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From a $3 Billion Hotel to a $25 Microfinance Loan

Mar 26th, 2013Business, International, Interviews

Adam S. Poswolsky interviews Bob Harris, the author of “The International Bank of Bob.”When you talk to writer Bob Harris, his deep, soothing voice makes you feel like you’re listening to the radio; your morning commute heartened by a man who knows how tell a story that makes you smile. Mr. Harris is the author of four books, his most recent one, “The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time,” explores the impact of global microfinance, specifically small Kiva loans in the developing world.

The book was inspired by his latest gig as a luxury travel writer for Forbes Traveler, which served as a harsh wake-up call for Mr. Harris, who witnessed the juxtaposition of backbreaking labor and abject poverty right outside the doors of some of the opulent hotels he was staying at.

Mr. Harris has had an eclectic career, including stints as a stand-up comedian, a radio commentator, a political columnist, and a writer for the television shows “Bones” and “CSI: Crime Scene Investigation.” He is also a 13-time “Jeopardy!” contestant, and the winner of over $350,000 in cash prizes on various quiz shows.

Nonetheless, as the son of an auto worker, originally from rural Appalachia, Mr. Harris felt emotionally connected to the endless hard work of migrant laborers he encountered in his travels. Mr. Harris decided to share his good fortune by putting every dime of his $20,000 earnings from reviewing the world’s fanciest hotels toward $25 Kiva loans. Eventually, he traveled to visit clients in 12 countries, exploring microfinance as a grassroots solution to sustain local economies and support local entrepreneurs.

I interviewed Harris about what he learned writing this book, and why he believes Americans and people in the developing world are not as different as one might think.

What do all of your myriad careers and hobbies have in common? What drives you to try so many new things?
I’m almost 50, but I’ve always tried to do something different in each part of my life. When I was younger, stand-up comedy was a great way to see the country, laugh, meet people, and have a great time. In my 30s, I needed something more stable, and television writing got me off the road. Now, in mid-life, I don’t want to leave with regrets.

If there’s one common denominator to my life, it was the influence of Del Close, a legend in improv comedy circles, who taught the philosophy of saying, “Yes, and?” when opportunities arise. When someone asked, “Do want to do stand-up?” I said yes. “Do want to write for the ‘National Lampoon’?” Ok. “Do you want to do talk radio?” Yes. KNX in Los Angeles hired me after one audition tape. I’m not that talented. I’m an extremely lucky guy, and I kept saying yes, which tends to generate more luck.

What was the paradigm shifting moment that made you go from writing about luxury hotels to writing about microfinance?
I was freelancing for Forbes Traveler, reviewing luxury accommodations, which meant I was living like a billionaire without having to actually pay for anything. I had just stayed at a $3 billion hotel in Abu Dhabi, which has an ATM machine that spits out gold bullion, and where 11 pounds of gold are used annually just on shavings to put on pastries.

I was thinking, how do I not feel like the luckiest man in the world? But right outside of this ridiculously lavish hotel in Dubai, South Asian laborers were working day and night for maybe $7 per day, and living in really difficult conditions. And why? They were working to support their families, because they love their children.

My father worked at a General Motors plant in Ohio, my family was working class growing up. I started seeing my father in the faces of the laborers. I mean, gold shavings on pastry decorations are not my thing, but here I was, and I was like, how can I live with myself? How can I just keep this money in the face of such poverty? I started talking to locals who reminded me of my own family. I’d like to believe that anyone reading my book would have made the same choice I did. As soon as you start seeing yourself in other people, generosity sort of follows.

Why microfinance as a model for giving rather than traditional charity?
There are about as many people living in poverty in the single Indian state of Odisha as there are people in the smallest 15 states in the United States combined. It’s overwhelming. I wanted to do something, but I was feeling really confused. It dawned on me that the traditional model of charity—the top-down, Westerner-with-big-ideas model—was obviously not going to be something I as an individual could be much help with.

But the truth is, people in developing world are already helping themselves. I had heard of microfinance when some of its pioneers won the Nobel Peace Prize, and I had heard Premal Shah, the president of Kiva, give a talk a few months earlier. Kiva allows you to finance loans to individual people, and they decide what they need to do with the resources you help provide, and then they pay you back. I started loaning money through Kiva, and I got really interested in the personal stories of the entrepreneurs I was lending to.

A lot of charity is driven on pity. No one needs pity. A lot of people just need access to affordable capital to start or sustain businesses to support their families and their communities. And when I looked closely, the projects I lent money to through Kiva all made practical business sense.

Discuss your experience of following your money to Kiva, to the field partner, and to the actual recipient.
I went to Kiva.org and made hundreds of loans before I went into the field. The way Kiva works is that their field partners—microfinance institutions, MFIs—who first go through Kiva’s due diligence standards, make and administer the loans. Later on, I contacted field partners, and asked if there was any way I could meet with some of the recipients.

It’s difficult to access the clients for a lot of reasons. My first trip to Peru I didn’t meet with anyone whose loan I’d personally invested in because I was still learning. In Bosnia, though, I met with an organization called Women for Women International, and they specialize in administering not just loans but lots of other services to vulnerable women in the wake of the war there. The amazing woman in charge there surprised me by asking me about my own loans: “You have names?” She wanted me to see the good they were doing on a very personal level. So she made some calls, and suddenly I’m standing there, shaking hands and laughing and having coffee on porches with people I’d seen on Kiva. And they were, of course, just like neighbors anywhere. It was amazing. I was halfway around the world, and I was meeting people that reminded me of my own family, my own mother and father.

Over and over, that happened. People I visited everywhere worked tremendously hard and were often just brilliantly creative—it takes a lot more ingenuity to live on $4 per day than $40 per day, or $400. I got more and more involved in the project, and between 2009 and 2012, wound up traveling to 12 countries on four continents.

How is innovative technology shaping microfinance in the developing world?
One example is mobile banking in Kenya, which is completely different and way more widespread than anything in the West. M-Pesa is a mobile money transfer service from Safaricom and Vodacom, the largest mobile network operators in East Africa. There are more than 15 million M-Pesa users in Kenya alone. Mobile banking has a lot of uses, but it was originally designed with microfinance in mind. People use their phones instead of money. You get these instant, easy, secure transactions anywhere, so financing is reaching rural areas and costs are going down.

Innovative technology is changing the game in all sorts of economic empowerment and infrastructure areas. These changes are happening so fast. One Kiva partner, Barefoot Power, brings affordable solar power to low-income areas off the grid. Now kids are getting electric light to study by at night, and people don’t have to burn kerosene, which is awful in about nine ways. More education, less toxic fumes. That’s a pretty good deal.

What’s the greatest lesson you learned from writing this book?
It’s actually not about Kiva or microfinance or technology. The technology is all going to change—it will probably have changed by the time you read my book. What’s not going to change is what happens when you meet people with an open heart and really listen. Maybe the most important five words in the whole book, actually, came from a guy in Beirut whose restaurant got destroyed during the 2006 war. He himself had kept out of politics his whole life. I asked him if he was bitter—I mean this was a guy who had lost a family business he’d built his whole life—and here’s what he said, and keep in mind, this comes not from a yoga retreat in Berkeley, but a guy just trying to survive in the middle of Beirut: “You love more, you win.”

That’s what my book is about, really. Connecting. Kiva is connecting people right now with microfinance, but the real heart of what they’re doing, I think, and what everyone trying to fight poverty is doing, is in those five words.

This was done in partnership with Forbes.

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