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A Pandemic at our door

By Atul Tandon

"I wish it need not have happened in my time," said Frodo. "So do I," said Gandalf, "and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

2020 was a challenging and transformative year. For the first time in our lifetimes, all human beings faced a significant threat at the same time and the ground shifted on nearly everything simultaneously. Our homes, our work, our travel, our finances, our communities; how we eat, get information, connect with friends and family, dress, exercise, worship, grieve, and even define ourselves—it all changed.

In the midst of all this tumult, some things remained as they've always been. The powerful accumulated more power. The rich got richer.

And the COVID-19 hammer fell the hardest on the poorest.

Decades of human progress began moving in the wrong direction. Hundreds of millions were pushed back into extreme poverty, severe hunger, and joblessness, and the immediate health risks presented by the pandemic compounded with additional risks of isolation, market closures, and even impending starvation.

At the same time, we found solace and support among our family, friends, and faith. We began to reevaluate our priorities and spend our time and energy on the things that matter most. Scientists developed new vaccines in a matter of months, frontline workers and first responders were elevated to their rightful place as local heroes, and the whole world came together to fight a universal enemy.

Welcome to the age of the coronavirus. An era that has been both devastating and inspiring at every turn—and it's not over yet.

As we look back at 2020, the question I return to over and over is a simple one: How did we respond? What did we learn?

We learned that our clients are survivors, but to thrive, they need our support. It's our job to provide it.

For those already living on the margins before 2020, this year was impossibly severe.

  • Some 1.6 billion people working in the informal economy could lose their livelihoods.
  • The number of people on the brink of starvation has doubled to 265 million people.
  • At the peak of the virus, 1.6 billion children were home from school—and millions may never return. In sub-Saharan Africa, 608,000 additional girls are at risk of child marriage and 542,000 additional girls are at risk of early pregnancy. This means that "as many as one million girls across sub-Saharan Africa may be blocked from returning to school" (UNESCO).
  • About 80% of those living in extreme poverty live in rural areas and rely upon agriculture to survive. When strict lockdowns prohibited them from delivering their produce to market, farmers faced grave challenges, leading to "alarming global hunger and food insecurity" (UN) and an additional 6.7 million children under the age of five suffering from wasting.
  • More than 100 million people will be pushed back into extreme poverty.

But what we saw in the midst of catastrophe was resilience. We learned, time and again, that our clients are survivors. Relying on faith, family, and friends, they have lived through famine, flood, disease, violence, income volatility, and so much more—and they will continue to weather the storms that come their way. And in a season when relationships became more essential than ever, Opportunity connected with clients face-to-face when possible and leveraged technology to connect with the people we couldn't physically reach.

Now, we are looking to the future with determination, resolve, and hope. The disaster is far from over and the long-term effects are just beginning, so our job is to continue helping our clients survive and thrive—to give them a hope and a future. Our job is to come alongside entrepreneurs like Abena, a grain seller in Ghana who lost 50% of her income and her two part-time workers when the pandemic struck. She received a loan payment deferral that helped her keep her business alive, and now she is working to rebuild and recover, with Opportunity at her side.

We learned that our donors love our clients—and they expect us to run our business efficiently and effectively.

Our incredible community of donors are survivors, too. After the initial shock of the pandemic, you adapted and weathered change after change. We began connecting virtually—adding words like Zoom to our daily vocabularies. And while your lives were upended in countless ways, you never lost sight of the catastrophes our clients were facing. You continued to reach out and care for those who were vulnerable and suffering—both close to home and around the world.

While we've been consumed by the mounting effects of the pandemic, our elections, transitions of power, racial injustice, raging fires, and other challenges close to home, you have opted to also be a voice for the voiceless—those out of sight and mind, doing anything they can to survive on the bottom of the economic ladder.

You responded quickly and generously, giving above and beyond to bring our Rapid Response initiative to life. Individual donors and families stepped up to lead our way forward. At the same time, we began forging new partnerships with the U.S. government, who continued to focus on and invest in development aid and assistance through all of the turmoil.

