Enhancing empowerment in multidimensional poverty interventions through self-assessment and mentoring

Hammler, Katharina (1); Pane Solis, Juan Carlos (2) (2018). 'Enhancing Empowerment in Multidimensional Poverty Interventions through Self-assessment and Mentoring' Paper presented at the annual conference of the HDCA, Buenos Aires, Argentina 2018.


A microfinance organization in Paraguay has developed the “Poverty Stoplight”, a tool that lets families self-evaluate their level of multidimensional poverty and that is then used as the starting point for an integrated mentoring process that has the goal of eliminating the family’s multidimensional poverty. This paper a) introduces the tool, b) explains its theoretical merits based on the Capability Approach, and c) presents empirical data that indicate that participation in the program is indeed associated with a higher probability of overcoming poverty.

The Poverty Stoplight is both a metric and a methodology for a poverty intervention. The metric allows participants to self-diagnose their level of poverty across 50 multidimensional indicators,  turning the survey procedure into a participatory process where the primary goal is to provide families with information about their situation of poverty and to highlight an achievable situation of non-poverty. This is an innovation because conventionally, poverty measurement is an “extractive” exercise where families provide information that is then analyzed and used by researchers, policy makers, or other third parties. Benefits to the respondents are, at best, very indirect. The Poverty Stoplight challenges this convention by providing a poverty assessment that is participatory and useful for the poor themselves. Additionally, the tool produces ordinal data on the 50 indicators that can be used by the organization or by third parties for more conventional purposes, such as for tracking poverty levels or for improving a program’s targeting. The methodology, on the other hand, consists of participants defining their priorities and objectives for their own lives based on the survey results, and developing strategies to reach these goals, with the support of a mentor. The mentor provides personalized one-on-one support for the duration of the program, and works with each client and their families to overcome poverty through a lifeplan based on what they value and have reasons to value.

We argue that the Poverty Stoplight is a promising operationalization of the Capabilities Approach for development practice for several reasons. In terms of the metric, first, it presents a measurement tool for multidimensional poverty that covers a wide range of functionings and capabilities. The tool contains 50 indicators of multidimensional poverty that cover traditional topics like health and education, but also non-traditional topics such as self-esteem or recreational activities. These indicators were developed and validated through participatory research within the context where its applied and align with Martha Nussbaum’s list of basic capabilities. Second, through self-diagnosis, the metric provides critical agency in the sense that through the self-diagnostic survey it gives participants an opportunity to reflect, question, and assess their own deprived situation as a prerequisite to act upon this to improve their lives. And third, the metric also provides an opportunity to enhance participants aspirations because through a visual survey, they are able to observe not only what ‘poverty’ is in various indicators, but also what ‘non-poverty’ looks like. In terms of the methodology, first, the Poverty Stoplight helps participants define the priorities for their own lives based on what they value and have reason to value, instead of the organization setting external development goals for its clients. Second, the Poverty Stoplight mentoring process is designed to enhance respondents’ empowerment for achieving valuable functionings and capabilities. This process may consist of identifying resources for material problems, but, equally important, it may also focus on non-material aspects such as reflection, aspirations, and agency. Third, the Poverty Stoplight explicitly acknowledges that families adapt their aspirations to the circumstances they find themselves in, and works to change that frame of reference. One strategy for achieving that during the mentoring process is the use of positive deviants, which are families in the same community who are better-off in a given topic than other families. These positive deviants allow participants to see another possible reality for themselves, and brings back their capacity to aspire.

There is evidence that participants in the Poverty Stoplight program are indeed more likely to eliminate their multidimensional poverty. An analysis of administrative data shows that among all of the organizations’ microfinance clients, those that were randomly chosen to participate in the program see their poverty levels fall up to three times as fast as clients who only receive micro credit. More research is currently underway to: a) explore the mechanisms and pathways through which the Poverty Stoplight enhance empowerment defined as power within, power to, and power with; b) understand the interaction of the processes of reflection, aspiration, and agency in the Poverty Stoplight; c) evaluate how the mentoring process and dynamics empowers clients and supports them through their poverty alleviation process.

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