The International Bank of Bob: What its First Year Taught the Author
This is a guest post from Bob Harris, author, adventurer, Kiva super lender, and captain of the incredible Friends of Bob Harris lending team. His book, The International Bank of Bob, was published in March of 2013, and is now available in paperback and Kindle versions.
A year ago this month, my book about my travels to meet Kiva clients all over the world was released.
For me, the result has included every lovely experience that you hope for as an author: strong sales, packed bookstore talks, plenty of media appearances, invitations to speak at Google, Citi, Visa, the European Parliament, and more. If the book had been a novel or some fangless non-fiction about sports or celebrities, this would have been the goal. Hurray.
But this is a book about people coping with difficult circumstances, building businesses, and generating hope, the endless effort that millions must exert just to play their ticket in the birth lottery. So every success is also bittersweet, a constant reminder of my own privileged life. Every time I’ve been interviewed, I’m always aware that right that minute, the clients whose stories I’ve shared are likely still working another eleven-hour day. I’m just talking about it, hoping it brings more people more financing, and more good.
Meanwhile, news headlines emphasize new and ongoing challenges for so many of the kind and brilliant people I’ve met all over the world.
I’ll share three, of many.
Lebanon was relatively peaceful at the time of my visit. But last July, a new explosion ripped through the Bir El Abed neighborhood south of downtown Beirut, injuring more than 50 people.
My thoughts rushed to my friends at Al Majmoua, a local Kiva partner that sees the creation of small businesses across every faction of society—Shi’a, Sunni, Druze, etc.—as a key mechanism for peace. When I sat with Alia Farhat, Al-Majmoua’s human resources and social performance manager, she was emphatic, marking each word with her hand as she spoke: non-sectarianism is Al Majmoua’s “first... core... value.”
I wasn’t too worried in July, since Al Majmoua is near the city center, and the bombing was farther south, down toward Hezbollah territory.
But two days after Christmas, another, even larger car bomb went off, assassinating Mohamad Chatah, a former ambassador to the United States, killing seven other people, and wounding 70 more. The December explosion was walking distance from my friends at Al Majmoua. It was on a major street, where any of them might have been. Oh, crap. Emails, tweets, you guys okay? I’m glad to report that while the explosion was nearby, nobody at Al Majmoua was injured.
But let’s take a second and renew our appreciation for the work they choose to do. These folks are smart, educated and hardworking. Alia was born in France, speaks four languages, attended Harvard business school and has consulted for the World Bank. She has options. She chooses to live in Beirut, work at Al Majmoua, and devote her time to helping clients who live in the shadow of war.
Syrian refugees pouring into the city? Doesn’t stop her or her associates. A car bomb just down the street (and an office you find by turning left at a bullet-ridden wall)? Just part of doing work she believes in. Hezbollah and Israel go to war, devastating the lives of numerous Al Majmoua clients as a side effect? When it happened just a few years ago, Alia and her cohorts pressed onward.
There’s a whole chunk about Alia, Nadine, Ahmed, and others I met in Beirut in my book. In the year since it was published, when I consider anew the pressures and instability they must often deal with, my appreciation and respect has only grown.
In the Philippines, Typhoon Yolanda was the deadliest storm in the country’s history, making landfall last November with sustained winds of 195 mph. Yolanda devastated the islands of Samar and Leyte and caused extensive damage to villages on Cebu and other nearby islands.
Worse, Yolanda came on the heels of a major earthquake, which had already made tens of thousands of people homeless. These people would have had to ride out the storm with minimal shelter.
Before writing the book, these would have seemed faraway tragedies.
But not long ago, I was in Cebu, visiting staff and clients at a local Kiva partner called the Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation, riding along with a loan officer named Raymond to meet shopkeepers, craftspeople, and other small entrepreneurs. Their homes and businesses certainly didn’t look like they could withstand an earthquake and 195 mph winds.
