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The International Bank of Bob
Category: Microcredit | By Editor, 5-Jan-2013 | Viewed 3801  Comments 0
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Why do we feel more comfortable with first-hand accounts and dismiss wholesale claims? Well, in microcredit circles it is because we are willing to suspend our disbelief long enough to see the power in the image of first-hand or personal accounts. Follow this logic as you read from the New York Times about Bob Harris and his unique and compelling portrayal of how we relate as individuals. 

The breaking point came in Dubai, after drinking a $75 cup of coffee made with beans processed through the digestive tract of a civet.

In 2008, Bob Harris was hired by Forbes Traveler to help update the publication's list of the most luxurious hotels, an assignment that took him around the world in grand style, while also offering a queasy view of immense wealth disparity. Staying in a $3 billion hotel in Abu Dhabi, where much of the recent construction was done by impoverished South Asian laborers, he longed for the decadence of the French Riviera.

Mr. Harris earned roughly $20,000 from that trip, and in looking for a charitable contribution he could make with the money, he hit upon microfinance. He became hooked, in fact, issuing hundreds of tiny loans, mostly through Kiva, a San Francisco nonprofit that lends interest-free to local microfinance institutions, which in turn lend to small-business owners and craftspeople.

In "The International Bank of Bob" (Walker & Company), to be published in March, Mr. Harris details his global adventures as a lender, like meeting a couple who build couches in their home in Sarajevo or visiting a bicycle mechanic's workshop in Rabat, Morocco.

The tone of the book is often humorous. Mr. Harris does an extended bit about an old woman in Peru who was amorously caressing his knee. "I'm trying to write the world's first beach book about poverty alleviation," Mr. Harris, who lives in Los Angeles, said.

While microfinancing has received a lot of media attention, and its pioneer, Muhammad Yunus, won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in the field, one novel aspect of "Bank of Bob" is the way it follows the money. The author flew on rickety planes and ventured into the Rwandan countryside to see how his loans were used.

Premal Shah, president of Kiva, said many microfinance lenders had a similar desire, but for most, the closest they come to meeting intended recipients is seeing their profiles onKiva.org.
So what did Mr. Harris find out there?

His own parents, it seems: Wherever he went, he said, "I met my mother and father. People who love their kids, who are working as hard as they can to give those kids a better life."

Mr. Harris's father was a laborer at a General Motors plant in Ohio, and the son said that early on he vowed "to work 100 hours a week not to have to work as hard as my dad did."

Instead, Mr. Harris became a showbiz itinerant, drifting into various jobs: a road comic during the '80s; a writer for a season for "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation"; a radio commentator; a quasi-professional game show contestant (he published an earlier book about his ups and downs on "Jeopardy").

"It's amazing how fast money disappears," Mr. Harris said ruefully. He mentioned one of the loan recipients he met on his travels, an ambitious Kenyan coffee grower, and joked, "I'll be asking him for a Kiva loan in 10 years."

Still, the low barrier of entry (microfinance loans through Kiva can be as little as $25), and the ability to effect change in third world countries where small sums go farther, allowed Mr. Harris to be charitable on a significant scale, despite his not being among the Spielbergian ranks.

By the time "The International Bank of Bob" is published, Mr. Harris will have issued over 5,000 loans, he said, with only $100 or so of his original $20,000 investment lost to defaults. "It's the same money over and over," he said. "But it's just twenty-five bucks."

Mr. Harris said he long had a desire to give to charity, but for many years found the process daunting. To whom should he give? How much should he give? Microfinance offered him a personal connection.

With many charities "it's an act of faith to put money out there," Mr. Harris said. "But Kiva says, 'Here's a guy in Cambodia who climbs palm trees for a living to turn the sap into sugar that he can sell. Here's where your money goes.' That had a tremendous appeal."

An International Financier, on a Teensy Scale


By STEVEN KURUTZ
Published: November 8, 2012
New York Times
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