August 31, 2023 | Partnerships

Owning Poverty

Poverty Stoplight methodology reinforces that each person’s poverty situation is unique

By Kati Burns Mallows

Every poor family is poor in its own way.

This was one of the biggest revelations from Dr. Martín Burt in his 2019 book, “Who Owns Poverty?” The book chronicles Burt's journey into the development, early implementation and evaluation of a methodology called “Poverty Stoplight.”

Developed more than a decade ago, Poverty Stoplight is a self-assessment survey and intervention model that seeks to activate the potential of families to lift themselves out of poverty.

Unbound has operated for more than 40 years under a similar belief — that the smartest path out of poverty is a self-directed one, that sponsorship coupled with belief in a family’s potential can motivate them to build their own path to a brighter future.

But not until Unbound’s partnership with Poverty Stoplight had it ever been so clear just how unique each family’s own situation of poverty truly is.

The right partnership, tools to reach 'green'

Poverty Stoplight is about giving families information and the dignity of choice.

“When we ask who owns poverty, our understanding of what poverty is must be shaped by the perspectives and priorities of poor people themselves,” wrote Burt, who is the founder and CEO of Fundación Paraguay. “If we give them the right tools, every family can be a changemaker.”

Poverty Stoplight is the first step in this process. First introduced to families on a computer or tablet in the form of a visual survey, the Stoplight helps them understand their own poverty situation across six dimensions: income and employment, health and environment, housing and infrastructure, education and culture, organization and participation, and interiority (or potential) and motivation. Images in red describe “extreme poverty,” while images in yellow mean “poverty” and images in green are classified as “non-poverty.”

Families choose a color that represents their situation. The survey results allow families to gain a better awareness of their own poverty, and they develop a “life map” meant to guide them toward overcoming their own deprivations.

The Poverty Stoplight technology is being used by 423 organizations across 47 countries. Since Unbound’s partnership with Poverty Stoplight in 2021, the organization has maintained its status as the largest implementor of the methodology worldwide, doubling the overall number of families reached by Poverty Stoplight across all implementing organizations.


Each image in the Poverty Stoplight survey represents a situation that defines poverty in terms of red, yellow or green, and families choose the image they think best represents their status. The survey can take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours to complete. 

For more in-depth information about the early days of Unbound’s Poverty Stoplight implementation, read the story “Light to Lead the Way.”

Two-and-a-half years into the partnership — dubbed Unbound’s Goal Orientation Powered by Poverty Stoplight — staff from all 31 Unbound programs across 17 countries have now been trained in the methodology, adapted the survey to their locations and have begun implementation with families.

More than 150,000 of Unbound’s 268,000-plus sponsored individuals and families are already using the Poverty Stoplight. Families have set more than 350,000 goals that help them focus on the next steps toward living free from poverty.

“We are now moving past the capacity and adaption phases [of Poverty Stoplight] to implementation,” said Melissa Velazquez, Unbound’s vice president for international programs. “Some programs [early adopters] are already returning to families for follow-up surveys to measure progress and set new priorities.”

One of the greatest lessons thus far, according to Velazquez, has been learning to embrace the Stoplight not just as a tool for measurement but for intervention.

“The self-reflection process is incredibly participatory and transformational,” she said. “The numbers and colors of a family’s stoplight may appear to advance or regress, but that is only half of the story. The consciousness and trust building that goes into the Stoplight is a mutual benefit to family and staff but is perhaps the single biggest benefit to the family on their journey.”

For example, in Unbound Honduras (one of the programs that piloted Poverty Stoplight), early survey indicators helped staff begin to see shared barriers among families that centered around the desire they had to grow their savings and access capital. With this new data in hand, staff focused on working with mothers groups to find local partnerships with rural savings and loan cooperatives and integrated thousands of families into new financial systems.

Though Unbound takes the lead in implementing and analyzing the data obtained through Poverty Stoplight, the organization’s partnership with Fundación Paraguay is a present and driving force behind the efforts.

Unbound Program Data Analyst Ibrahima Ball said the partnership is all about teamwork and collaboration.

