Breaking the Cycle of Extreme Poverty: Opportunity International

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MarketInsite Nasdaq Blog

In celebration of our partners and the great work they do to advance economic progress for all, we interviewed some of our Nasdaq Foundation grant recipients about their roles, backgrounds and the importance of their work. We spoke with Atul Tandon, CEO of Opportunity International, on the fight to alleviate global poverty.

Atul Tandon_Opp Int_Headshot

Tell us about Opportunity International? What is its core mission?

Opportunity International exists to empower people living in poverty to build sustainable incomes, educate their children and escape generational poverty. Through a worldwide network of staff, branches, banks, and partners, Opportunity helps families run businesses, manage farms, build safety nets through savings, make payments, access public support, send their children to school and more.

In 2022, we supported 18.7 million unique clients around the globe—primarily in Latin America, Africa and Asia—and we continue to go where the needs are greatest, serving families who are doing whatever they can to put food on the table and a roof over their heads.

Why is Opportunity International’s mission so important? 

For years, we were making significant global progress to reduce extreme poverty. We cut the number of those living on less than $2.15 a day in half—then the pandemic hit. The economic implications of shutdowns and years of illness and struggle set our collective progress back, growing the global extreme poverty rate from 8.4% in 2019 to 9.3%. As the World Bank noted, “The world’s poorest people bore the steepest costs of the pandemic. Their income losses were twice as high as the world’s richest, and global inequality rose for the first time in decades.”

What’s more, over 380 million of those still living in extreme poverty are women and girls. Globally, women earn less than their male counterparts, face widespread discrimination, are underrepresented in leadership positions and are left out of educational and economic opportunities. When we think about where our weak links are for progress, we must give specific attention to women.

The good news is that progress is possible, and the research shares that optimism. We can collectively end extreme poverty in the decades ahead. In addition, women are incredibly powerful change agents for this transformation. According to the IMF, “Women’s economic empowerment boosts productivity, increases economic diversification, and increases income equality, in addition to other positive development outcomes.” When we invest in women and help them take control of their own economic futures, we are investing in the future of families, communities and entire economies.

When we think about Opportunity’s mission—helping families build sustainable livelihoods so that they can support themselves and helping send kids to school so that they can break the cycle of generational poverty—that is what it’s all about. And we know that to create lasting change, we must start at the greatest risk. We must go where others can’t. We must meet the needs that aren’t currently being met, so that all people—especially women—have the opportunity to transform their future and break the cycle of poverty. That’s why we have developed innovative programs like Women as Agents of Change, and it’s why 97% of those Opportunity serves are women.

Can you talk to us about the Women as Agents of Change Program? What impact are you hoping the Nasdaq Foundation’s Quarterly Grant will have on the program’s success?

In my home country of India, people living in rural communities have an extremely hard time accessing high-quality financial services. The nation has developed incredibly quickly and introduced modern banking infrastructure, but remote regions were excluded from that progress.

In response, banks began hiring correspondent agents—employees who connected people in remote areas to banking services. But due to social and cultural norms, women did not feel comfortable accessing financial services from male employees, and most of the correspondents were men.

We saw this gap and saw an opportunity. With support from local and global partners, we built the Women as Agents of Change program—a strategy designed to recruit and train women as agent bankers.

The Agents of Change program recruits entrepreneurial women to become banking agents who work from small shops or offices and earn commissions on transactions. Equipped with tablets or smartphones to provide banking services in hard-to-reach communities of India, this network of female agent bankers connects rural women to financial services with remarkable success.

One agent shared, “Women who never visited a bank or attended community meetings are now coming out of their homes.” And our research shows that “female agent bankers served more women in their communities, and that traditionally underserved groups of customers generally preferred visiting female agents over male agents.”

The program has already grown exponentially and been remarkably successful. According to studies done at Opportunity International, female agents are more approachable, trustworthy, and better at maintaining confidentiality. They also serve as role models for other women in the community and become a catalyst to bridge the financial inclusion gender gap.

With the Nasdaq Foundation’s support, we aim to improve access to financial knowledge and services for women in Kerala, a state in southern India—building pathways to financial services, training and support that foster independence and agency. Together, we will train 2,000 more agents and serve an estimated 3 million women.

Can you share one or two stories that illustrate the impact of Opportunity International?

Earlier this year, I was visiting Delhi, my hometown, and I had the opportunity to meet women banking agents. These women are now business owners who, in addition to transforming their own families, are also serving more women just like them. It’s an incredible thing to see.

I met women who are now employing their husbands and their neighbors—it’s incredible. When I think about my own childhood in India, I’m amazed by how much progress we have already made.

I think about agents like Renju, who needed a way to support her family. She connected with Opportunity International and was trained as an agent banker. Now, she zips through rural villages on a motorbike, visiting 150 clients a day. She uses a tablet to help other women set up accounts, access financial services and find their own economic independence. She works directly with 900 women, helping them save, take ownership of their resources and start their own enterprises. In a country like India, where women have historically been excluded from so many economic opportunities, services like hers are revolutionary.

When she reflected on her own work, she said, “I feel proud that now, because of me, others get the same opportunities.”

What is on the horizon for Opportunity International?

We know that the financial services, training and support systems we provide our clients help them break the cycle of extreme poverty. Now, we’re using technology, partnerships and other human-centered innovations to scale these proven methods to reach even more families.

We are developing high-touch, high-tech solutions to help women become even more successful. For example, we are automating many operations digitally via smartphone applications, turning what was once a two-hour process into a simple 30-minute activity. 

In India, with the help of the Nasdaq Foundation, we aim to use new technology and human-centered approaches to reach an additional 2,000 banking agents who will, in turn, serve an estimated 3 million women. And by expanding our online training offerings, we will be able to better train and support all these agents as they serve clients throughout India.

For over 50 years, Opportunity International has been meeting the needs of our clients, and what makes me most excited is the feeling that we’re just getting started. We have so much ahead of us, and with partners like Nasdaq, we can scale, innovate and spark change for millions of families worldwide.

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