What Jeopardy Champion Bob Harris Learned on His Journey through Microfinance and Philanthropy

bankofbobIt’s kind of hard to categorize The International Bank of Bob, a book by former Jeopardy champion, frequent writer, and eternal funnyman Bob Harris.

It’s a book about the developing world, but it’s not laden with economic models and equations. It’s got elements of a travel guide, taking you from Bali to Beirut, but the people and places in the book feel familiar, like you’ve seen and met them all before. It’ll occasionally have you chortling in delight, but so many of its poignant stories are rooted in human tragedy. Maybe the best way to describe it is a book about finding the common humanity between people of different nations and backgrounds, about philanthropy in the purest sense of the word—love for humankind.

Harris got the idea for the the book while on assignment as a travel writer for Forbes, a plush gig that paid him to review some of the most extravagant hotels and attractions in the world. But along the way, Harris realized that the luxury surrounding him was made possible by people who were barely scraping by—people rendered invisible by a system of capital that often seems indifferent to human struggles. He resolved to do something about it, thus beginning a journey into microfinance and philanthropy. He started with a $25 loan to Kiva, and with a little help from his friends, that $25 has now grown to over $4.4 million funds lent to micro-entrepreneurs across the world.

Harris recently spoke to us about his travels, his giving, and oh yeah, that whole Jeopardy thing too.


Asian Philanthropy Forum: You start your book with the realization that you’ve been able to live a privileged life as an educated, Caucasian male from a developed country. It wasn’t really until after personal encounters with people in different countries that you seriously started your journey into micro-philanthropy. How do you think we can get more people to care about global poverty when so many of us are living in our personal bubbles and not all of us have the means to travel abroad?

Bob Harris: I think the most important thing is that we start to realize that we’re really all equal—that there’s really no difference between people from other countries and ourselves. Yes, people in different countries have different situations and circumstances, but they’re not foreigners. They’re our neighbors, in the same way that you have neighbors down the street. They’re just further down the street.

You know, we live in this constant media saturation where the world outside our borders is portrayed as a dangerous and hostile place. When we watch the evening news and listen to politicians, it’s all about America, U.S.A, U.S.A.! A certain degree of national pride is certainly fine, but we’re a nation of immigrants. We’re a nation of people who came from other countries. I think the key is really just getting people to see ‘others’ as ourselves and not people deserving of pity. Most appeals to help the developing world of are based on that–a whole set of emotions that emphasizes pity, which winds up making the recipient being less-than or inferior. There’s a certain condescension to it.

APF: That actually dovetails into my next question. One of the things that I really liked about your book was the gradual shift in your thinking. You went from a top-down mentality—asking ‘How can Bob save the day?’—to a bottom-up approach, asking, ‘How can I enable a woman in a rural village to pull herself out of poverty?’

That top-down mindset still seems very pervasive to me, and it’s probably why we sometimes hear philanthropy from the West criticized as a White Savior Complex or colonial mindset. How do we get people to move away from that sort of thinking?

BH: Well, in my case, the answer was to write a book. [Laughs.]

But that’s not a very good response to your question, is it? It’s actually something I struggle with. How do you get people engaged? That’s part of the reason why I wrote the book to be as fun a read as I possible. Some books about the developing world are just… not pleasant reads. They get so bogged down in statistics and theory. I tried to make mine as thorough but still enjoyable a read as I could.

In terms of how we can change this mindset in daily life, well, I think one of the things Kiva does very well is tell stories. It’s not filled with statistics and data and dry, impersonal things, but specific stories. It’s, ‘Here’s a mother of four in Bolivia, here’s what she’s trying to do, and here’s what’s going on.’ When you read her story, it helps you see the person, understand their goals, appreciate what they’re doing. It’s very, very tangible.

But getting people to engage is very difficult. If there were an easy answer to it, I think global poverty would have been eradicated a long time ago!

APF: Right! Bill Gates wouldn’t have to make the case pleading for foreign aid every year.

BH: Yeah.

APF: Let’s talk about microfinance and Kiva for a moment. You already write a lot about it in your book—both its strengths and limitations—but can you fill our readers in on what drew you to the microfinance model in particular?

BH: In all honesty, it was more out of a place of emotional need for me. I realized how lucky I’d been; I needed to do something. But I wanted to do something specific, not just put money into an organization and hope it went somewhere good. I wanted to be able to see tangible results. $100 went here and created this impact. I also wanted the most transparent thing I could find.

Kiva checked of all the boxes. I didn’t actually come to microfinance specifically. In fact, I knew very little about it when I started. I just got attracted to the Kiva website and thought it was worth a try. In the course of seeing whether it worked, I got an education about microfinance.

APF: A lot of people probably don’t realize that when they donate to Kiva, they’re actually donating to a local MFI [microfinance institute] that does most of the groundwork. What were your impressions of these local organizations, especially the ones in Asia?

BH: The MFIs are really unsung heroes. They’re so diverse, the ecosystem of thousands of MFIs all over the world. To generalize about them is like generalizing about athletes: the skills of the pole-vaulter are different from the skills of the snowboarder. As for MFIs, sometimes they’re for-profit, sometimes they’re not-for-profit. They can be large or small, working in completely different circumstances. I hesitate to speak about them in generalities.

