Mark Daniels says there’s a common misconception surrounding poverty that he wants to clear up.

“You always hear that the poor live on $US2 a day,” says Mr Daniels, who is country director for Opportunity International Australia in The Philippines. “And I’d like to dispel that because someone doesn’t come along and give them two bucks [each day]. It’s like, they might earn, on day 10, $20, but then they need to allocate that money to put food on the table, educate the kids, pay for medical expenses [and] there’s always a relative knocking on the door for cash.”

“Economic poverty is not just low incomes, it’s irregular and uncertain incomes and the poor, to survive, have to have a combination of lending and savings vehicles to manage their… liquidity [and] cash flow needs. So they have to be vigilant and they’re the best cash-flow managers in the world when you understand the complexity of what they are trying to achieve.”

Rice growers in the Philippines

FARMING FOR THEIR FUTURE: Rice growers in The Philippines. Small-scale farmers are among microfinance loan recipients in The Philippines. PICTURE: David Adams

Opportunity has been working in the Philippines, an archipelago of more than 7,100 islands for more than 30 years. Through some nine partner agencies it not only provides funding for tens of thousands of microfinance loans aimed at helping people out of poverty but also invests in aiding the agencies to develop new resources and products to better serve the needs of the loan recipients and the communities in which they live.

That sees Mr Daniels, as well as being the primary liaison between Opportunity’s donors in countries like Australia and the people disbursing funds on the ground, playing an important role in supporting partner agencies in a range of areas including senior leadership mentoring, risk management and even product design.

“We’re working through indigenous, local organisations because the vision in The Philippines was always to support local leadership,” he says. “We believe that’s a good development approach - it’s all about developing local leaders, so getting behind their vision and supporting them.”

Mark Daniels 

Mark Daniels and microfinance loan recipients in The Philippines. PICTURE: Opportunity International Australia

FROM BEING "FIXTATED ON MONEY" TO A LIFE'S CALL TO HELP OTHERS: MARK DANIELS' JOURNEY TO THE WORLD OF MICROFINANCE

Mark Daniels’ personal journey to working in the field of development was a round about one.

After he completed university, in 1987, Mr Daniels joined the accountancy firm Coopers & Lybrand and worked in the area of insolvency and liquidation for about five years.

“My goal, always, I was fixated on money,” says the now 49-year-old. “I wanted to be a millionaire by the time I was 30…so you know, I had dollar signs in my mind and heart….I thought I’ll get into business, some kind of business, make some money and hopefully retire early.”

God had other plans for him, however, and it was while working at the firm that Mr Daniels, who didn’t grow up in a Christian home, made a decision to follow Christ.

The key moment came at a conference featuring Vineyard Church founder John Wimber which he was invited to attend by his older sister who had become a Christian about a year earlier.

“I just saw the radical change in her life,” he says. “I was kind of really struggling - I’d say I was depressed even - and she just said ‘Look…come to the conference’. I’d never heard of John Wimber, didn’t have a clue [who he was] to be honest so I went along with a bunch of her friends. I have no idea what the message was about but I was down the front and knew that I needed to be there and give my life to Christ. Which I did. I cried the entire night and woke up a new kind of creation. So that began a journey in me.”

Mr Daniels describes it as an “instant, radical conversion”.  “Everything became alive – there was a hope, there was a future…God literally changed me overnight. I know faith journey’s are all different, but for me, I suppose I was desperate. I was lacking hope, despite coming from a great family, school captain, great at sport, but I was missing something in my life – it was God basically.”

Leaving his job at the accountancy firm, he decided to travel - “I thought ‘I need a break, I need to kind of find myself as well’” – and ended up being involved in smuggling Bibles into a then-closed off China.

“I was planning just to stay for seven days but…ended up there for seven weeks, I loved the experience so much.”

Mr Daniels eventually returned to Australia in 1993 and ended up working in the Federal Attorney General’s Office and doing his CPA studies at the same time. But he remained somewhat unsettled.

“I’d heard my favorite preacher – Tony Campolo – preach in 1992 when I was back-packing around the world and he kind of really challenged me. Tony’s a radical and he kept talking about this concept of microenterprise development and I thought ‘Hey, that sounds fantastic, if I could [use] my skills to actually help people instead of bankrupcies, receiverships which is giving death to companies and winding up administrations. So I…managed to get a job and started at Opportunity as a project officer.”

