It sounds like a dream job. Paid to write about the most luxurious hotels on the planet for Forbes Traveler magazine, Bob Harris slept in $3,300-a-night rooms on the French Riviera, dined in Monaco’s Michelin-starred restaurants, and drove in a $200,000 Bentley touring sedan through Singapore.
Instead, this self-described son of an Ohio factory worker came down with a very bad case of “wealth vertigo.” It turns out, Harris can only take so much excess. He hit his limit at Emirates Palace at Dubai after learning that chefs there spend $300,000 a year on solid gold pastry decorations.
“There’s a point where luxury passes beyond any sane human comfort and starts touching lunacy,” he writes in his new book, “The International Bank of Bob.” “I walked out of the meeting in a daze, a sensation enhanced by the Emirates Palace’s massive empty echoing halls, many lined floor-to-ceiling with near-priceless antiquities, a cross between The Shining and the final warehouse shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark. I felt numb and small and brief on this planet.”
Harris was paid $20,000 before taxes for the Forbes articles, a sum that was more than half his salary that year. But he decides to do something radical with it: He used it to fund microloans to impoverished people worldwide. His book tells the story of his transformation and commitment.
Harris uses Kiva.org, a nonprofit that helps anyone in the United States who has a computer and a credit card lend money to business ventures in impoverished areas. He sat at his computer and picked out the profiles of people he wanted to help. These are small business loans, helping a man in Paraguay, for example, expand his mosquito repellent wristband inventory, or giving a palm tree climber in Cambodia the opportunity to increase his palm wine production.
Loans can be made in increments as small as $25, money that Kiva forwards at zero interest to its microlending partner in that particular region.
Thus, with a few keystrokes, the International Bank of Bob is born. And eventually so is a plan: Harris, a TV writer, serial “Jeopardy!” game show champion, and one-time stand-up comic decides to travel the world again, visiting microloan recipients.
The journey Harris describes takes him to a host of nations, including Peru, Bosnia, and Rwanda, and he devotes a chapter to each nation. And the tour feels like an important review of the strengths of microlending and its limitations.
The concept is relatively new. In 2006, economist Muhammad Yunus and Grameen Bank in Bangladesh won the Nobel Prize for their work offering small loans to millions of poor people, and women in particular, that improved millions of lives.
That success and the attention it drew spawned a host of other microlending institutions worldwide, including one in India accused of using coercive methods to collect debts, which resulted in scores of borrower suicides.
This book is essentially about how microlending works through Kiva, a group that has avoided controversy and boasts a 99.9 percent return rate on its loans.
And though it’s hard to describe anything related to “microfinance” as a fun read, Harris’s book is, enlivened by his description of a sweaty bus ride or an encounter with charcoal-flavored yogurt.
In fact, some of the most powerful scenes can catch a reader by surprise. In Rwanda, Harris meets Yvonne, a single mother of three who wears a T-shirt that says “No Problemo!” Thanks to a series of loans that are “smaller than an American business lunch,” she has turned part of her home into a makeshift convenience store and the business has been so successful she will soon be able to send her children to school, she tells Harris through a translator.
Harris later learns that Yvonne is from a village where an estimated 27,000 Tutsis were slaughtered by Hutu rebels in 1994.
“I am no longer sitting in a front room of a growing convenience store with an increasingly relaxed mother of three,” Harris wrote. “I am in Rwanda, the one in the newspapers.”
Such moments give him a new sense of satisfaction in the power of helping others. And it seems to cure his wealth vertigo once and for all.
To see anything clearly, he wrote, “is simply to see where you are, look the people around you in the eye, and realize that you risk being changed by the result.”