But the specific ones that I visited—I have to tell you, I was so impressed. In Asia, I was particularly impressed with the ones in Cambodia and the Philippines, which are considered more mature microfinance markets because there’s a very large penetration of services. Microfinance has been there a while.

These folks at MFIs work as least as hard as a lot of their clients. Everyone from the executives to the loan officers themselves—a lot of them are putting in 11 – 12 hour days, 6 days a week. And they really do it because they care about their communities. NWTF in the Phillipines and HKL in Cambodia—they know so much about the needs of their clients. In meeting them I found that they are still trying to come up with new ways to serve their clients, even if they’ve been in business for a long time. It was so impressive. I’m still in touch with a lot of people that I’ve visited.

APF: That’s wonderful.

BH: Yeah, when Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, one of the islands struck was Cebu, where I visited. I think it made the typhoon feel more real to me than to my neighbors in Los Angeles. I immediately got hold of my buddy Raymond, a Filipino loan officer described in the book, and asked, ‘Hey, is everybody there okay? What can we do?’ He sent me information about how people could help with NWTF’s efforts to handle the crisis, and I was able to share it on Facebook and tweet about it. They’re great people who are really trying to know their clients.

APF: What happens next? What do you want people to do after they’ve finished reading your book?

The Friends of Bob Harris page on Kiva.

BH: First thing, go to Kiva and start making loans! Join the Friends of Bob Harris team if you like! [Laughs.] We’re just about to pass 4.5 million dollars in funds lent, which is beyond anything I ever thought I’d accomplish. I can’t even imagine it at this point. It’s really cool; there’s a really nice sense of community that I think people will enjoy.

And you know, in writing this book, I didn’t want to just write about Kiva or microfinance, because technology changes. Ten years from now, the way stuff happens in this whole world may be very different. Some new disruptive technology may come in and completely revolutionize the way things happen. The technical stuff, the details of how microfinance is implemented—that could all completely change.

What I hoped to accomplish and what I hope readers will take away is more a sense of how much joy there is in connecting to the world as deeply as you can. There are so many problems in the world, so much to address. Literacy, clean water, a million other issues. I want readers to find the thing that they’re passionate about, the thing that really hits home for them and makes them feel, hey, I’d be a lot happier if the world was better in this way and I’m going to try to it better. It’s just so cool to go out there and do it.

APF: To change it up for a moment (and because everyone wants to know!), do you have any thoughts on Arthur Chu and his “game theory” techniques on Jeopardy?

BH: [Laughs.] Honestly I haven’t seen his games yet.

APF: You haven’t?

BH: No, I haven’t seen it, but I live in America, I’m connected to the internet, so I’ve read about it. As far as I can tell, he’s not doing anything new. He’s using tactics that have been around for decades, but it’s the internet era so people are talking about it more. This playing for a tie thing that he does when he’s in the lead—I did it back in 1997, wrote about it in my book about Jeopardy, but no one seems to remember. [Laughs.] Bouncing between categories—Chuck Forrest started doing that 25 years ago. Hunting daily doubles at the bottom of the board at the start—David Madden who won 19 games in a row did that almost ten years ago. Betting large on daily doubles—Roger Craig pioneered that. All of these people are really big winners of the show, by the way.

When all the social media say that he’s using game theory…well, I think that’s a really nice buzzword, but I don’t think it really applies in this situation. He is using very good strategies very effectively. I hope he has a wonderful time and wins a lot of money. I wish him nothing but the best.

APF: Thanks for indulging my curiosity! Is there anything else you’d like to add?

BH: Yeah, there’s one little thing. A lot of times people ask me to summarize my book, and it’s hard because how do you summarize a whole book in one sentence? But it always gets me thinking back to Huseyn, one of the people I met in Beirut. This is a guy who lost everything in the conflict between Lebanon and Israel. He wasn’t part of it; he just lived in Lebanon. He’d spent 18 years building a restaurant, building a life. But his entire livelihood was destroyed in the war, through no fault of his own.

I asked him if he was angry or bitter, and he looked at me and said the five most important words I’ve ever heard: “You love more, you win.” He was talking about personally overcoming his own anger and his own difficulties, and I could see he was really struggling with it. But this is a daily choice that he makes—to live his life in a place of love and not bitterness.

I think this applies to everybody everywhere. We all have these massive challenges, some of them more massive than others. Just because we’re Americans living in the First World doesn’t mean we necessarily have it easy. There are millions of people who are living week to week, people who are one paycheck away from not being able to pay the rent, people who don’t have healthcare. Unfortunately, politicians and the media, they turn us against each other. Anger and fear and despair—everything gets turned onto your neighbor and we end up hating each other. This is what keeping us from solving the problems of society.

So I think it is really true, for anybody in the world: you love more, you win.


The International Bank of Bob: Connecting Our Worlds One $25 Kiva Loan at a Time is available now in hardback and for Kindle. The paperback edition comes out February 18.

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