Nanya Sudhir  in ADDA OPINION

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Like many Asian cities, metropolitan Manila has become home to millions of migrants who move there in search of jobs, refuge from natural disasters and a better standard of living.

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With easier accessibility and less expensive amenities, Manila provides a ready location for people affected by natural disasters. Often, they move into colonies like this one in Cavite developed by the government to resettle victims of Typhoon Haiyan.

In this crowded, ever-expanding city, the rapid influx of people means the living conditions of migrants can often be worse or as poor as their lives before. They are often compelled to spend their lives under a maze of corrugated metal roofs and in tiny foot-alleys in nondescript enclaves, in the slums that line kilometers of the city’s surface between gleaming office towers and glass-paned megamalls.

The overcrowding puts an obvious strain on the city’s resources. Here, a young boy runs across one of many unrepaired roads near a Mandaluyong City slum.

Regardless, I am often told by residents that living in Manila brings them equality of opportunity, access to basic facilities and possibilities for progress. In Manila in particular, the presence of a strong sense of community, access to justice and a multitude of financial and social opportunities enables residents to convert their hard work and resilience into a stable life for themselves and their families.

The presence of strong neighbourhood and religious networks contributes to a sense of community that enables easy sharing of information, many forms of support (social, economic, legal), and easier access to education, justice and platforms of finance.

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A good example of this is these children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds who stay in Silanganan. They come from all over Metro Manila to stay at a Vicar’s residence, sponsored by members of the church for better schooling. Here, they have freedom and ready access to pursue music, sports and a variety of other extra-curricular activities.

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The children live together, play together, study together and grow up with access to resources, knowledge and opportunities to equip them for the rest of their lives. Often, this is a pivotal platform for those who come from families with histories of intergenerational poverty or other difficult circumstances.

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Manila also offers access to economic instruments and international opportunities in a way that places elsewhere in the Philippines cannot. A fishmonger in a Mandaluyong City slum, for example, has access to bigger markets than in a tiny island town.

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While working with Grameen Australia, a microfinance organisation, I was exposed to the variety of factors that make the same Manila that is tough on migrants also a fertile ground for those in lower socioeconomic classes to flourish in their chosen fields.

Grameen Australia provides small-sized loans to people in need, so they can set up and sustain their own businesses. Here you see a group meeting in Tay Tay where group members meet to receive small loans and training to set up their own businesses. Loans are paid back in small, low-interest instalments, and members use weekly meetings to track their own progress, learn new skills and collaborate on how to grow their businesses.

Members are given entrepreneurship training to improve their financial literacy and business acumen before gaining access to small loans, usually in the range of USD 100-200. As long as they can demonstrate the financial viability of their business and continue to return small weekly payments, they can issue loans (or bigger loans) to start new businesses and add to existing ones.

This quilt-maker and her family in Tay Tay can sell all the quilts they make in a day through their two-pronged access to the market. They supply both to a vendor in the nearby market on commission and directly sell through their own stall on a major access road. With the large density of people in the city, it is easy to set up a small business to meet ready demand.

Members of each lending community are elected to become centre or group leader and treasurer, and their roles include mentoring and facilitating weekly member repayments. Meetings are held in community halls, centres of worship or other neutral public spaces where people convene for community events. By providing or selecting a safe public space and a nurturing environment, and by offering mentorship, Grameen Australia seeks to open and reinforce channels to improve access to financial resources and equal opportunity. As the majority of clients are women, this venture takes on an enhanced significance in boosting access to opportunity, justice, and self-confidence that ripples throughout the community.

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Anne, for example, is the centre treasurer in Tay Tay. She makes rags to sell to a mining company for dusting their machines. Before taking a loan from Grameen Australia, Anne used to work on a manual sewing machine to make four bundles of 25 rags each per day, sourcing the material from scraps at a textile factory.

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Anne used her first loan of PHP 5000 (USD 107) to buy an electric sewing machine, source raw material for the rags, and employ others to assemble the rags before she sewed them. She can now make 16-20 times more rags a day and provides employment to three other members of the community.

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Another member, Carmelita, used her loans to buy raw materials for a small ‘everything’ store (a sari-sari store). She spent her first loan on liquor and rice, and the second on meat, poultry and rice. She makes PHP 4000 (USD 86) a day, and employs three other people to run the store. She also rents out a video-karaoke machine for parties and social gatherings. Her training with Grameen Australia has enabled her to diversify her business, work with other members and benefit from multiple economic and professional opportunities.

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Rolly Reyes, another member in the same community, used his loan to contribute towards the cost of buying a pedicab, a cycle with a sidecar attached to it. He uses this to transport goods or passengers to the nearby markets, earning PHP 45 on average per ride. Mr Reyes caters to the sari-sari stores and families in the compound. He plans to use his second loan to buy fresh fish, which he can then sell from house to house. Apart from access to a regular source of income enabled through microfinance, Mr Reyes has benefited from the solidarity, training and mentorship provided by Grameen Australia community.

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Microloans have also helped revive cooperatives such as SPNP Livelihoods (‘Mothers Working for Livelihood Improvement in Payatas’ in Tagalog), which was established by 15 women in Payatas in 2000 after a devastating landslide at a garbage dumpsite in Payatas killed over 200 people. Members make stuffed toys, cloth bags, purses and jewellery to sell through the Japanese NGO that offered them assistance setting up.

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One of the founding members tells us they plan to conduct workshops to recruit new members and reach out through supporting non-profit organisations to gain greater market access. Though many of the founding members of SNLPL have since left, their established presence in a community bound together by church and by the aftermath of the 2000 disaster proves fertile ground for their entrepreneurial spirit.

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The combination of organisational and community support similarly enables these women at this centre in Rosario to set up a cooperative to sell smoked fish. Under the mentoring of Grameen Australia loan officers, they have been able to combine their knowledge bases and skillsets to work together on this project.

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The impact of correctly administered channels of finance or social assistance can spread far beyond  what is immediately visible. By taking out a microloan to build their papaya soap business, this family has been able to vastly increase the volume and marketability of their product, now supplying even as far as to a hotel in the Australian outback. Access to such opportunities is more smoothly enabled by the additional services (counselling, marketing support, client connections for example) offered by non-profit organisations.

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It is perhaps a testament to the incredible Filipino spirit of community and the resilience it imbues its members that small efforts can gain traction to enable large numbers to achieve access to greater opportunities. Given that much of Filipino history is a history of foreign invasions and battles with mother nature, it is this resilience and the willingness to pick up and start over together that provides fertile ground for correctly administered channels of finance to successfully and effectively improve access to economic and social opportunities. In my time at Grameen Australia, this is perhaps the message I will always carry with me: situations change, people matter.

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Justice Adda was a part of the Cambridge Social Ventures Programme in the Cambridge Centre for Social Innovation at Cambridge Judge Business School 2016-17.