Looking ahead, we have more work to do—but we know our community is committed to it. Organizations are beginning to look outward again, and the partnerships we began to forge in 2020 are coming to fruition. Most of all, we have learned that even when we are physically far away from one another, our shared call to love our neighbors is a powerful glue that brings us together and drives our concerted action. Even in the midst of isolation, we can still maintain our relationships and encourage one another.

We learned that our partners around the world are vested in the lives of our clients—and that having mission and value-aligned partners matters.

Our partners in the field bore the brunt of the cost of the pandemic. Loan moratoria, decreased deposits and savings, and, in some cases, lack of support from central banks meant that our partners were taking on more risks than ever. In addition, their staff members suited up in PPE and continued to visit clients in the field, risking their personal health. Our partners around the world have spent nine long months doing everything they can to serve clients, keep their lights on, and make payroll—and they, too, have survived.

We have learned that well-led and well-managed partners are essential. Even in the toughest places, our partners in over 20 countries have kept going—serving 14.7 million clients and their families. Our loan officers became critical first responders for farmers, educators, and small business owners, leveraging the technology and infrastructure we had built long before we knew just how essential it would be. Through it all, our partners remained unwaveringly passionate about serving their communities.

The challenges are not over, so our support of our partners is more critical than ever. If their job is to do everything they can to keep our clients working, our job is to do whatever we can to keep them working. 2020 proved that our global network works—and our goal for 2021 is to keep these proven structures, systems, and staff in place.

We learned that our staff members are here because they experience fulfillment of their lives' passion and values in their work. Our job is to pay attention to them as people and make sure they have what they need to live their call.

Without our staff, we wouldn't have gotten anywhere. Through all of the tumult, our staff survived and came together in remarkable ways. As we rapidly shifted to an all-virtual work environment, the lines between "home" and "office" blurred and our lives became more intermingled than ever. As it has for almost everyone, this season brought increased stress and sacrifice, but we saw our staff help one another navigate the ups and downs of our daily lives. As I repeatedly reminded the team, "Keep healthy, stay calm, get prepared, and carry on."

Our work became even more urgent in the midst of crisis. We faced countless questions that deserved responses immediately. What are we going to do? Where? With whom? When? How do we talk about it? How do we raise the necessary support? Crisis response is centrally driven and locally delivered, so as our partners went to work connecting with clients, our headquarters team was busy launching new initiatives.

We met weekly with our partners, launched a Rapid Response Fund, provided guarantees for our banks to secure loans, and helped banks keep our clients afloat. We focused on a few critical drivers and delivered relevant, timely solutions to our clients, partners, and donors.

As a result of our efforts to navigate COVID-19, we are now a capable of delivering emergency financial services to the poor while continuing our time-honored work of giving our clients a hand up out of economic poverty. I believe this to be one of the most significant new additions to our core purpose and capabilities in our 50-year history.

Through it all, we learned how to choose trust over fear; to depend even more fully on God and the call he has for us. In a season when so much felt out of our control, our faith and our driving motivation became more central than ever.

Now, one of our most important jobs as a leadership team is ensuring that our staff is able to stay focused on the work at hand, and that they have the tools, support, and encouragement they need to do their jobs well. And because we are each still navigating these difficult, isolating, stressful days, we must remember that people have different needs in times of crisis. We showed up for one another in 2020—and will continue to do so in the year ahead.

On nearly all fronts, we are stronger today than we were before. And we are clear about what needs to be done in the coming months.

This year, as we reflect on one of the most challenging years in our history, we are also celebrating Opportunity's 50th anniversary. It's a milestone that comes in the midst of some of our most difficult work yet—but one that we are proud to recognize because we have been unwavering in our commitment to love our neighbors.

As I look back on the last year, and the last 50, I know that we have stayed true to our call, our mission, our clients, our supporters, our staff, our faith, and each other. And that is something worth celebrating.

I began this letter with a Tolkien quote, so I'll close with one, too.

"The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater." – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring

May this be a year when we seek out love, even in the mist of grief. And may this be a year of celebration, even in the midst of peril.

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