global poverty

“I feel blessed that as a business person who wants to see a better world, I’ve had the chance through my roles at Opportunity to see that take place. I come from a business background and love business but I also love making a difference. To make a social difference, but to do it through business, seems to suit me. And working for Opportunity gives me the opportunity to help families change their lives. To help their children lead the best life they possibly can.”

Recently appointed the Global Executive Director of Opportunity International, Robert Dunn is looking forward to continuing to help families in developing countries free themselves from poverty with hope, dignity and purpose. He discusses that journey with Generosity.

Opportunity International tackles poverty through microfinance. Please explain that model and how it helps break the cycle of poverty.

Opportunity gives small loans to families living in poverty in India, Indonesia and the Philippines so they can grow businesses, earn regular incomes, put food on the table and send their children to school. We provide families with the tools to break the cycle of poverty themselves. As well as small loans, these tools include business training, savings accounts, insurance, education loans, health leader training, digital financial services and loans for toilets and the provision of clean water.

We know from interviews with our loan recipients that they invest the profits from their businesses into their children’s education, which gives the children the opportunity to break the intergenerational cycle of poverty. The children often go on to gain stable employment after they leave school, college or university.

A few years ago, I met a lady in India – Usha Devi. She told me when she was struggling to feed her family proper meals and send her children to school, she knew she had to do something. She heard about the small loans Opportunity provides to women in her situation and knowing this renewed her hope. She said she could see good days knocking at her door. Usha received a loan of Rs.15,000 (A$296) to buy a sewing machine to start her own tailoring shop. Today she employs two local women and even runs sewing classes for locals. The income she earns has not only kept her children in school and put nutritious food on the table, it has even paid for a tap to be installed inside their home.

In a practical sense, how do people living in extreme poverty, especially in rural and remote areas, access your services.

Opportunity works through local partners in each country and our local partners have offices in rural and remote areas. We distribute the funds to our program partners and together with each family, our partners assess whether it’s a good business proposition for them to receive a small loan to get a little business going. Loans can be as little as $100. Loan officers visit the families each week so they can repay their loans. As 98% of loans are repaid, these funds are then lent to other families so they can set up small businesses or re-lent to existing loan recipients to expand their businesses.

We look for program partners in each country who want to dedicate their lives to helping families make the journey out of poverty. They’re the experts and understand the local culture as well as the needs of the families in their area. As well as providing them with training, our local partners help families access other services such as school fee loans, health leader training, family violence counsellors and loans for clean water and toilets.

We’re providing a hand up, not a hand out, providing families living in poverty the opportunity to achieve self-sufficiency. I recently met a lady in her 70s in India, who borrowed $125 to start an egg business. She boils eggs and sells them – she buys them for two rupees an egg and sells them for five rupees each. She took us aside and said: “I’m making so much money, don’t tell anyone,” because her margins were so big and she didn’t want her neighbours to copy her. It was life-changing for her, for her family and the people around her. We see this played out over and over again in the lives of families living in poverty, year after year.

global poverty

Opportunity International gives small loans to families living in poverty in India, Indonesia and the Philippines so they can grow businesses, earn regular incomes, put food on the table and send their children to school.

What has been the impact of Opportunity International’s activities?

During the last 45 years, Opportunity International has provided millions of families in developing countries with small loans to build businesses, earn regular incomes, put food on the table and send their children to school.

Opportunity is a leader in Social Performance Management, an innovative way of measuring and assessing the impact programs are having on families living in poverty. It’s how we know our work is having a positive effect on families and communities in need. It helps us to better understand the needs of families and equips us to design products and services that best address their needs. Collectively, the Opportunity International Network and our partners are providing a way out of poverty for nearly 10 million people in 22 developing countries around the world.

Mary Antony’s story s typical of the stories I hear from mothers in India, Indonesia and the Philippines. Mary Antony is 43 and lives with her husband and two daughters in her village in Thrissur, India.

When she was pregnant with her eldest daughter, she didn’t eat because they couldn’t afford to buy food. She struggled to survive. Today, life looks very different and food plays a very different role in Mary Antony’s world. A loan of just Rs.8,000 (A$169) gave her the hand up she needed to build a business making snacks. Mary Antony used the loan to buy utensils and a stove and set about writing recipes for local favourites like samosas, unni appams and fritters.

Mary Antony and her husband start work every morning at 4am and they are often so busy they don’t eat until 3pm. The business is thriving, so now Mary Antony employs four women and the profits have paid for her two daughters to go to school and university – both graduated with a Bachelor of Commerce. With tears in her eyes, she said: “I’m very proud of them!”

When you sit with women in developing countries and talk about their lives, you realise they are just like you and me. Their circumstances are vastly different but they’re still like us. They want better lives for their kids. They want their kids to grow up and be good people. Have choices and not be desperate. And I’ve seen desperate. I’ve seen little girls making road base breaking rocks with huge hammers. I’ve seen men just sitting unemployed. On the ground. Staring into no-where. Because they have no hope. They have no choices. This is how a large part of the world lives and Opportunity is committed to making a lasting difference in their lives.

How do you see microfinancing evolving in the future?

Opportunity has an exciting future and it’s made possible by the generosity of our supporters. They are helping families make the journey out of poverty through small loans to grow businesses, health education programs, school fee loans, digital financial services and loans to access clean water and build toilets.

We see major growth ahead in our programs to reach more families living in poverty and give their kids a better future. We’re looking to take our programs into additional developing countries and we’re designing specialised programs like funding specialist agricultural financial services and digital financial services.

Our programs are sustainable because loans are recycled and lent to other families when loan recipients pay them back. But there’s so much more progress we can make in helping families break the cycle of poverty. More than anything, we are using the mobile phone to reach more families and offer them a greater range of services.