That was 1998 and, having fulfilled various roles in the organisation – including travelling frequently to the Philippines, in late 2009 he took up the post of country director for the Philippines in Manila.

As well as for himself, that meant a big change for his wife Mina and their two daughters, Sarah and Annabelle, then aged eight and six.

“My kids were at an age where I thought I’d like to get them to experience another culture,” he says. “And so the timing worked out well.”

Mr Daniels says that while living away from family and friends in Australia in the  crowded city of Manila can be challenging at times for him and his family, it’s the people that make it worthwhile.

“There’s something rich around communities that they have that Western communities don’t have. And I kind of envy their ability to gather, connect, relate, sacrifice, [and] be there for one another. It has it’s own issues…but there’s something rich and attractive [about it]…”

“The Philippines is a wonderful country with rich assets…There’s tremendous potential in this nation – it’s a young population with an average age of 22 – so there’s a demographic dividend that The Philippines will hopefully reap.”

When it comes to designing a response that best meets the needs of the people they are trying to help, Mr Daniels says recent years have seen a revolutionary shift in the way microfinance organizations operate as they move from a supply-led model to one more focused on the customers.

 “In the early days microfinance was very much a supply led model, basically a mono-product one-size-fits-all provided for six months with little flexibility,” he explains.

“As the industry has matured and with increased competition, client-centricity is the key and the challenge has been to design products and services to meet the life cycle needs of the client base. This client-focused approach has resulted in much more investment in market research with products and services designed to meet the irregular and uncertain nature of client incomes…

That means, says Mr Daniels, doing a lot of market research before launching new products. It’s really about designing those services to meet the lifestyle needs of the customer base and so flexibility is key…”

One example of one of the recent innovations Opportunity has developed with its partner microfinance organisations has been the establishment of a remittance company – OK Remit – to facilitate the capability for people living away from their homes, whether overseas or in cities in the Philippines, to send money back.

It’s a sizeable industry in the country with some $US24 billion a year in overseas remittances and even more - $US40 billion – in remittances sent internally and existing commercially available services can charge considerable fees.

“So our strategy was to try and create an affordable, accessible and secure remittance platform so that we could service remote rural customers where our micro-finance partners are located,” says Mr Daniels.

“And so [we’re] trying to create a proprietary agent network through the branches of the micro-finance partners and then do over the counter transactions…”

Mr Daniels says the initiative – which has included the development of a mobile app so money can be transferred in the field, tapping into the growing number of microfinance clients who have mobile phones - is being taken to address the fact that “it’s expensive to be poor”.

“What I mean by that is if you’re a remote, rural agricultural worker and you have to give up a day’s labour to get to your nearest bank, that’s nearly 20 per cent of your income and then you’ve got to pay for the travel costs, the transportation costs. The transaction costs are high to actually get cash in your hand and so the whole idea is to bring those services closer to the clients in remote locations.”

As well as being used by microfinance organisation representatives, the aim is to equip some of the larger microenterprises in rural locations that have enough cash on hand to act as agents for the remittance company.

“That might be a pharmacy, a larger retail kind of store or some of our large micro-finance clients…” says Mr Daniels. “And then it becomes another source of revenue for them because they get a small percentage on the transaction.”

There’s already about 9,000 agents in the country as part of the initiative which Mr Daniels says will also reduce the transaction costs of serving the poor.

“Because not only can you make a remittance but the micro-finance institutions can make their disbursements and the clients can make their repayments through the agents. So we’re hoping to reduce transaction costs significantly and then pass on the savings…back to the client base. I’m really excited about the initiative. The future is digital – it’s really just a matter of trust, how a client trusts that service.”

To support the work of Opportunity International Australia, head to www.opportunity.org.au.

David Adams travelled to The Philippines courtesy of Opportunity International Australia.

To see the first article in this series, head to . Since we ran our first article Amina Mendez Acosta, whose story is partly told in it, was one of three winners in the prestigious Drucker Challenge Essay Contest's 'managers/entrepreneurs' category with a paper on 'The business of overcoming poverty'. To read her paper, see https://www.druckerchallenge.org/uploads/pics/Amina_Mendez_Acosta.pdf.