Monday, April 22, 2013

The International Bank of Bob (and Me)

So, on my way to my daughter's tennis match in a nearby city a few weeks ago, I got sideswiped by a bookstore.  This is not a surprise to anyone who knows me.

One of the books I picked up was a surprise, a good one:  The International Bank of Bob: Changing the World one $25 loan at a time.

Now, I'd heard of Kiva before.  It's an online site that makes it startlingly easy to participate in microfinance.  Microfinance, for anyone who's not been paying attention, is a way to make little-bitty loans to people, primarily in developing countries, who do not have access to traditional banking, usually because their incomes and assets are too low. 

When I was in South Africa, I quite often saw people selling things on the streets.  ("Chickens: alive or dead" was one of my favorite signs.)  Sometimes the level of commerce was incredibly small:  a woman would go into a grocery, say, and buy a five-pound bag of apples.  Then she'd sit outside the store and sell individual apples at a slight markup.  You can imagine the amount of cash transacted would be pretty small.  You can't possibly make much selling a dozen apples a day. 

So a microfinance loan might, say, help the woman buy enough fruit to stock a small roadside stand.  It would be a boost of capital that while small in the context of the developed world could be life-changing in the developing world.

All Kiva does is vet microfinance operations around the globe, offer to help fund up to 30% of their loans, and then post photos and descriptions of the people needing loans online.  Ordinary people go onto the Kiva site and loan their own money, $25 at at time.  You get a small amount of interest, but nobody's doing this to make money.  They're doing it to help a Zulu woman with her fruit stand. 

Anyway, along about a year ago, I made 3 Kiva loans.  They were repaid, and I reloaned the money, so that in a year's time I'd actually funded 13 people, which was pretty cool.  But of course, one wonders: does this actually do any good?

Enter Bob Harris.  Bob is a writer, comedian, and Jeopardy! champion, among other things.  Not long ago he was hired by a travel magazine to help update their ratings of the most luxurious resorts in the world.  A pretty good gig--but he became bothered by the disconnect between the places in which he was staying, which featured, among other things, $75 coffee made from beans extracted from civet poop, and the ordinary laborers he saw on the streets.  Working men who reminded him of his father.  When he finished traveling for the magazine, he put the $20,000 he earned into Kiva loans.  Then he took off on another trip--to visit the places and people where his money was invested.  Thus the book.

1) it's an easy read, funny and interesting; 2) Bob will go anywhere and do nearly anything, but always with the sort of humility that leads people around the world to trust him with their stories; 3) it turns out you really can change lives with a $25 loan.

When I finished the book and started to tell my husband about it, he said heck, our savings account wasn't making any interest anyhow.  Make some more Kiva loans instead.  Make a difference, he said.  So I loaned to a farmer growing maize in Rwanda.  A man in Peru wanting to buy a dairy cow.  A woman in Sierra Leone selling shoes.  You get the picture.

Right now, Kiva's running a "recruit a new member, get a free loan" deal.  Click here, and change a life.  Then read Bob's book--you'll love it.