"Lives first, loans second. Always. The rest follows.” An interview with Bob Harris
My favorite magazine in the world is Esquire magazine, primarily for the interviews that they publish. When I learned that Bob Harris was publishing a book on his experiences in micro-finance called “The International Bank of Bob,” I saw my chance. The challenges to getting a coherent interview to take place were many. 1: As much of a fan as I was of the “Esquire” style interviews, I am just that, a fan and not a journalist. 2: Trying to download his book to my IPAD in the middle of the Andes was more difficult than I could have imagined (i.e. his book was released March 5th but as of the 8th of March iTunes was still offering me a pre-order). 3: Bob was in the middle of his book promotions so trying to steal some time away from him could be difficult. Thankfully, and eventually, we were able to overcome them all.
Once Bob agreed to the interview I had to come up with some questions. Preferably some new and interesting ones as I am sure that he must be answering the same questions over and over. Below are the results.
Your last writing assignment was to review luxury resorts for a travel magazine. Could you describe what motivated you jump from that to delving into the world of micro-finance?
“The luxury thing is fun to do once, to be honest, no question. But after a while, it gets boring to just wobble aimlessly through these giant marble palaces, trying to find new synonyms for “fancy.” Most of these places are kinda disconnected from the rest of the world. String them together for months on end, and you find yourself looking forward to the chaos of the airport, just so you have authentic human contact. And then in Dubai, I found myself staying in billion-dollar hotels being constructed by immigrant laborers from South Asia, Southeast Asia, and East Africa — guys making maybe six or seven bucks a day, people who would never even see the inside of places that I was getting paid to sleep in without lifting a finger. We all spend our lives coping with disparities of wealth, but this felt positively psychotic. I grew up working-class in Ohio, and my dad was a warehouse worker for General Motors who busted his butt all day to put food on the table. There was no way my heart couldn’t start shifting very hard toward the workers. So I’d been given all this money just to live a life of luxury, and it just felt like I needed to do something with it.”
When you did jump in, what drew you to Kiva?
Muhammad Yunus and Grameen had recently shared the Nobel Peace Prize, and I’d seen Premal give a talk in San Francisco the previous summer. It took me a long time to figure out what I wanted to do with my little nest egg, but I wanted an approach to poverty alleviation that was bottom-up, local, transparent, scalable... there was actually a bullet-point list I made in one of my notebooks at one point, and in the book I describe the process of gradually giving up on finding anything that fit all my criteria until I remembered Kiva.
What were your views on micro-finance prior to this experience and how have they evolved since then?
I didn’t really have any ideas before the experience. It seemed like a great idea that when applied responsibly could really help people, and when applied irresponsibly could cause real trauma. But the same thing is true of a hammer, a surgeon’s knife, and plenty of other useful tools. Most Americans have heard of it maybe twice — possibly once when Yunus won the Nobel or appeared on The Simpsons, maybe a second time when the tragedies happened in India and got all that press in 2010. This is like having your first impressions about air travel formed by the moon landing and then the Hindenburg—and it’s just wholly removed from the day-to-day, routine way it just normally functions. I probably knew less than that.
What was your most memorable interaction with a Kiva borrower?
Hmm. Probably the first time I actually met someone whose picture I’d seen online. It was a woman in Tuzla, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a sweet Croatian lady a lot like my mom. There was a real looking-glass quality about it. Now I was suddenly on the other side of the computer screen, if you will.
Which interaction surprised you the most and why?
It wasn’t one interaction, really, but all of them: everywhere I went, including places I wasn’t sure I’d be welcomed like Lebanon, Bosnia, and Cambodia, I was pretty much gang-befriended. And not because anybody knew much specifically about me—I avoided telling clients I was a lender myself (an indebtedness vibe would be gross, and my portion of any loan was small, fungible, and replaceable in any case), and just showed up as an American who was interested in their lives and wanted to listen to their stories. Awkwardness just really rarely ever happened. People rarely took more than a few minutes to open up, and pretty soon, there’s coffee on the table and you’re watching the kids play soccer and talking about what they might be when they grow up.
