After giving hundreds of loans through Kiva.org, Bob Harris discusses why the word micro-finance should probably be discarded and what the many travels tracking the recipients of his loans, have taught him.
Is the book a travel book, a banking book, a book about poverty alleviation, or what?
It's all of the above, really, given that it's about two trips around the world and coming to realize that microlending is a great approach to poverty in many countries. But it's ultimately more about a growing sense of wonderat the resourcefulness of the clients, at the welcome that I was given even in places where I really didn't imagine I'd feel at home, and how incredibly similar the dreams were of clients all over the world. The desire to do work hard and build a better life for our kids that's not the "American dream." It's a human dream.
What 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.
Please expand upon your experience of following the recipients of your Kiva Loans.
I went to Kiva.org and made hundreds of loans before I went into the field. The way Kiva works is that their field partnersmicrofinance institutions, MFIswho 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 creativeit 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.
You've written an entire book about microfinance but the word can't be found on the cover, the table of contents, and most of the text. Why?
I think the word "microfinance" is way too broad and should be discarded. It's used for everything from tiny non-profits that provide education and other services, to quasi-governmental organizations, to deposit-taking banks that emerged out of MFIs, to giant IPO-driven public companies. No sane person would think it best to consistently use one word to describe Walmart, the post office, and the fruit stand across the street. That's what people do with the word "microfinance" all the time. It's incredibly misleading and confusing, equating a wide variety of economic activity by defining it all not by the disparate goals and operations of highly diverse practitioners in more than 100 countries, but by end users who are similar only in that their banking is "micro" by local standards.
Linguistically, we just don't do that with most things. To describe athletic activities requiring overlapping skills played for extremely similar audiences, the general word "sports" exists, but we also use simple words like "baseball." "football," "hockey," etc. Imagine discarding all of those words, then expecting anyone to understand what you're cheering about.
As some proof of how useless the word is, you don't see the word "microfinance" anywhere on the book's cover, spine, flaps, photo captions, or table of contents, and yet not one reader, reviewer, or person in "microfinance" has ever noticed. (That said, Joss Whedon use the word "microfinance" in his extremely kind blurb, and this wound up on the back cover. I'm not gonna edit Joss Whedon.) Someday, I really hope "microfinance" will be relegated to an historical term, used only when discussing the industry's early decades.
Is there one bottom-line lesson you learned from all this, aside from microfinance, maybe about people in general?
I think so, and it's not what I expected. In several of the countries I visited Rwanda, Bosnia, and Cambodia jump to mind I met people who had been through horrible events, things that I doubt very much I would be able to endure. Eventually, I started to ask about their coping skills, basically asking "how are you not insane?" out of real humility and curiosity. The replies were strikingly similar, despite superficially different cultures and circumstances I had my family and friends around me and to think of, we were all in it together, and so on.
The answer that stuck with me most came from a man in Beirut who owned his own restaurant, a place that he had built and managed and relied on to raise his kids for more than 15 years. He was never a part of factional politics; he's just a regular guy trying to raise his kids. He'd welcome anyone in his restaurant, genuinely not caring what their faith or ethnicity might be. And then the whole thing was blown up by a missile after Hezbollah and Israel came to blows a few years ago. Suddenly, through no fault of his own, he lost everything. Now he works for a local microfinance organization, helping other people rebuild their lives while he does the same. But on weekends, for extra cash, he now has to work in somebody else's restaurant. It's a major step down economically, and he and his family may never have the life that he once did. So I asked if he was angry I would be, in his shoes at Hezbollah, at Israel, at his god, at humanity, or whatever. He said no. And five words in his reply may be the best five words I've ever heard: "you love more, you win."
That phrase didn't come out of a yoga class in Berkeley. It didn't come out of a pulpit or a philosophy class or any privileged place where people get to choose when they get to think about good and evil and death and survival. It came Beirut, from a man whose life was blown up, and who struggles every day to find his way in the aftermath.
If my whole book had to be reduced to five words, it would be those five. "You love more, you win."