February 25, 2013 1:57:06 PM
Bob Harris has done lots of stuff: stand up comedian, political humorist, TV writer, and more. He has been a winner, and loser, on Jeopardy! which he chronicled in the entertaining Prisoner of Trebekistan. He has traveled all over the world, and he wrote a pocket guide to the conflicts of the world, the alternately inspiring and dismaying Who Hates Whom. Then as a freelance writer, in 2008 he got a dream assignment from the prestige travel website Forbes Traveler. Zip around the world, stay in the most luxurious hotels, and get paid for articles about it. Harris has always had a strong social conscience, and while the luxury was fun, he began to wonder about priorities when he had a $75 cup of coffee. The world's most expensive coffee, kopi luwak, is made from beans specially processed: a civet eats the beans and poops them out and then they are made into coffee. ("So how does it taste? Delicious. Kopi luwak is, in fact, the single best thing I have ever consumed that came out of something else's bottom.") He also got to see the lives of the workers in, say, Dubai, who had created the palatial hotel he was staying at, basically indentured servants working twelve-hour days in blazing heat. What to do about the disparity? Why, become an international financier, of course. The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time (Walker), is a funny, heartfelt guide to world improvement, and how one person (Harris, or you, or me, for instance), might make a difference.
Harris earned $20,000 for his whirlwind tour of luxury hotels, and he wanted to do something right with the money. Ideal goals would be to help third world poverty, and help economies long-term rather than fixing emergencies, and to know exactly where his money went. He did not want just to donate money and be done with it, as we are all encouraged to do in guilt-inducing commercials on TV. Instead, he found Kiva, a nonprofit organization in San Francisco. Kiva's business model is wise. It does not hand out charity money, but lends. It does not lend directly to small-business owners and craftspeople. Instead, it lends interest-free money to the local microfinance institutions (MFI) that have a face-to-face partnership with such borrowers. Kiva's participation in effect certifies that the MFI is operating sensibly, not only with good business principles but also with a philosophy of community support rather than gouging. Harris liked the Kiva website, "... a big list of borrowers in dozens of countries all over the world, with photos and bios on every client's page. Impressively, none of these people in difficult circumstances were portrayed with pity, or even as particularly poor. Instead, they were just fellow human beings, their plans for the future described with respect for their ingenuity, work ethic, and dignity." You have heard of the American Dream: work hard, build a business of your own, build it big enough to employ some others, get yourself a good house, raise a family, and build prospects for your kids that were better than you had. It turns out that this dream (which is certainly not the way the working world has done things through most of history) is no longer an American Dream; people in Nairobi, Bali, Beirut, Hanoi, and all over have this dream, too. And everyone the world over, conservative, liberal, or anything else, agrees that this is a good dream, and a good way for the world to run.
Harris was impressed with how easy it was; at the Kiva site, like any commercial site, you check out with credit card or PayPal. "It was basically like eBay, except instead of buying an Afghan, I could lend one $25." This is where his Forbes money went, and as it has been repaid, he has lent it out again. He took off on another round-the-world jaunt, this one far more satisfying to him than reviewing five-star hotels. He went to Nairobi, Bali, and those other places to see what his loans were doing. Much of his entertaining book, then, is a travelogue, mostly to places tourists don't get to. There are crammed buses, peculiar foods, and surmountable language barriers, all recounted here in a delightful jokey style. Harris might be going to some of the most impoverished and war-torn regions in the world, but finds plenty to be cheerful about. His money is being well used. He gets a shave from a barber client in Beirut (amazed that years ago he would have been fearful of such a man taking a razor to his throat); he views the coffee fields of a grower in Kenya who is so ambitious Harris says that in ten years Harris himself will be asking for loans; he meets Grace, the Guernsey cow whose milk is paying off the loan of a Kenya farmer and his wife; in Rwanda he admires the local lender's mobile branch, a truck that goes anywhere in the country with the slogan, "Come barefoot." In Kenya he goes to the little family restaurant of a couple of clients, and is offered a sample of their specialty, their charcoal-flavored yogurt that is a local favorite. "In many books where a white guy visits Africa, this is where the yogurt turns out to be a magnificent treat, and the narrator ruefully regrets his cultural biases and narrow Western palate, the reverse-racist Noble Savage myth stretched to cuisine." Not this time: "But oh, dear, no. It was ghastly."
There is plenty of bouncy fun in such encounters, and Harris's book is good for lots of laughs. He'd like us, however, to be serious in some of the pages. Repeatedly, all over the world, he finds his parents - his dad was a GM worker, who kept up with a grueling daily grind to ensure Harris himself didn't have to. The clients here are working hard for the same reason. He finds locals cooperating; in what had been the hell of Rwanda, he was amazed to find people eager to move on because business is business: "These people aren't over it, but good lord they're trying." In Sarajevo, he learns that the local microfinance lender has had no problems with a Muslim Serb reluctant to owe money to a Croat. The woman who is his guide says, "Money has no religion," and Harris reflects, "For the first time in my life, I could imagine the inherent selfishness of people as a kind of hope." Everywhere he finds cooperation. "Whatever you might think from seeing the TV news, much of the world is still on the Honor System - it has to be, just to function at all." It's something he remarks on everywhere he goes: "After all of these travels, I've started to notice how constantly people trust each other. Almost everywhere, almost all the time. And how that trust is almost always deserved." (This is a bigger lesson than just one about Kiva loans, of course, but the payback on the loans is very close to 100%.)
There are lots of people like Harris who have found Kiva easy to use, and inspiring. There are teams on the Kiva website, Team Europe, the GLBT Kivans, the Late Loaning Lenders, and more. Harris cites two in particular: Atheists, Agnostics, Skeptics, Freethinkers, Secular Humanists, and the Non-Religious; and Kiva Christians. There's a competition between them over who has more members, more loans, and so on. "Either way, the whole argument was over who could be kinder to total strangers. This may be the best disagreement that humans can have." And, long before this book was published, someone whom Harris did not know suggested Harris ought to start his own team, and when Harris didn't do so, the applicant started one without Harris's participation, Friends of Bob Harris. With amazement, Harris watched as "a growing stream of new members - almost all of them people I'd never met, from all over the world - started joining and lending like their lives depended on it." There is enormous happiness in this book but the section on Friends of Bob Harris is bursting: "Everyone should have a total stranger start an online group where hundreds of strangers join together to call themselves your friends, all just to be nice to more total strangers. I couldn't help but feel like one of the wealthiest people on earth."
The International Bank of Bob is a plea to look at the world a new way, even on the pages that have nothing to do specifically with Kiva. Harris is not a shill for Kiva, he's just a very satisfied user. It certainly will not surprise him if Friends of Bob Harris grows immeasurably after this persuasive and optimistic book. In fact, I am going to type this final sentence of this review, and then, with thanks to a smart and funny author who called it to my attention, I am going to Kiva.org to see if there is any good I can do.