Bob Harris knows exactly where he had his epiphany. On a writing assignment in Dubai, a location known for both its extreme wealth and rampant poverty, he was sipping a shockingly expensive cup of coffee while trying to forget a group of migrant workers sleeping in the streets before work the next day.
As a freelance journalist and travel writer, Harris traversed the globe covering luxurious accommodations — and though he wasn’t paid handsomely (nowhere near enough to stay in those digs on his own dime), he was able to build his savings while writing and enjoying the sights. Considering himself fortunate, Harris notices how workers watch him in the street: his American clothes, his fancy transportation. The people constructing the resorts he’s frequenting are often thousands of miles from home — and their families. They work for years at a time in a form of indentured servitude so Harris can sip a cup of coffee expensive enough to completely buy them out of poverty back home.
He has to do something.
Joining Kiva, an international lending site linking funds to borrowers around the world, Harris pours his savings into loans distributed to impoverished world citizens who simply need a helping hand. Kiva’s platform links partner institutions to individuals with funds who want to help. You’re not donating money; you’re lending it. And, the great majority of the time, you get it back . . . and can flip it again.
In The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time, Harris takes his lending one step further: after providing the funds for men and women in Africa, Morocco or Cambodia to buy supplies for shops, purchase cows, help with schooling and more, Harris takes a trip of his own: to meet borrowers face-to-face. Via translators and helpers, Kiva employees and locals, Harris finds himself in all manner of locales to meet the people who benefit every day from the faith of strangers. And if he’s helped change their lives in any small way, well . . . they’re changing his, too.
What struck me immediately in this thorough, honest and fascinating travel and humanitarian memoir is Harris’ steadfast belief that one person really can make a difference. Never does he judge or condescend; he is thoughtful, kindhearted. Bob is humble. His painstakingly cautious approach to telling others’ stories is further proof of his sincerity, and I couldn’t help but admire him — as a person and a writer — for the lengths to which he strove to make the story about others, not himself.
No small feat for a personal memoir.
The armchair travel opportunities are plentiful here, absolutely, and Harris paints many a beautiful picture as he travels seeking to better understand microcredit. But Kiva and microlending — and those they benefit — are the stars of this story. Microfinance was made famous by Muhammad Yunus, a Bangladeshi banker and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, who penned Banker to the Poor. For someone who walked into Harris’ story without any knowledge of microfinance, I emerged with a much clearer understanding of the process.
I really appreciated the incredibly balanced perspective Harris offers in . . . well, every aspect of the book. While microlending has been life-changing for some and most local partner agencies are working toward the common good, Harris doesn’t paint over the messier parts: like the organizations shut down for veritable loan sharking. He talks of the good and the bad, the joys and the trade-offs. And though he is a champion for Kiva, he doesn’t work for Kiva; he’s free to discuss what he wants. His story never reads like a rampant endorsement for the site, though he never puts it down.
This is a story of money . . . of who has it, and who doesn’t. Harris often discusses “the birth lottery” — how the circumstances of our lives are so often dictated by forces out of our control. God, destiny, science, karma . . . however you view it, somehow we got here. What are the odds I would be born a white American woman in a middle-class family, for example? (Pretty low.) Who’s to say I am more “worthy” of a warm dinner and clean bed than a little boy in India, or a young mother in Vietnam? (No one.)
But Harris doesn’t dwell on the sad or the unpleasant. He mixes his own personal history — and his father’s hardscrabble Appalachian roots — with the stories of those he encounters, which lends a sweetness and authenticity to his adventures. He isn’t a poverty voyeur, zipping around the world to gawk at others’ troubles and flip them into a fat book advance. Bob is in the story, invested in the story — and he’s still written a moving book that never screams Look at me! It never feels boastful, which is pretty amazing if you consider he and members of his Kiva group have made more than 121,000 loans totaling upwards of $3.4 million through Kiva.
If ever there was something to brag about, well — that would be it.
But Bob doesn’t. Bob is funny. Bob is awesome. I finished this book feeling buoyant and hopeful and happy. It gave me a warm, humanity-doesn’t-completely-suck feeling often missing from my everyday life. With the evening news so often full of pain and chaos, The International Bank of Bob reminded me that through laptops in random laps across the globe, so many people are working toward a greater tomorrow by making a small and generous move today.
We can work toward a greater tomorrow. Together. In small ways, in big ones
. . . together.
What a beautiful thing.
4.5 out of 5!