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Bob Harris, 'Jeopardy!' Champ, Fights Poverty With Microloans And "The International Bank Of Bob"

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BOB HARRIS
Bob Harris, author of "The International Bank of Bob" | Bob Harris
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Bob Harris learned the handshake that gave him access to the super-secret clubhouse of the extremely wealthy. As a luxury-travel writer, it was his job to assess amenities so over the top, they crossed into the realm of the absurd. Consider the hotel that served the World's Most Expensive Cocktail (whisky served in a gold tumbler that would set you back $7,438) or another that served the World's Most Expensive Coffee (it's called kopi luwak, goes for $600 a pound and is, well, made from the droppings of an Indonesian cat-like creature called the civet).

While crisscrossing the globe to stay at these ostentatious hostelries -- such as the one "whose atrium is large enough to hold the Statue of Liberty without touching the walls" -- he observed the disconnect of how these paeans to obscene wealth were built by a population that were living in near-indentured servitude.

Spurred to do the right thing, and help the universe course correct, Harris -- a former "Jeopardy!" champion -- vowed to take all $20,000 he made that year eating meals in medieval ramparts and 16th century palaces and then doing something good with it. After researching the best vehicle to do so, he settled on Kiva, a microlending charity that aims to alleviate poverty by loaning money to would-be small-business entrepreneurs in the developing world.

But to sate his curiosity about how the microlending process actually works -- and to exercise his writerly and travel skills -- he decided to journey to some of the world's most remote destinations and follow the money. The resultant book, "The International Bank of Bob," documents his travels to Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe -- in many cases to places that have seen their share of strife.

The book is smart, touching, and (as those who've read Harris' other work, such as "Who Hates Whom," can attest) often devastatingly funny. The Huffington Post caught up with Harris to talk about "The International Bank of Bob" and the world of microfinance.

Huffington Post: What were the reactions of your friends, family and publisher when you told them you wanted to write a book about microlending?
Harris: My publisher was really the first person who fully believed that there was a book here. So that worked out really nicely, given that he was the publisher. I showed him photographs of entrepreneurs who make their livings in ways that we normally wouldn't imagine, like a Cambodian guy who shimmies up palm trees all day to tap the sap and make sugar, to support three teenagers. There's a guy my age who shimmies up palm trees all day.

Huff Post: Before embarking on this effort, you were traveling around the world, to some of the planet's most exclusive destinations. What were some of the over-the-top details that led to your epiphany about microlending and trying to help others?
Harris: The difference between rich and poor is visible almost anywhere you look. You can find homeless people sleeping right outside the Plaza Hotel in New York. You only have to have your eyes open to see that sort of difference. But it couldn't have been thrown into higher relief anywhere but the United Arab Emirates, where I was at the Emirates Palace -- which is a $3 billion hotel, one of the most expensive in the world at that time.

They have chandeliers that weigh more than two Toyota Corollas. They have no Coke machine in that building, but they do have an ATM that spits gold ingots. They go through 5 kilos -- 11 pounds -- of gold every year, not just in, like, redoing the walls or something, but in pastry decorations: 11 pounds of gold a year in the tiny flakes of shiny bits that they put on top of people's chocolates. Gold is indigestible -- that's, like, nearly half a million dollars a year that they're essentially flushing down the toilet.

After a while, it's like the comic book Richie Rich. "I need an elevator for my cars and cars for my elevators." It just gets crazy. And it's utterly purposeless -- it's just extra doodads. It becomes sad, because you know there's a world of want.

There's whole hallways in that building that are piled floor to ceiling with displays of precious antiquities for sale, for prices that you and I -- it would beggar belief. It was like being at the end of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" -- like all of the precious things in the history of the world all just being put in some back room, and just hauled away. And meanwhile, a couple of days later, I'm up in the middle of Dubai, and the streets are surrounded by new luxury hotels going up. And the workers are gaunt men from South Asia working in 105-degree heat, for six bucks a day. They look far more exhausted than I can express.

And as I learned more about these guys' lives, and how they're essentially indentured servants -- they live 10 or 12 to a room, without air-conditioning, out in camps in the desert. And they sign up for this. They haven't been captured and forced to do this at gunpoint -- they do this so that they can save up some of that six bucks a day, seven bucks a day and send it home to their families. In countries where two dollars a day or three dollars a day is doing well. They are in this physical hell working 12 hours a day, six days a week in 110-degree heat, because they love their families.

And contrast the meaninglessness of the wealth with the intensity and nobility of the purpose of these guys' labor -- and the irony that they'll never see the insides of the palaces they were creating -- I just hit overload. And knew I needed to try to do something different. I just didn't want to leave this world without doing something where I thought maybe I've done some good.

Huff Post: Can you explain the process of microlending to those not familiar with it?
Harris: Microlending is basically making small-business loans available to people who ordinary banks would never touch. People who are living in small rural villages, perhaps, who have no established credit. People who are asking for an amount of money that it wouldn't be worth it for a large bank to even consider.

Microlending was pioneered more than 30 years ago by, among others, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. Charity certainly has its place in poverty alleviation, obviously -- when there's been a disaster, or when there's epic need -- but in many places, the people have small enterprises, and they know what they can do to solve their own problems. They're in the middle of their businesses and they simply need a small loan.