“We’re in touch frequently, meeting at least once a week to chat about challenges, ongoing projects and exciting new ventures,” said Ball, whose primary responsibility is making sense of the data for Unbound’s Goal Orientation Powered by Poverty Stoplight. “Their expert opinions and insights shine, and their valuable perspectives enrich our discussions, especially during events like Poverty Stoplight Meets, where all the various organizations that use Poverty Stoplight come together virtually.”

In July, Dr. Martín Burt visited Unbound’s Kansas City headquarters where he gave an inspirational and informative speech about his journey with Poverty Stoplight and held a livestreamed Q&A with employees afterward.

“We’ve had the same journey,” said Burt, referring to the similarities in his life’s work compared to Unbound’s mission. “I am part of your journey; you are part of mine.”

But the greatest relationship thus far is not the one between Unbound staff and Dr. Burt or Fundación Paraguay staff, but the newly redefined relationships between staff and sponsored families as they put Poverty Stoplight into action.

Together, they are either witnessing or experiencing the power of the dignity of choice.


In July 2023, Dr. Martín Burt (kneeling front, center), founder and CEO of Fundación Paraguay and inventor of Poverty Stoplight, visited Unbound’s Kansas City headquarters where he spent the day interacting with staff and touring the facility.

The dignity of having choices

Because poverty is multi-dimensional and depends on the person, Burt argues that you must first understand a person’s motivations.

In Unbound’s Guatemala program, the information gleaned from her Poverty Stoplight results has given Jacqueline awareness of the power she has to meaningfully choose. She’s learning to prioritize improvements to the areas that could have the biggest overall impact on her family’s poverty situation.

Jacqueline’s husband tends crops for income, and Jacqueline sometimes works as a cook. Before Poverty Stoplight, when her oldest daughter, Wendy, was sponsored through Unbound, Jacqueline was most motivated to save some of the sponsorship money so that she could buy a wardrobe closet. All she wanted was to have somewhere that her children could store their clothes.

When Jacqueline’s family took the Poverty Stoplight survey, their results indicated that the family needed to improve in two areas to reach a “non-poverty” status — areas that the family hadn’t necessarily been focused on before. First, they needed to update their latrine to a more modern toilet that empties properly and, second, they needed residential internet so that their daughters could keep up with their studies. Of these two items, Jacqueline’s family believes having internet makes their family a “more developed family.”

“I realized what I need and what I don’t need, where I am and where I am not, and where I need to go,” said Jacqueline, who, now with a focus, has already begun saving to reach the first goal.

With the Stoplight, I realized all that I have. I am going to work hard to achieve and stay green on every aspect.”


Jacqueline helps tend the crops her husband cares for. Through practicing saving, the family has been able to slowly make improvements to the structure of their home. Jacqueline, who was only able to complete sixth grade, hopes their efforts mean their daughters will have brighter futures and be able to finish their studies. 


Unbound Guatemala social worker German Orlando Tum Coy meets with Jacqueline and daughters Wendy, 11, and Rose, 6, in their home, where he administers a paper version of the Poverty Stoplight survey. 


Jacqueline sits with her two daughters, sponsored child Wendy (left) and Rose (right), in the bedroom of their home in Guatemala. 

Building a solutions bank, guiding families to make more informed decisions with their sponsorship funds

The longer the Poverty Stoplight methodology is applied across the more than 400 organizations currently utilizing it worldwide, the more solutions will be banked and shared, increasing the likelihood that one day there may be a solution to every poverty indicator identified.

According to Burt, there’s not one poverty indicator on the survey results that can’t be solved within five years’ time if families make it their priority.

For Unbound, Poverty Stoplight is seen as a promising tool to more specifically target donors’ investments in sponsored families. According to Unbound Director of International Programs Dan Pearson, this is because of the way the methodology breaks down the diverse manifestations of poverty into actionable priorities.

“The majority of the funds that are donated to Unbound end up in the bank accounts of families,” Pearson said. “We believe that the Poverty Stoplight methodology helps families understand their poverty at a more granular level to enable them to more precisely target the funds they receive to create tangible change more quickly.”

