Volume 12 Number 2
A Talent for Job-Creation
01 April 1999
Over 165,000 people in developing countries found work in 1998, thanks to David Bussau and his organization. John Williams meets a man who knows how to help people to help themselves.
If you had gone to a football game near Wellington, New Zealand, in 1955, you might have bought a hot dog from a bright-faced kid who was running a stall outside the stadium. If you'd got talking with him, he'd have cheerfully told you he was an orphan, that he'd had to leave the orphanage at 15, that the hot-dog stand was his first business venture.
And you'd have sensed that he had big dreams.
But this is not another rags to riches tale. David Bussau certainly joined the affluent, but in 1979 he put all he had into a trust to fight poverty by developing economic skills among the very poor, who would normally never have any chance in life. 'The only valid economic system,' he says, 'creates common wealth that strengthens the family unit and the godly values which hold societies together' -- and thus produces benefits for all rather than increasing the rich-poor gap. This, he adds wryly, is 'not the sort of global economic system in place at the moment'.
Someone from Bussau's background might easily have become a victim of unemployment rather than the answer to it for hundreds of thousands. In 1998 Opportunity International, the global organization he gave birth to, provided loans totalling close to A$50 million to people in 28 countries, thereby creating over 165,000 jobs and benefiting three quarters of a million people.
Far from being embittered by never having known his parents, or whether he had brothers or sisters, Bussau thinks his upbringing was 'God's way of preparing me for the purpose he designed for my life. It was essential for me to know the discipline of having to look after myself, the ability to be independent and interdependent with others.'
His hot-dog stand led to other businesses in the food industry. By the time Bussau was 25 he was manufacturing, distributing and exporting food products. Then he moved into construction, and by 35 had started a total of eight enterprises. But he was dissatisfied. He sensed that God was 'tapping me on the shoulder and saying, "The 15 years in the orphanage wasn't for you to amass wealth for yourself."'
But those years had seen his whole formal education. So what else was he supposed to do? He had learnt at the orphanage that it was natural to trust God, but, he says with a grin, 'I'd really become dependent on my cheque book.'
In 1974 he got a chance to apply his experience to urgent community needs rather than increasing his assets, when a cyclone flattened the northern Australian city of Darwin and he hurried to help rebuild it.
Then in 1976 an earthquake shook the Indonesian island of Bali, so Bussau and his wife Carol and their two daughters flew there to help. They walked eight kilometres into the jungle to live with a community in the most basic conditions. But three years later, after millions of aid money had been put into 'building up the community infrastructure -- a bridge, schools, a church, a dam -- the poor were still poor. The infrastructure didn't make any difference.' And many of the village's poorest people were locked in debt to loan sharks.
He looks back on the spell in the jungle as 'a very self-centred experience. It was not God saying to me, "How can I use you more effectively?" It was about myself being fulfilled by helping the community.' He likens himself to the man in the Bible who was lent five talents by his boss and instead of trying to multiply them, buried them so they wouldn't be lost -- to his boss's fury. The gift God had given Bussau, he realized, was to be an entrepreneur, and he had to give the gift back to God rather than burying it in the jungle. 'If you release your talents and lift them up to God, he'll use them to benefit creation. If you hold on to them, then you own them and you can't help others.'
He had been horrified by the power wielded by the loan sharks. 'Throughout Asia there's an informal five/six system. If you borrow five in the morning you pay back six at the end of the day. That's 20 per cent interest per day!' Small children were being put to work to repay loans their parents had taken out so they could survive. Some people actually mortgaged their unborn children. 'The mothers are basically baby machines!' he said to himself. 'How can we get people out of this?'
As a start, to bypass the loan sharks, he offered small personal loans to individuals he thought might be able to make creative use of them. The results electrified him. The small businesses started with his money not only produced viable enterprises but gave their proprietors self-respect and a sense of empowerment.
So he made the decision of his life: to sell his own businesses and create a global organization with 'a very simple vision: a job for every family'. The phrase, he adds mischievously, is stolen from Microsoft's slogan of a computer in every house.