Were there any similarities among all the borrowers that you met?
Everybody with kids, pretty much everywhere, is trying to put clothes on their backs and schoolbooks in their hands, whatever it takes. Kiva has a special category called “education” loans, where you’re financing somebody’s academic work specifically. But in a bigger picture, I’d bet at least half of the loans on the whole site are really education loans.
Recently you posted the video below on your website. It speaks to the fact that people make some colossal mistakes in their lives, but that mistakes are a part of life and you have to move on when you make one. While writing your book did you come across any borrowers who had made some massive mistakes and were moving on with their lives? Did you think the kiva loans helped them to do this, and if so how?
What comes to mind is not really the kind of “mistake” you might be driving at, the kind of thing where somebody screwed up a business or a marriage and starts over. Yeah, that happens, anybody, anywhere. But what actually jumped to mind from your question was meeting with several lending groups in Rwanda and realizing that, statistically speaking, men over the age of 35 or 40 whom I was meeting were probably among the killers during the genocide. The vast majority of killers and enablers weren’t jailed afterward because they were the majority, period, so there was simply no way to do it. With so many people imprisoned, the country would have bankrupted itself on punishment while the fields would have lain fallow and innocent people would have starves. Instead, the country went through (and continues to go through the aftermath of) a reconciliation process whose effectiveness is hard for an outsider to peg. There is at least the appearance of a wide commitment to progress.
So: you asked about moving on, and yes, actually, I visited an entire country that is trying to move on, everyone, all at once, and from the most tragic and horrible mass mistake that humans can make.
And now here I was, hanging out with these folks, listening to their current plans and dreams, trying hard not to be freaked out by their past and just to follow along with their stories.
Are the loans helping the individuals and the country move on from their mistakes? Again, it’s hard to say. But if they’re ever going to truly unite as a people, a growing economy with lots of small enterprise certainly seems like it would give them the best chance. So I did leave with the conclusion that on balance I’m quite happy to have lent there. But it took some processing even as a lender to respect the only choice the local culture can now make, put the past behind, and see the potential future more clearly.
Leo here: For a Kiva Fellows take on this same subject take a look here for Louise’s blog post
Where do you think micro-lending will be in 10 years? Where would you like it to be?
I don’t think anyone can even guess, since technology is changing so rapidly. Mobile banking and the ability of lenders to develop SMS-based platforms could take it to the very edges of the earth. But SMS itself may disappear in a few years as everything moves up a quantum, and applications and platforms may soon be widely used that we cannot now even imagine.
I hope it involves jet packs. Jet packs would be fun.
If you could share one thing about microfinance with the world at large, what would it be?
First, that “microfinance,” as generally considered, is a tool, nothing more or less, and the expectations and discussion should be framed accordingly. See my comments about hammers and scalpels, above. Whether microfinance itself is a “good” or a “bad” thing is actually a very silly thing to discuss. Are hammers good or bad? Obviously, it depends on who is swinging them, at what, and why. We’d probably be better off talking about that. Especially considering this next point:
Second: I think the word “microfinance” is way too broad, and we need to start adopting much more specific words. 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. This cannot all be described with the same word in any meaningful way. 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, but all three are in “retail.” That’s what we do with the word “microfinance” all the time. It’s a wildly oversimplified equation of a wide variety of economic activity that defines it all by similar end users (people whose banking is “micro” by local standards), not by the diverse practitioners and their completely different goals, structures, and offerings. Linguistically, we just don’t do that with most things. The general word “sports” exists, but we also constantly use simple, easily understood words like “baseball.” “football,” “hockey,” etc. to describe athletic activities requiring overlapping skills played for extremely similar audiences. Imagine discarding all of those words and just calling them “fan-actions”—a word that, like “microfinance,” defines the activity by the end users and a highly general term, not what the practitioners themselves do—and we have something almost analogous. Defaulting to “microfinance” muddies thinking and hurts the whole industry. It’s why the press and public tend to conflate things like the Andhra Pradesh tragedies, which had specific causes unrelated to the work of most MFIs on earth, with the entire rest of the industry—because the industry itself seems to insist on using the same word for all of it. This is not brilliant. I offer some alternative terminology in the book, but it’s only meant as a rough first notion. I don’t imagine anyone will adopt any of it. Still, I honestly think that once people realize how useful a set of specific shorthands would be, they’ll be invented and adopted rapidly.
