In an ideal world, microfinance is the perfect mechanism for alleviating financial stress on new and small businesses. But how well does it work in real life?
Travel writer and microloan donator Bob Harris decided to find out.
Programs like Kiva send an inspiring message – you can start a new business, save a struggling one, and empower an individual across the globe with a loan as small as $25. But, very seldom do donors and recipients get the chance to interact face-to-face.
A small business is nothing more or less than an idea for improving the future. So, numbers aside: Is your work paying off? Is there more food on the table? Are there more books in the hands of children? Does the village have more electric light in the evenings? Is the future improving? Do the loans help? For nearly one hundred million clients of microfinance institutions across the developing world, including some of the world’s poorest people, these are supremely important questions.
- Bob Harris
Harris decided to ask these supremely important questions face-to-face.
After Jeopardy! winner/author/travel writer Bob Harris was commissioned to experience and describe the luxury of the most lavish accommodations, he found himself much more fascinated by the stories on the other end of the economic spectrum. Thus, his next travel stories, a heartwarming and inspiring compilation called “The International Bank of Bob: Connecting our Worlds one $25 Kiva Loan at a Time,” takes a look at the lives of entrepreneurs from all corners of globe and what they’re doing with 25 dollars.
Over the past three years, Harris and his community, aptly called Friends of Bob Harris, have collectively contributed over $3 million to Kiva.org. In 2011, Bob began a tour visiting the entrepreneurs their loans touched, hearing their stories firsthand, and learning what happens on the other side of this relationship. In The International Bank of Bob, Harris sprinkles funny anecdotes and social commentary into his memoirs and character portraits, such as this excerpt describing Mohammed, a bike tinker in Rabat, Morocco.
After twelve years in business, and after successfully borrowing and repaying seven cycles of small loans over the last five years, Mohammed now does more than shepherd his three kids through school: his shop has grown to employ two permanent staff members, plus several part-time helpers. He has also upgraded and diversified his equipment, enabling his staff to handle virtually any job that comes in. His eighth loan is five times larger than his first, and Mohammed hopes soon to expand his business even further, benefiting not just his own family, but his entire neighborhood.
So far, the book has received much acclaim. “Bob Harris shows us how to save the world without being an insufferable prig,” says Steven Pinker, Harvard College Professor of Psychology, and author of The Better Angels of Our Nature. Arianna Huffington calls it a “travelogue that makes people in exotic locales as accessible as your next-door neighbors; a book about poverty alleviation that often makes you laugh out loud (or cry, sometimes on the same page.)”
Harris admits in an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle that his goal was to make The International Bank of Bob a “beach read.” After all, “preaching to the converted only brings the converted.” The comic relief and fun writing style make this important message accessible to a wide audience.
While his findings were overwhelmingly positive, Harris also learns about struggles facing Kiva’s loan recipients, and how Kiva’s process could be improved. For example, a number of recipients would benefit from longer grace periods – more time to make sound financial decisions and investments before paying back their loans.
If you’ve participated in Kiva, are interested in microfinance, or are simply looking for a good read and a chuckle, you can find The International Bank of Bob at Amazon, Barnes & Noble Booksellers, Powells, and IndieBound.