In 1971, Al Whittaker, a former President of Bristol-Meyers in the US, also gave up his personal career to search for a lasting solution to poverty. He joined forces with Bussau in 1979. The organization now has eight 'Support Partners', in the USA, UK, Germany, Australia, Canada, France, Sweden and New Zealand, and 'Partner Institutions' in 28 countries of Africa, Asia, Latin America, the Middle East and Central and Eastern Europe.
The Partner Institutions each have a local board of directors, made up of successful business people who are also Christians. They set up a registered organization and employ the best people they can find, at market salaries. These organizations (56 of them now) are independent, autonomous, designed to fit local conditions and run by nationals, not expatriates. The local organizations receive inputs of capital and training to get them going, and within five years they must be viable, covering all expenses from the interest they charge. However little experience the clients have had, the work environment and 'such basics' as accounting practices and inventory control must be up to scratch. 'We walk alongside our clients,' Bussau says. Each of them has to attend value-formation seminars so they run their business ethically.
The network has unearthed thousands of talented people among the very poor, whom commercial banks won't touch but who are ready to take risks. Even under Communism, Bussau says, 'entrepreneurship was never killed'. In 27 years the average default rate on Opportunity's loans has only been 5 per cent, and the smaller the loan, the better the repayment rate. 'The poor have more integrity than the affluent when it comes to repayment.'
Opportunity will fund any productive ethical undertaking, if the client has a profitable business plan and no other means of getting credit. For instance: 12 years ago, a self-employed Filipino maker of cane chairs received US$500 to buy materials and equipment. He now employs 138 people -- and was recently granted a loan of $30,000 from a local bank. A Bulgarian dentist was enabled to get a dentist's chair made locally so he could break out of a rigid, inefficient government health scheme, go into private practice and improve his service to his patients. A woman in Zimbabwe started making brooms to put her five children through school, then opened two shops and a beauty salon and doubled the size of her house. Her businesses support 31 people. One of her children is an architect, another a banker, another a manager at a large manufacturing concern and a fourth owns a stationery store.
Eighty per cent of Opportunity's business is with women, who, says Bussau, 'are more responsible than men in the use of funds. They're focussed on the family, on putting food on the table for their children.' One of the network's most productive components is its Women's Opportunity Fund.
This unit sets up trust banks, groupings of some 25 people in cells of five, to whom Opportunity lends a sum of, say, US$2,500. They 'cross-guarantee each other,' Bussau says, 'and figure out among themselves how to apply the money equitably to micro businesses'. Most trust banks have a repayment rate of 100 per cent. And the great benefit for the participants is that they no longer feel on the hopeless fringes of society.
'The goal is the community and the family,' Bussau emphasizes. 'Eighty-five per cent of the community simply want a job,' and Opportunity's credit is available only to enable job-creation. The results are felt beyond economic statistics, because democracy is strengthened and stability enhanced when workers are not marginalized and business practices can be trusted.
Macro-theories of growth have proved fallible in Asia's so-called 'tiger economies' and in Russia. Attempts by Opportunity and others like the Grameen Bank to help individuals find their own way out of poverty have attracted wide interest. 'Micro-enterprises,' says Bussau, 'have become so popular and mainstream that the World Bank has now accepted the concept' and a series of global summits have focussed on the possibilities. 'At some point,' he speculates, 'the UN may decide that access to credit is a basic human right.'
He is not afraid of difficult questions, such as how much consumption can be tolerated. Bussau says happily he doesn't know how to answer: but 'you can either believe God is a God of abundance or of scarcity. People who think there is a God of scarcity often narrow their viewpoint.'
Bussau lectures at the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies, of whose Board he is Treasurer, and in three US universities. In July 1998 he addressed the Anglican Church's ten-yearly conference of bishops at Lambeth. The Anglican Church has now resolved to set up an investment fund for micro-enterprise development called the Five Talents Project.
In Bussau's office, looking across gardens to Sydney's famous harbour, there's not an inch wasted, but he's not often there to enjoy the view. He makes 10 to 15 overseas trips a year, cultivating entrepreneurial skill. It's a beguiling thought that instead of cut-throat competition, the world's economic future may depend on finding talent in the least likely places and cherishing it.