This influence can also happen at the decision-making level for program staff who are working closely with the families, which can be seen in the example of 36-year-old mother Maribel and her family.

Living in a rural setting in the Philippines at the foot of a mountain and in a nipa hut inherited from Maribel’s parents, the family was struggling through pitch-black nights with no electricity. The three children had trouble completing their homework after the sun went down, and not being able to see insects that would enter their home at night was a problem.

The family’s income as farmers was only sufficient to afford their food and other basic necessities; they could not afford the cost to have electricity wired to their home.


In their nipa hut, Maribel shares a hug with her son, Johnscan, 11, who is sponsored. A nipa hut is a type of house on stilts in the Philippines, often built with bamboo rods and mats. The family was one of 10 other families in their rural community that were living without electricity.

According to Unbound Quezon’s Susan Espiritu, staff conducted the Poverty Stoplight survey with Maribel’s family in October 2022 and together set three goals for the family to work on to reach green.

The first goal was to construct a more safe and secure home. Through practicing saving, little by little, the family has already begun to lay the foundation for their new home.

The second goal was to obtain electricity, while the third goal was to update their bathroom to include a safety tank for waste materials.

Because the family’s income was not always sufficient for even their daily needs, staff made the decision to use Unbound’s Critical Needs Fund to help the family obtain electricity. For just $185 USD, the family bought the materials needed — including the switch, fuse, bulbs, wires, service drop and junction box — and paid an electrician to complete the installation.

By April 2023, Maribel’s family came to know what it was like to be able to turn the lights on with the setting sun.

“My children are very happy; they don’t have to visit [neighbors’ homes] to do their homework,” Maribel said. “[They] can read now at night. Thank you to Unbound because you are the answer to our prayers and solution to our problem for a long time.”


Maribel’s family home is located at the foot of mountains in the Philippines. The family has begun laying the foundation for their new home next to their nipa hut, which was their first goal from the Poverty Stoplight survey. This goal will take some time for the family to complete since they are building the home themselves as their savings allow.

Realizing the full potential of Poverty Stoplight integration

Unbound is working toward having Poverty Stoplight implementation completed for 70% of all families in its programs by the end of 2023, according to Velazquez, ensuring they each have a clear map and established priorities.

To speed up the implementation process and keep families on track with their goals, some programs have activated established mothers groups in their areas to help build accountability among the families and provide mentoring for achieving the anti-poverty goals they’ve set.

Thus far, Unbound’s Goal Orientation Powered by Poverty Stoplight has only been adapted for and introduced to the families of sponsored children. With the onboarding process for program staff now complete, Unbound has begun work with Fundación Paraguay to adapt the Stoplight to the unique realities of sponsored elders living in poverty. Velazquez said the organization is excited to see how including the direct reflections of elders can shape development work within Unbound and beyond.

“On the program side, we are just beginning to see how the reflections made in the Poverty Stoplight can be analyzed to influence and direct change, and to add to the bank of anti-poverty solutions being built by communities around the world,” Velazquez said.

“Starting with each life map, the Stoplight is a tool for Unbound to be accountable to the leadership of families and to evaluate our success based on their measures.”

While the Poverty Stoplight empowers families to look within and across to other families in the same community to source solutions for eliminating their deprivations, it also empowers the rest of humanity to think of poverty in new ways. And it brings into clearer focus a simple truth that Unbound’s own founders tapped into decades ago while walking with families in poverty.

No one person, entity or organization owns another person’s poverty. People are the owners of their own poverty.

With the right motivations and listening ears, they will become the experts at forming the best paths out of poverty.

On the program side, we are just beginning to see how the reflections made in the Poverty Stoplight can be analyzed to influence and direct change, and to add to the bank of anti-poverty solutions being built by communities around the world.

— Melissa Velazquez, Unbound Vice President for International Programs

Regional reporters Oscar Tuch and Teejay Cabrera contributed photos and information for this story.