Something troubling has been left out of Opportunity International Australia’s historical narrative. The story goes that Opportunity founder David Bussau lent Indonesian man, Ketut Suweria, $50. Ketut started a tailoring business, became self-sufficient, repaid the loan, and went on to start other businesses. But yes, there is more.
“It was an issue of bondage,” said David Bussau while visiting Opportunity International Australia’s office in November as part of his 80th birthday celebrations. “Ketut was a farmer. He had mortgaged one of his children to borrow from loan-sharks to be able to survive. His son had been taken off him to work on someone else’s farm in order to pay the debt that he owed.”
That ‘issue’ is tragically commonplace—then and now—and shows the desperation and vulnerability that families living in poverty can find themselves in.
The removal of that vulnerability is what underpins microfinance. And the answer—then and now—remains the same, which for David was simple: “get rid of the guy’s debt. Give the guy some capital so he can set up some sort of income generating enterprise at an interest rate he could afford.”
And it is the interest rate that is crucial. David’s thinking was to help people in the developing world break away from the Western dependency model, to enable and equip them to provide for themselves and their family.
“I was never really good at just giving people money. I expected to see some productivity from providing capital. If a person feels productive, then their whole attitude to life changes: they have dignity, they have hope,” he said.
Above: Founder David Bussau stands next to the life-sized Archibald portrait painted by Phil Pringle. © Matthew Smeal
David Bussau has not been an active part of Opportunity for some years, but his presence is everywhere—a life-sized portrait of David is the first thing you see as you enter the office; something that lies contrary to what he calls the ‘founder syndrome’. But for those who have come after David, it is a poignant reminder of what one person can do, or, to remember Ketut Suweria, how one small loan can change a person’s life and that of their family.
If a person feels productive, then their whole attitude to life changes: they have dignity, they have hope.
David did not set out to create a charity, a movement or even an organisation. Neither did he desire to become world-renowned as a pioneer of microfinance. His personal desire was much less altruistic.
“In my teenage years I decided I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 40. It was my first failure—it happened at 35,” he said with a wry smile to make sure you picked up on his dry humour.
David grew up in an orphanage in post-war New Zealand, moving to Australia at 25. He had nothing. What developed was a burning desire to change that nothingness, so he dreamed of wealth and started his first business at 15. But his time in an orphanage gave him something else.
“You needed to be creative to survive. You needed to think laterally, to find multiple solutions to a problem,” he said. They were skills that would serve him—a man who would be named as one of Australia’s top 10 most creative thinkers—well in the future.
At 35 David had an epiphany, something he insists came from his wife Carol. It would later be referred to as ‘the economics of enough’.
“It was a personal thing,” he said. “At 35 I knew we had sufficient finances to live comfortably and I thought, ‘Why am I accumulating more?’. It boiled down to self-indulgence; I was accumulating things that I thought would bring satisfaction to my life.”
But what ultimately brought satisfaction was helping others. It started after Cyclone Tracy and developed in Indonesia in the late 1970s.
“We went to Indonesia because of an earthquake. We went there to build schools, churches, dams, bridges,” David said. “Microenterprise as a concept wasn’t on my mind – it [small loans] was a way that I could help somebody. It just snowballed after we supported Ketut with a loan. Then others came to us asking for loans. The demand was there.”
Microfinance became popular. It garnered a lot of attention as the need for financial inclusion and sustainable income generation became realised. David began consulting for Al Whittaker at the Institute for International Development Incorporated (IIDI) which soon after became Opportunity International.
“It was never our goal to be a large organisation. It wasn’t something we wanted to be global. It was a personal ministry and it grew from that. It wasn’t about giving loans but about how do you give people the dignity of being able to provide for themselves,” he said.
David Bussau is awarded the Senior Australian of the Year in 2008
The accolades followed—Order of Australia, Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year, Senior Australian of the Year—yet David remains humble. “One has to accept them and acknowledge that people value your efforts,” he said. “But a long time ago I realised that I’m never going to impress God; the accolades don’t mean anything to God. It’s not going to draw me any closer to Him.”
What started with one small loan to a farmer has grown exponentially. In 2020, Opportunity International Australia is assisting more than 6.5 million families across Asia with small loans. Opportunity’s work has also expanded into the related areas of health, education and creating communities free of domestic violence and sex trafficking.
Not bad for a man whose first business was running a hot-dog stand. But David’s genius is knowing where he adds the most value and when to step away. “God gives us an opportunity and then we release it. The power is in the releasing,” he said.
“I’m not going to end poverty, but I can invest my life into other people. I can grow fruit on other people’s trees.”