Story Originally Appeared on USA TODAY
Bob Harris, former stand-up comedian, "Jeopardy" contestant, and television writer, got a plum assignment covering the world's most luxurious hotels for ForbesTraveler.com in 2008. While staying in hotels that would bankrupt most people overnight, he took an interest in the poverty that surrounds so many luxe establishments. And that, in turn, led him to invest his earnings from Forbes at Kiva.org, which allows people to make small loans — as little as $25 — to people in lesser-developed nations. "The International Bank of Bob," now in bookstores, is his story about making those loans, and visiting Kiva.org borrowers around the world. USA TODAY reporter John Waggoner interviewed Harris on his newfound role as an international lender.
Q: You have a lot of good things to say about Kiva.org in your book. Are there any caveats you'd add?
A: I don't have a lot of caveats. The thing works: You do get paid back more than 99% of the time. If you go to a major Wall Street bank, rates are virtually nothing. If you deposit $25, a year later you have the same $25, plus a small pile of pennies. Through Kiva, you'd have the same $25, minus a small pile of pennies. And for that you could be helping someone in West Africa buy a cow or repair a taxi. I'd rather have that $25 helping a Bangladeshi fisherman and know what he's doing with it, than tossing it into a big Wall Street bank.
Q: What about the interest borrowers pay? Kiva.org funnels money to lenders, who get interest, but people who contribute to Kiva.org get no interest, right? Isn't there some concern that the local lenders charge a high interest rate?
A: At Kiva, you're lending money at no interest, and you're getting a negative 1% rate. A lot of Americans, when they look at the rates borrowers are paying in the field, those rates seem comparatively high. But in India, education loans are 9%, but the inflation rate is 7.5%. So you have to put the rates into local context. I never met a client in the field who complained about the interest rates.
Q: Which borrower stands out most in your mind?
A: In Lebanon, a guy named Achmed, says to me that he's not political, he doesn't care about sectarianism. And after all the stuff he's been through — his restaurant blown up, livelihood destroyed — he says, "You love more, you win." That didn't come out of a Berkeley yoga class. That's the real deal, a choice you make every day.
But when you look at the other borrowers — Mohammed in Morocco who works in his bike shop six days a week, 11 hours a day, a guy in Cambodia who climbs up and down palm trees all day — they're the same. You start seeing people in terms of what matters to them, and everyone is trying to make a better life for their kids.
Q: Your previous book was Who Hates Whom, a guide to all the simmering hatreds in the world. Has this book changed your outlook at all?
A: We live in one of most diverse countries in the world. You can walk to UCLA, or to the mall, or any hotel here, and if you spend five minutes with eyes open, you'll see people from the entire world getting along. The rest of the world looks like it's on fire when you see the evening news. You see a lot of people shaking their fists, but that's not really what it looks like. In a way we're both far more insulated from the rest of the world and far less aware of it than we realize.
Q: Did you have any moments while traveling when you were scared?
A: I kept anticipating bad things. I'm from Ohio, and I don't fly into Beirut lightly. I just got on a plane, showed up in Beirut, I was not too worried. Beirut has a tourist industry; it's beautiful place. I was expecting some anti-Americanism somewhere — Lebanon, Morocco, Southeast Asia — but I never ran into anti-Americanism. People would just be curious. They find out you live in Los Angles, they start naming the name of Hollywood stars.
The most dangerous thing in most of the world is mosquitoes. Insect-borne viruses, the tropical diseases, will get you. I woke up in Rwanda on my 47th birthday with a sudden fever, and was terrified that I had malaria. I went to the hospital and the doctor took one look at me and said, "You don't have malaria, get out of here."
Dengue fever was like the worst flu I ever had. Everything hurt. You lay there felt like your bones are breaking. It just hurt, and I didn't like it. But hey, I caught up on a lot of movies; I got to lay on the couch and watch cable. I think of people on the islands, watching their kids suffer. The whole time I had dengue, I felt so grateful and lucky to be so comfortable while getting well.
Q: What was your funniest moment?
A: There was a little beautiful girl in Kenya who had never seen a white dude before. I just didn't look like people should. She just freaked out, just lost it. I don't blame her. I'm pale as heck anyway, wearing SPF 100 sunblock, white paint, really, plus mosquito repellent — glowing, essentially, like an alien in a 1950 move. She was just inconsolable.
Q: Any travel tips for people who want to go off the beaten track, as you did?
A: Just travel light. I haven't checked a bag in years. It gives you flexibility: If your hotel is overbooked and you just have a backpack, you just go to the next place. And there are discount airlines all over the world. If you want to know what budget airlines fly between any two countries — say, Estonia to Turkey — try whichbudget.com.