Cooperation

How technology can help us eliminate, not alleviate, poverty

Martin Burt
CEO, Fundación Paraguaya
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As part of a blog series on Social Entrepreneurs, we spoke to Martin Burt, Founder and Chief Executive Officer, Fundación Paraguaya, about his organization’s Poverty Stoplight assessment tool to alleviate poverty in developing countries. Through an online 30-minute survey, families can trace their own poverty map and develop and implement a clear plan to overcome it. Poverty Stoplight is currently being used in 18 countries in Latin American, Africa and Asia, with the private sector showing interest in using it to help their employees.

You have been a leading figure in Paraguay creating inclusive growth for decades. You created Fundación Paraguaya, the first microfinance organization in Paraguay, which has replicated its entrepreneurial education programmes through a network of 2,500 institutions in 125 countries. You also created the Poverty Stoplight, a visual survey to help poor people assess their level of poverty on 50 indicators across six dimensions, such as whether they have proper sanitation, whether their children have been vaccinated, etc. What is different about Poverty Stoplight, and how does it help families get out of poverty?

Technology allows many things today that were inconceivable or impractical in the past. In this case, technology enables poor people to self-diagnose their own level of poverty in 30 minutes using a smartphone or a tablet. For the first time, a family in a poor slum or a rural village has the capacity to take stock of their own situation, which is very empowering.

Traditionally, it has been a government social worker who administers a survey and then takes that information with them. Poverty Stoplight is the opposite. Here, a family assesses their level of poverty in 50 specific indicators, and the results are visualized in a dashboard for the family to use. So instead of being an index for policy-makers, the Poverty Stoplight is a tool for a very different kind of decision-maker: the head of the household. Once that household’s deprivations are visualized in the dashboard, the family creates a customized plan to prioritize their problems and overcome them with the help of existing resources in the community.

A family may have an income gap, dental problems, latrine problems and transportation problems, while the next door neighbour may have different deprivations although they live in the same slum. The key is to allow each family to take ownership of their situation, and make a family plan. What are my priorities? What am I going to do to rectify this? Who has resources available in the community who can help me? What is my timeframe? This plan is the family’s responsibility. Our responsibility is to share those patterns with existing service providers in the community – NGOs who make wheelchairs or agencies that do sanitation hook-ups, for example, who can lend their support without having to take ownership of that household’s overall situation.


Many corporations inside Paraguay are working with this tool. They have publicly committed to eliminate extreme poverty among their employees. What does that actually mean and what is their role in achieving such an audacious goal?

We are persuading corporations, factories and companies to move beyond corporate social responsibility to eliminate the poverty of their factory workers, or their coffee growers, or whatever employees they may have. Forty-two corporations in Paraguay have officially assumed responsibility and signed up, and we are working with other international companies as well.

It works like this: we explain it to the head of a company’s human resources department, who identifies the group of vulnerable workers and brings them in. Each employee fills out their 30-minute self-diagnosis using a smartphone device. Once we collect that information, we provide the company with an inventory of available services in their region.

For example, the first thing the company will notice is that 99% of their workers do not have savings accounts. So the leadership of the company engages with the bank that serves the company to open 400 savings accounts for their workers. A worker on his own cannot engage with the bank, but the owner of a company can. Let’s say another three workers have a family member who needs a wheelchair – that’s just a phone call away.

So the head of HR and social workers partner with the factory employees to see what priorities need to be addressed and identify strategies to overcome poverty. Maybe the employee says, “I’m going to get water first, I’ll fix my bathroom. I will send my children to the dentist. I will discuss with my wife how we can make an extra $100 a month selling food out of the house, because we live in a busy street near a public transport stop.”

How is this tool facilitating decision-making inside government? How is it catalysing policy change?

Governments tend to count outputs and activities – number of workshops, number of vaccines, etc. – but not the outcomes those activities bring about. Healthcare is a classic example. The government counts the number of clinics and the number of doctors. But when you ask the population that is supposedly being served by that clinic, they say we prefer to use traditional medicine because the doctors are never there and they are not nice to us. This is just one example of the huge gap between government perception and public perception.

For the first time, through the Poverty Stoplight data, governments have access to the other side of service delivery. It is revolutionary for them to be able to see what the outcomes really are. When government decision-makers see a Google map overlay of our Poverty Stoplight respondents, with different filters for which families are reporting undernourishment, which families are not vaccinated, which families do not have birth certificates for their children, they love it. They love it because governments are usually trained to use samples and census data. Let’s say the census data indicates 85% of children have birth certificates. The problem is that the civil registry issuing birth certificates does not know which children fall into the 15% without them. Now governments can have a granular view of the data, which allows them to send in their social workers to increase the coverage to 100% of, say, vaccinations or birth certificates.

More governments must become aware of the advantages of digital technologies.

You are not only a social entrepreneur, but you have also been a government minister, trying to create social change from within government structures. What is your advice for social entrepreneurs on how to work more effectively with government?

The first thing to understand is that governments have something that social entrepreneurs may not have, which is the problem of accountability. Governments respond to other people, and many times social entrepreneurs are only accountable to themselves and to their own organizations.

You also need to be empathic of government’s limitations. There are people in every single Ministry of Education, Ministry of Health or Central Bank who are worried about improving education, healthcare services or financial inclusion. Sometimes they just don’t know how. The role of the social entrepreneur is to meet government officials where they are, present their innovation in a way that is absorbable to government and help government decision-makers figure out how to get a bigger bang for their buck.

Some social entrepreneurs don’t like engaging in politics and complain that working with government is too slow. But sooner or later, irrespective of whether you want public money, you will need to engage government. It doesn’t matter if you’re in eye care or water or energy or financial inclusion – governments have scale, governments set policy and regulatory frameworks, governments have nation-wide infrastructure. Engaging with governments is a critical challenge if social entrepreneurs want to take their innovations to scale.

Let’s explore your pathway to scale. How do you think about scale in that large sense of the broader system-level change you are trying to bring about?

The Poverty Stoplight is already in 18 countries. The country that is most advanced is South Africa, where a local organization set up the Poverty Stoplight to work in the townships of Cape Town, but it’s been adapted to eight African countries and eight Latin American countries and in India and Vietnam. Encouragingly, we are getting calls from the private sector and the microfinance sector.

We realized we don’t actually need to be physically present in every country for this tool to be adopted. We want to establish a mechanism where people can come and take on this thing without us. We have to create a Poverty Stoplight in a toolkit so that people can access it. My dream is that, by virtue of the technology and information revolution we have, it can be as easy to use as Facebook. We have to create the right incentives for people to quickly self-diagnose and connect them to the resources available within their communities. At the end of the day, it has to be a crowdsourcing tool.

Instead of being limited in what you can do, now you just have to leverage other people’s resources to provide goods and services that are outside of your scope. For example, now you can provide wheelchairs to a family member of one of your employees without actually running a wheelchair program. And for the NGO distributing wheelchairs, they can work with microfinance organizations to help move their wheelchair recipients out of poverty. All of this is now possible because we have access to all of this information we did not have before.

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Martin Burt was interviewed by Katherine Milligan, Director and Head of the Schwab Foundation for Social Entrepreneurship

Image: A boy uses a tablet outside his house at the Mare slums complex in Rio de Janeiro March 25, 2014. REUTERS/Ricardo Moraes

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Related topics:
Global CooperationFourth Industrial RevolutionEconomic GrowthEquity, Diversity and Inclusion
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