Watching news reports, I wondered if the clients I met were all still even alive. I tried to imagine what would be needed in some of the towns I visited when a disaster like this rolled in. Clean water, medicine, food, shelter, more.
I emailed Raymond, asking if everyone was okay. They were still suffering aftershocks, he said, but so far, so good. Soon, after the typhoon, I asked again. And sure enough, NWTF was in the process of locating every client, then trying to assess their needs and how best to proceed on a case-by-case basis covering thousands of clients on nearly a dozen storm-battered islands. And Raymond was again positive. When I asked how I could I help, he suggested the simplest thing would be to PayPal a direct relief donation to NWTF and spread the word. Which I did, and just did again.
As with Alia and the folks at Al Majmoua, the latest tragedy was just another thing for NWTF to find a way to handle.
The last headline is from Qatar, but it connects to my trip to Nepal.
I first became interested in Kiva after a trip to United Arab Emirates, one of the oil-rich Gulf states, where I was working as a luxury travel writer. The gap between rich and poor can be stark anywhere, but the difference in the Gulf was more than I knew how to handle. The billion-dollar hotels, stadiums, office buildings, and convention centers that enrich sheikhs and multi-millionaire investors are typically constructed by immigrant laborers who work endless hours in brutal heat while receiving as little as six or eight dollars a day.
The workers come from India, Pakistan, Nepal, and other poorer countries, where they might only be able to make two or three dollars a day. Consequently, as bad as the deal in the Gulf states might be, men from these poor villages sign up, leaving their families for years at a time, living in squalid conditions to do back-breaking labor for years—all just so they can send a few extra dollars home.
Labor conditions are so poor that the Kathmandu airport receives a body or two almost every day. But the men still sign up for this hell—often boarding the very plane which has carried a returning coffin—because they love their families every bit as we love ours (of course), and this is the best that our world can currently offer.
Meanwhile, I was getting paid just to sleep inside the gold-plated palaces and write rote copy confirming that yes, the beds were soft. The brutality of the birth lottery was more than I knew how to take.
But what to do? Improvements would not come only through local reform; there are millions more families in poverty than there are jobs in the Gulf states, so the vastness of the labor pool would keep pay from rising much. The only solution would have to originate in the places they came from—there would have to be some means of improving lives in villages in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and so on. But where could I put my money so that it could help people address their own needs in countries all over the world?
And here we are. Fast forward, the book is written, many good things have happened, and on good days I hope to have put a small drop of moisture into a very big bucket.
But near the end of the book, in the Kathmandu airport, I met a man named Ganesh.
We were both killing time while waiting for a ticket counter to open, and Ganesh decided to break the silence with the few words of English he knew and enough sign language to carry the rest. He was bright, outgoing and friendly. I liked him immediately.
I was waiting to go to India for the book. Ganesh was waiting for a plane that would take him to his new life as a laborer. He was both desperately sad to leave his family and hopeful that his work would give them a better future. I gave him my email address and asked him to please stay in touch, hoping he would be okay and that someday there might be a better way to bridge the ridiculous random inhuman gulf between our destinies.
I’ve never heard from him since. I’ll probably never know how he is.
Ganesh was headed for Qatar, I should add.
Qatar will host the soccer World Cup in a few years, so there are stadiums to build. In conditions so inhuman that the international observers estimate that at least 4,000 workers will die in the process. Nearly all of them, surely, men just like Ganesh. None of whom would need to take these jobs if the economies in Nepal and their other home countries gave them hope.
In Kathmandu, I also met an energetic woman named Urmila Shrestha, the founder of Kiva partner BPW Patan. Urmila has often financed her clients with loans out of her own pocket when funding for her MFI came up short.
A year ago, when my book was published, I thought I had come to fully appreciate what the work of Urmila, Alia, Raymond and so many others at MFIs all over the world.
A year later, watching the world that they work in, I can see I am only beginning to learn.