If I suggest “MF-IPO,” you can figure without even being told whether that means a Nepali non-profit or India’s SKS. See? I bet you already know exactly what that means without even trying. The words can be created. This isn’t hard. In the meantime, there’s a reason you don’t see the word “microfinance” anywhere on the cover, spine, flaps, photo captions, or table of contents of my book, and yet not one reader, reviewer, Kiva employee, or blogger has noticed, even a week after publication: because it’s a useless word that truly can be completely discarded without anyone grieving its loss. (That said, I was forced to use “microfinance” exactly once on the back cover, when Joss Whedon employed it in his extremely kind blurb. I’m not gonna edit Joss.) Someday, I really hope “microfinance” will be relegated to an historical term, used only when discussing the industry’s early decades.
You have led a very eclectic career. Could you describe a borrower that you met on your trip that you would describe as eclectic?
Geez, nearly all of them. Most clients I’ve met have had to hustle for a living for most of their lives. This may be part of why we tended to connect so well. Very few micro-lending clients have had just one career, and the business they’re currently financing may give way to something entirely different if they see a better opportunity. This was also true of many of the loan officers, a group of people who are rarely appreciated or really even thought about when people talk about microfinance, but upon whom the whole thing relies.
Do you think it is possible to increase the personal connection between the lenders on kiva and borrowers around the world? Do you think this would be a positive or negative? Could you describe your thoughts?
I think this is definitely possible, but whether it’s a positive really depends on the platform and frame. In the classic Kiva experience, lenders really love the personal stories and the sense of knowing who they’re lending to, but think about it—if they lend in any volume, it could become a big ask to connect any more deeply. What if you’ve made 100 loans, and there’s any custom or expectation that a client might say hi, and you should probably say hi back? That’s saying hi to 100 more people in your life. There’s a terminal weight to this, and it pushes back against scaling up. People can’t even keep up with their existing friends on Facebook. I mean, I’ve made 5300 loans—if there were any more personal connection that carried a whiff of social obligation on my part, I wouldn’t be able to function in my own life. And I’m not sure I’ve seen any sign that most clients really desire it. They’re already working eleven hours a day. They’d probably want to say “thanks” directly if they could, and they’d mean it. Maybe they’d send the lender-message equivalent of a Christmas card here or there. But then they have to be up at 5:30 to shovel the pasture or open the kitchen for business or what have you. If I’m a client, I’m thrilled and honored that people halfway around the world want to invest in me. But I also want to play with my kids in the hour left before I have to be in bed. I think Zip is the place for greater connection. It already is, actually, and I know that’s something Kiva is still evolving and working on.
Kiva fellows have an unmitigated love of the local food that we find in the countries where we are volunteering. Can you tell us about a memorable meal you had while writing this book?
Total honesty? I can’t say I’ve shared that experience. I’d love to rhapsodize about trying alpaca in Peru and urwagwa in Rwanda, but I really can’t sing the praises with a straight face. I tried a lot of local food. Usually, it tried me in return. I did love the cevapi in Bosnia, but that tastes exactly like White Castle, and I’m from Ohio. No surprise there. The low point was probably charcoal-flavored yogurt made by a Juhudi Kilimo client while I was visiting Kenya. It was flavored with burnt bark, which tasted exactly like burnt bark. It was also unpasteurized, which caused my intestinal flora to jump to DefCon 1, with results the next morning they could hear in Uganda.
In your book you have a chapter which talks about the Kiva Fellows Program. In it you quote JD Bergeron gives a speech that you boil down to “Trust me – this is really going to suck.” As fellows we refer to this as the rough of disillusionment. Did you ever hit a trough while doing your travels?
