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Extended interview: Tour the world of giving through micro-lending


If you imagine your dream job, what would it be?

Bob Harris has had a lot of jobs that may have made your list. About 15 years ago, Harris was a standup comedian, working out of L.A. Then he sent a demo tape into the city’s top radio news station, and he landed a job as a syndicated talking head.

He’s also been on Jeopardy 13 times and was even the “lifeline”for a friend on the game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” He helped his friend get a quarter-million dollars.

He’s also been a travel writer and is a published author. According to Harris, the most important thing he’s done is write a new book called The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time. KALW’s Ben Trefny asked Bob Harris to share the story of how it happened.

BOB HARRIS: Um, well it’s, I was already a travel writer, cause my career’s taken some weird turns along the way, because I have this philosophy that I was taught when I was young to just say “Yes, and?” to new opportunities, and figure it out on the fly. And what you end up with by the time you’re about to turn 50, like me, is a resume that makes no sense whatsoever but a lot of stories, and that’s kind of what I wanted to do.

So, for a while I wound up as a travel writer. The short version – which is not too inaccurate – is that I basically got the right guy a couple of drinks in a bar. He turned out to be the editor of forbestravel.com and it was luxury travel. And I got this job where I got to fly literally around the world and stay in five star luxury hotels and get paid to live like a billionaire.

BEN TREFNY: So your job was to evaluate, to some extent, the best hotels in the world?

HARRIS: Yeah, and the thing is, I didn’t even have to pick them. They were already chosen for me … All I had to do was show up, not knock down anything that was priceless, you know, cause no international incidents, and write my little, really seriously, like 400-word pieces – these small little pieces essentially saying, “Yep, pretty swank!” And then I would, you know, move on to the next one.

So, all of the sudden, and by the way, I’m middle class, don’t anybody get the wrong idea – my dad worked at General Motors in the warehouse, I grew up in a suburb in Ohio. My mom worked in a five and dime, my grandfather was a coal miner. I will go Loretta Lynn on you, if you need me to… And so, all of the sudden, I mean, I am so out of water here, I’m walking through, the whole time, through these palaces in like Monaco and Dubai and I am actually, literally braced for some security guy to walk up to me any moment and just grab me by the collar and just kind of smell the middle class on me – “Sorry, you, you must be leaving now” – and it never happened! And so, it was really fun for a couple months, and there was a sort of “Road to Damascus” moment, I guess you could call it.

In the Middle East, I was in Dubai and the difference between rich and poor in the Emirates and a lot of the Gulf States – a lot of places – but where I experienced it was in Dubai where at the time there was still this massive construction boom. Like one fifth of all construction cranes in the world were in Dubai at that time.

TREFNY: Seriously?

HARRIS: Yeah, building, I mean it was everywhere.

TREFNY: Building the world’s tallest tower.

HARRIS:  It was crazy. The tallest, the widest building, “We will build the thickest one!”

TREFNY: Building the homemade islands for residences.

HARRIS: Yeah, you know the world development, which is still sitting out there floating around and they deny that it’s sinking. They deny it. I’ll just say that, they deny it. But take a good look at Google Earth…

But anyways, so I’m there in Dubai and these places, I mean, they’re just laughable. I’m staying in the $3 billion Emirates palace – at the time the most expensive hotel ever built – and they don’t have a single soda machine in the place, because that would be, you know, way declasé. They do however have an ATM that delivers gold ingots. You can just buy gold, if you need it. I don’t know why you’d need it, but what if you need some gold to go downstairs?

So, this is what I’m hanging out in. But if you go outside in Dubai, and you just walk 50 yards, just to the next enormity, and there’s these guys, these South Asians, South-East Asians, East Africans, who are working you know, 10,12, 11, whatever, however many hours a day and they’re making, according to the estimates of the time from the human rights observers, they were saying they were making something like six bucks a day, seven bucks a day, living 10 to a room in labor camps out in the desert that aren’t even on the tourist maps.

TREFNY: And where are they living, I mean what...

HARRIS: Oh I mean the area that they were put off to would be out in the desert, you know, kind of hidden from anybody’s view. You take a bus if you’re one of the workers, they have rides that get you back to your camp but it’s totally put away and hidden from view. You really have to go look for it, and I would say 99 percent of tourists don’t even really think about, you know, where these guys go. And so they go back off to their camps all day and at night they sleep 10 to a room, for years at a time.

And, you know, my dad, and in some ways it’s almost obscene to draw a comparison to middle class life in Ohio and what these guys have to go through, but my dad was gone a lot when I was a kid, ‘cause he had to work second shift, third shift, work on weekends, stuff like that. I knew what it was to be a kid and not see my dad as much as I’d want to. But these guys sign up for two years, two or three years to leave their homes in Nepal, in India, in Sri Lanka, wherever, to be able to send money home. That’s six bucks a day – that’s nothing to us, that’s actually a lot to them. Nepal, where you’re making a buck a day, maybe a buck-fifty, two dollars a day, if these guys can save a couple of dollars and send them home, then they’re taking care of their kids, they’re able to do this.