But if you're a fisherman, and you simply need to patch a hole in your rowboat, you can't go to Citibank for a bridge loan in Cambodia. So who do you go to? Prior to microlending, your alternative would be maybe leaning on your family or villagers, or going to black-market money lenders, and paying an exorbitant interest rate. When you go to kiva.org, the vast majority of donors are finding people on the website to whom they can put $25 toward a loan; that money goes overseas to a local lender and the recipients pay the loan back, then you get paid back.

Huff Post: One thing I found horrifyingly amusing in the book is that, by your estimation, Kiva performed better than the S&P over a certain period.
Harris: Yeah, that was back-of the envelope math I did when I first got the idea, which was, of course not long after the big global-financial crisis. When Wall Street banks -- let's say they did not perform optimally. That was reflected in the S&P 500 Index. So at the time I started the project in early 2009, if you'd put all of your money into either the stock of major American banks or in the businesses of Peruvian potato farmers and Bangladeshi fishermen and Tanzanian craftswomen, you would've done a couple of percentage points better with Peruvian potato farmers and Bangladeshi fishermen and Tanzanian craftswomen.

But to clarify, you do not make money when you lend money through Kiva. The reader who hops to Kiva and makes a loan -- you don't lose money -- you get repaid about 99% of the time; you barely lose a little bit of money. But you don't get paid interest.

Also, given the amount of risk -- the way that banks have sometimes been suddenly discovered to have misbehaved -- I actually feel more comfortable, personally, with my money spread out in loans all over the world that pay back 99% than I do with having a savings account at the major Wall Street bank around the corner. I have a checking account down there, but I actually use my Kiva account, essentially, as my savings account. If that sounds crazy, consider it this way: if you put $25 into an American savings accounts right now -- which are paying next to nothing; American savings accounts are paying close to zero interest right now, so you get, at the end of a year, you have $25 and a few pennies. If you put that into a Kiva loan instead, and you support a Rwandan mother of three, you, at the end of the year, would have $25 minus a few pennies. So for the price of a few pennies -- literally pennies -- you have the choice of supporting the endeavors of giant Wall Street banks or the endeavors of a Kenyan farmer who needs to finance a cow. I'm not saying one's more moral than the other, or better for society, but for my choice? I'd rather help the Kenyan guy with the cow.

Huff Post: You've journeyed to some countries that have experienced mind-numbing violence. That were, for a time, the most devastated places on the planet: Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia, at different times. What lessons if any were you able to cobble together about any commonalities in these locales?
Harris: Well the first thing, and the most horrifying thing, is that these experiences, while recent, aren't unique. If you look at history, there's really not much of Earth that we haven't fertilized with our own blood, at some point. It's not that long ago that all of Western Europe was a bloodbath, a couple of times in the 20th Century. Central America in the 1980s, look at the southern cone of South America in the 1970s and 1980s. So these places aren't particularly exceptional, really, it's just that their experiences are more recent. And that's mortifying to realize. That these sorts of mass tragedies are not unusual.

But, we also find, in place after place, that humanity still moves on. We find a way forward. And this was unbelievably hopeful for me to realize.

I also learned that the coping mechanisms that we use to survive tragedy are the same -- I kept asking people "How are you not crazy?" Because they've been through things that I'm sure would have ripped me apart. And over and over, I heard the exact same answers, everywhere I went in the world. "We all went through it together, we were able to support each other. We focused on hope, we kept our sense of humor. We talked." Things that sound so rudimentary, but were the same answers I heard in Bosnia, Cambodia, and everywhere I went.

Very quickly, you start realizing, that maybe there's this noble hope that a lot of readers have that maybe deep down humankind is all one, and all the same.

Huff Post: Remarkably you sparked a movement within Kiva called Friends of Bob Harris, which has become one of the most popular "teams" on the site.
Harris: I didn't start the team. I actually didn't think it was a very good idea at first. I felt a little awkward and embarrassed about it. It was started by a fan of my writing named Aaron whom I never met. And he just felt there should be this team. It started out with a couple of people, other people got invited. Honestly, it's the damnedest thing. In the book, I struggle with my theories and explanations as to as to how it happened. I've never been particularly active recruiting people or anything like that. But it's grown to about 1,200 members now, it's raised $3.2 million in lending funds. Friends of Bob Harris is one of the Top Five teams on Kiva. We passed Team Europe, we've passed Australia, and the Gay and Lesbian teams. The only teams in front of us are the Atheist team and the Christian team. And there's one other. So essentially we've passed all land masses and are now attempting to usurp ideologies.

People come to Kiva with this holy part of their heart to try to be generous. And [Friends of Bob Harris] just became this place where people felt safe coming with their generosity. Now there's this place on the Internet -- where total strangers go, to be nice with other total strangers so they can all collectively be generous to yet more total strangers whom they will never meet -- and somehow my name is in the middle of that. That's magical.

For more information on Kiva, click here. To see the Kiva "Friends of Bob Harris" page, click here. Note: Bob Harris does not work for Kiva.

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