Lots of them, actually. I mention it in passing in the book, but only in passing. I don’t want to falsely project the image that I’m some sort of jut-jawed world-traveler capable of diving headlong into areas that have experience wrenching traumas, then sort of come home unaffected, writing it all from a purely intellectual level. Aw, hell, no. But I also don’t want to make it about me. The book is about the clients, so my own stuff like this really only gets one footnote. But during this project I’ve knocked off more Bourbons than the French Revolution. Let’s leave it at that.
I am a combat veteran and am working on some blog series about micro-finance in conflict zones. In chapter 6, Welcome to Sarajevo, you wrote about the long term positive effects of micro-finance on a personal level in post conflict zones. Did you have any negative experiences where the borrowers’ use of microfinance led to them being targeted?
It’s not hard to imagine. Heck, we’ve had people here in Los Angeles get shot because they got a nice pair of shoes. Add in an actual recovering war zone, sure, I can imagine it, just like I can imagine any sort of petty factional jealousy. But to your question, while I’ve heard stories, I never personally saw it, so I’m a listener on this, not a speaker. I know that in Lebanon, when I asked about the possibility of group loans being constructed across sectarian lines, the answer from the MFI was something like “we are not ready for that.”
On the flip side, I see that as a combat veteran, you’ve spent a good deal of time considering the moral implications of microfinance in conflict zones. Here, what I’ve seen advocates very strongly for the pro-microfinance side. There’s a lot that didn’t make it into the book about this, actually, but the simplest expression of what I saw over and over came from Raymond Serios of Negros Women for Tomorrow Foundation in the Philippines. We were talking about the multiple insurgencies there—Islamists seeking an independent Bangsamoro in the south, the quasi-Marxist movement in rural parts of the north that had been at it for decades, and so on. All of this was intense enough that you couldn’t enter an upscale shopping mall or hotel in peaceful Cebu without going through metal detectors and possibly a frisking. So I asked Raymond about it, and I don’t have my notes in front of me, but he had nothing but compassion—if a rural farmer with little education can’t afford to grow his crops, and the banks won’t help him, and the government won’t help him, what is he supposed to think? Of course he’ll want to fight, just trying to survive. So making financing available in rural areas, helping small businesses get started where they can—this isn’t just a charity thing or a business thing. It’s a political stability and economic justice thing. (Raymond didn’t use the word “thing.” That’s me paraphrasing like a Californian.)
When I told my fellow fellows about this interview the one question that they came back with was, “What is your dream for Micro-Finance?”
Daydreaming? I’d like to see a world in which investment is vastly decentralized, and any dang thing any dang where can be essentially crowd-sourced. It’s hardly a radical idea: even shares of stock in a public company are really a form of crowd-sourcing. I’d also like to see SMS-based schemes capable of reaching the very ends of the earth, the farthest reaches of human civilization—and this is possible right now, btw, little new needs to be invented. But most of all, as people do more business with each other across international boundaries, I’d like to imagine that in 100 or 150 years that we’ll have given up on the increasingly obsolete notions self-definition that we use to divide ourselves as a species. That’s happening already at blinding speed by historical standards. I hope microfinance will help accelerate it, and eventually we’ll all be able to actually look each other in the eye, recognize each other as humans, and risk being changed by what we see.
As a Kiva fellow, I regularly have to talk to borrowers to and talk to them about their lives and loans. Any advice?
Lives first, loans second. Always. The rest follows.
Bob Harris has had a diverse career as a TV writer, TV and radio personality, and political columnist. He has appeared on Jeopardy! thirteen times, staging some of the most memorable upsets and collapses in the show's history. His first book, Prisoner of Trebekistan, chronicling his Jeopardy! experience, was widely praised, as was his second, Who Hates Whom, a pocket summary of more than 30 conflicts around the world. He holds an honors degree in electrical engineering and applied physics from Case Western Reserve University. Bob lives in Los Angeles. Visit his website at www.bobharris.com.
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