So they’re in this hell, mind you, because they love their children. And, this started sinking in on me while I was in Dubai. And I’ve been handed the luckiest break a guy can have – “Here, live like a billionaire, you don’t even have to, like, oppress anybody first! Go, be a billionaire, go stay in the hotels and live the life!” – and I just couldn’t. And I think anybody else in the same situation, I really do believe that anyone listening to this would have made the same choice. I just thought to myself, “Okay, I was handed this, I should figure out a way to share it. This is just right.”

So, I had 20 grand saved up from the Forbes travel – and I really didn’t know what to do with it. I looked at a lot of charities, and the thought crossed my mind, innocently, of, “Gosh, I wish there was like an Ebay, or something like that where people like, in the developing world, in all these villages where these people come from, where they could like, upload their projects, what they want to do to make their economy better so they don’t have to do all this.”

And it occurred to me that about six months earlier, I had actually heard of such a thing: this charity in San Francisco called Kiva. And, so I started using Kiva, and I went to the website, logged in, created an account, and started putting the money in in little drips and drabs...

TREFNY: Do you remember what some of the first places you invested in were?

HARRIS: Yeah, absolutely, the first ones, you know, you always remember your first. The first ones that really made an impression on me, they’re listed in the book, there was a Cambodian farmer, he lives in, I’m trying to remember the exact state, I mean, it was pretty remote, and apparently, from the description, the guy is raising three teenagers and he’s 40 years old, mind you. His job is to tap the trees on his land that create sugary sap, and he then refines that into sugar or wine for sale, but the trees apparently are very thick at the trunks, so the only place he can tap them are up at the top. So, dude is like 40 years old and he’s supporting three teenagers in the Cambodian sun by shinnying up and down palm trees all day.

And I looked at that and I thought, that is a different life. That is a guy – and the work ethic and the… This is a guy making the best of what he’s got, and he’s doing it for his kids. That really hit me.

And there was a guy named Victor in Paraguay, who I did not loan to, his loan had already been filled on Kiva. But his job, all he wanted to do was get some money so he could finance buying strips of leather and citronella so that he could cut them up and make mosquito repellent bracelets for the kids. Paraguay at the time was going through an outbreak of Dengue Fever, a tropical disease that we don’t have much of in America, but which strikes tens of millions of people in the developing world especially in the tropics. I’ve had Dengue Fever, I had it once in one of my earlier travels, it’s awful, it’s not fun. And it kills you know, kids, people die. And a second case can go hemorrhagic, and it’s ugly and tragic.

And so, this guy is trying to borrow, it was like a couple of hundred bucks, I don’t remember the exact figure. He’s trying to borrow a couple of hundred bucks so that he can help the kids in his village not be bitten by mosquitoes carrying Dengue in the middle of a Dengue epidemic; “Ok yeah, I could front you 25 bucks till pay day, Dude!” So, I’m sitting there and I start clicking, and I start making these loans. And then the next question is “Does it work?” And, well...

TREFNY: ‘Cause you’re wondering, you’re remote, just at your computer?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think every Kiva lender – I think there’s like 900,000 or a million people now who’ve made Kiva loans – everybody kind of wants to go through the computer, through the looking glass and sort of, “Is it real, is it happening, does this all work?” Well, I’d been a travel writer, I had experience doing that stuff, and you know, I’m a writer, I tell people stories, and I thought, well maybe I can figure this out.

So I actually got a book contract, not sure what I was gonna find – it was a pretty small advance because the publisher really had no idea what I was going to really find either, but it was enough to get the travel started and that became The International Bank of Bob.

What I found, everywhere I went, including places I never figured I would feel comfortable – I mean, I wound up, I loved Lebanon. I had a great time there. I was really comfortable in Rwanda. I would walk across Kigali in the middle of the night probably a thousand times before I’d feel comfortable walking across San Francisco in the middle of the night.

It’s actually a very, very safe city. I had an amazing set of trips. And everywhere, I kept meeting families who are so much more like our families than we ever would have imagined. You know, we see the TV news and it’s things blowing up, and it’s people with funny languages and rituals, and it’s all scary on the evening news. And there’s a lot of people who derive their power from keeping us frightened of the world-- a lot of politicians: “A terrible thing just happened, be frightened of this.”

The truth is, the world is populated by people who want to feed their kids. Everywhere you go, and yeah, I’m not saying that everybody’s right and great and terrific, this isn’t sort of, like, overly idealistic thing, but I am telling you that you plunk me in the middle of Beirut and my experience, everybody I meet, is just families trying to feed their kids. And we’re going to start seeing each other that way more and more fundamentally as time goes on.

Ben was hired as Interim Executive Director of KALW in November, 2021.