Everything in our world revolves around the mobile phone – even in developing countries where intense competition amongst telcos has lowered the price of handsets and call costs. Most families living in developing countries have access to mobile phones – either within their household or in their local community. And so, digital financial inclusion is a massive aspect of what we’re doing going forwards.

Everything will come on the mobile phone in the future and its already changing a lot of what we do. And what all this means is that more and more families will have their lives changed. Kids will be healthy and educated. Families will progress from hopelessness to real freedom and choices. We see this played out over and over again.

Opportunity International has a bold vision to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. A] How do you define ‘extreme poverty’ as opposed to ‘poverty’?; B] How many people are living in extreme poverty?; and C] How close are you to achieving that vision?

The World Bank uses an income measure to define extreme poverty – people living on less than $1.90 a day. Using this, 767 million people live in extreme poverty. But poverty goes beyond a low income. It means you have limited access to your basic needs, such as nutritious food, clean water, healthcare and education.

Opportunity has helped millions of families break the cycle of poverty in the last 25 years, but we still have a long way to go to end extreme poverty.

Penina, her husband Nicodaemus and four children live in extreme poverty in Timor inside a home they built with their own hands close to 30 years ago. The house, made from thatch, is a small shack – just one room that is their bedroom, living room and kitchen all in one. There is a single bed – a hard wooden platform covered with a few blankets and a mosquito net. It’s the bed all six of them share. There is no proper floor – just dirt – and some of the walls are patched with sheets of corrugated iron where the thatch has worn away. There is no heating. No sanitation, no technology, no transport. When Penina was giving birth, she had to get to the health centre – some 8km away – on horseback. The family’s only clean water source is a well a one-hour walk away.

The garden, consisting of corn, bananas and cassava, is everything to Penina and Nicodaemus. Without it, their family would have nothing. It provides the daily meals for the family. All six of them survive off whatever they grow in it and a local community garden Penina helps look after. After they feed themselves, they sell any excess fruits or vegetables to help them earn a small income, between 100,000 rupiah and 200,000 rupiah each month. In Australian terms – that’s between 10 and 20 dollars – a month. That’s just 30-60 cents a day.

When they do earn any extra income from the garden, Penina and Nicodaemus use these few extra cents to buy rice and oil to provide their children with more nutrients. Ingredients for porridge, if possible, to help keep them strong. Their next priority, Penina told me, is clothing for the children. Education is also important to Penina – yet at the same time, a luxury. Penina, having only gone to school between the ages of eight and 15, wants desperately for her children to have a better life. But in a battle between being fed, clothed or educated, school is what gets dropped when there is simply no money.

Penina told us she knows they are ‘left out’ of the world – and she feels it. She and Nicodaemus want their children to have happy, full lives – to be educated, to be a part of the world, to be included. To have choices. But when life is a battle just to survive, what choice do they have?

global poverty

“By working together in long-term partnerships, based on mutuality, trust, authenticity and passion, philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector can achieve maximum social impact and break the cycle of poverty.”

What is the greatest challenge in achieving the goal to end extreme poverty?

There are many challenges involved in ending extreme poverty. Social and political factors can contribute to systemic poverty, as can cultural norms. Natural disasters and environmental conditions are important as, is a country’s level of economic growth.

Illiteracy is a major factor as people cannot access the information they need to act in their best interests. It also prevents them from taking opportunities, exercising their rights and avoiding risks. For example, if a couple doesn’t realise domestic violence is unacceptable, how will the woman ever experience empowerment and worth?

If they are unaware the government provides subsidies to build toilets, they will continue to defecate in the open, which can pollute the water in the well and cause preventable diseases. The implications of illiteracy are far-reaching and impacts every facet of a family’s life. It stops a woman and her husband from being able to work. Children miss school. And it contributes to the deaths of young children and elderly people.

How do Australians living in poverty fit into the Opportunity International story?

Opportunity focuses on international development – we support families living in poverty in developing countries. Here, poverty levels are much more extreme than we experience in Australia, and it is here we believe we can have the greatest impact.

Microfinance works differently in Australia – for example, loan amounts are much higher. David Bussau, Opportunity’s founder, is a founding director of Many Rivers Microfinance, an enterprise development initiative based in Australia. Many Rivers’ program is separate and different from Opportunity’s. It provides credit-based financial services to indigenous and other marginalised Australians to help them own and manage their own businesses. For further information on Many Rivers, visit

How can philanthropy and the non-profit sector work better to break the cycle poverty?

By working together in long-term partnerships, based on mutuality, trust, authenticity and passion, philanthropy and the not-for-profit sector can achieve maximum social impact and break the cycle of poverty. Not-for-profits need to understand the needs and aspirations of philanthropists – the partnership between philanthropists and not-for-profits is strengthened when there is strong alignment of values and a shared purpose in the relationship.

Public confidence in charities is strong in Australia, ranking the third most trusted group, behind doctors and police. But this trust must be earned and nurtured and can be easily lost. Donors trust charities with rigorous governance, skilled management and a high level of transparency about the way they use resources. Trust in charities is integral to their survival, as it’s a primary motivator for donor support.

As leaders of charities, we are agents of trust. We have a trust contract with our supporters, who will advocate for us, because we are doing good things in their name. The trust contract is precious and needs constant nurturing by providing clarity on what’s happening – the good and the bad news, the mistakes and the learnings from these errors.

Robert Dunn worked as the CFO of a listed company in Australia for many years before being appointed CFO of Opportunity International Australia 10 years ago. A year later he became CEO and was recently appointed the Global Executive Director.

Opportunity International recently shifted its executive leadership to Sydney.

For more information about Opportunity International visit the website.