The world is a horrible place; poverty and tragedy are never in short supply. Injustice is right up there too. Bob Harris is very aware of this, perhaps far more than most people. A question he keeps asking in his travels is "How do you keep from going insane?" And yet this is very much a tale of hope amidst the horror, small victories at a one to one level that are making a difference.
Several years ago Harris landed a writing assignment for Forbes Traveler: go to some of the most luxurious hotels in the world, and detail the experience for their readers with the latest information. Nice work if you can get it, and as a free lance writer of semi-irregular income, Harris was properly appreciative. However, he found himself using his observational skills to compare and contrast. Side by side with some of the most incredible luxury on the planet is often horrendous poverty. Harris couldn't help but look at his own life and make connections.
His own family two generations back was living in poverty in America; a move by his father to a city where factory work could provide a start on a decent living for his family made all the difference. Harris, simply by being born when and where he was, in Ohio, had won the birth lottery that put him in a position to build on his family's hard work. Seeing men who had left their homelands, their families, to work in slave labor conditions in hopes of making things better for their loved ones was something Harris could understand at a gut level.
Harris was moved by a desire to do something - but what? This book is the story of the answer he came across: micro finance. All around the world there are people who could begin to change their lives with a small loan and some assistance. They understand their problems and their opportunities. The micro finance movement is all about connecting them with people in other countries who are willing to loan them the tiny but critical amount of money needed to get started. Note: it's a loan, not charity. It's up to the borrowers to repay the loan if they can demonstrate first that they have the potential to do so. And thanks to the safeguards and experience that has been built up by the organizations involved in this, they almost always do.
Harris works largely through Kiva.org, a leading portal to connect potential lenders to micro finance institutions around the world. This book grew out of the realization that his talents could help explain and spread the word of how micro finance is "Connecting our worlds one $25 loan at a time." The International Bank of Bob is an inspiring collection of stories from around the world, gathered by Harris in his travels to connect with the people on the other end of the loans, and those who make it all possible.
It's not a perfect solution. Harris is up front about the limitations of the model of micro finance, and the several examples where it has gone off the rails. It's vulnerable to local conditions, unstable governments, economic disruptions, and human frailties. But, as he documents with copious citations, footnotes, and links to information on the internet, when it succeeds it is a powerfully inspiring tool for making the world a better place. You can see how it works in places like Beirut, Nepal, Fiji, India, Bosnia, Rwanda, and yes America as Harris gets to know the people and their dreams they're working to make real.
There's no happy ending, because there's still so much to do. But there is happy. As Harris states in the "Home" chapter at the end where he finds he's come full circle back to his own roots, "We win just by starting. This world has great problems to solve. This world has great opportunities for happiness."
Anyone who is looking for a way to make the world a better place, one person, one loan at a time could do far worse than thumb through this book and follow up on the links there. (You can find more at bobharris.com)