Bob Harris was a travel and tourism writer, traveling the world as if he could afford to stay at the luxurious hotels and eat at the fancy restaurants he would visit and then review. All that came to an end when he encountered Dubai. The extreme wealth and privilege, contrasted with the desperate lives of those who built and served the city shocked him into wondering what matters in life. Then it caused him to take a journey to understand the KIVA organization, an organization dedicated to providing opportunity to those who seek economic opportunity but whose prosperity was cut short by the cross-generational and cross-national birth lottery.
Some within the U.S.A. and many outside its borders turn to risky strategies to improve their lives because they love their families. Those who serve as common laborers in places like Dubai sacrifice the most. They are compelled by images of financial gain and they risk everything they have for that chance, often going into great debt to do it and many times risking their health and safety just in the hopes of a better life. They always leave their loved ones back home and end up living away for many years and perhaps an entire adulthood. Although places like Dubai allow for the exploitation of these desperate seekers, Dubai isn’t where the problem started. The root of the problem is the level of poverty and lack of opportunity back in India, Nepal, the Philippines, or elsewhere. That’s why KIVA’s focus has been on providing resources for husbands, wives, and family to stay home and to have access to low-interest loans to create their own businesses.
While other strategies are available to help those in perpetual poverty to have a better life, many (certainly not all) of them are wrapped in a veneer of pity that mostly makes the donors feel good about themselves. The KIVA approach is one that views those who lack economic opportunity as creative, smart, strong, resourceful, and resilient – it recognizes their dignity and worth which is one of the major preconditions to self-sufficiency. KIVA not only provides funding but requires coaching of those who receive loans to help them be successful and it reinforces that every success results in funds returning to the pool to be reallocated to help others. The International Bank of Bob is packed with examples of success from around the world and reflecting the many cultures and religions where poverty has struck. The book also provides honest examples of failure or “over-reach” where some have been too ambitious; it is realistic and does not claim any special truth or cure.
I identified a lot with Harris’ stories, particularly since his journey started in a place with which I am so very familiar, it traversed other places I’ve been, and it ended in Chicago (ACCION) where I now live. It’s strange how a book can so closely mirror your own experience, bringing both greater insight and gravity to your own lived experience. The extremes of wealth found in some places in the world go beyond “any sane human comfort and starts touching lunacy,” as Harris noted early in his book. Is KIVA a way for those who have relative wealth to share their prosperity and alleviate the poverty found in so many, many places? And if it worked, it wouldn’t cost a dollar – only a simple loan that would regenerate itself and eventually be available to others to pursue their own dreams of crossing from poverty to dignity.