Bob Harris Shows How Your Legacy Can Be Impacted by Even the Smallest Things

By Bob Harris

There’s a corner of the Internet where more than 2,000 people call themselves “Friends of Bob Harris” (FoBH). They mean me, personally. Neat.

Even better: the FoBHs have only one purpose — generosity — and have now lent more than $8 million, receiving no interest, to support microfinance loans to tens of thousands of mom-and-pop businesses.

Whoa. I’m not a financier. I don’t have a degree in economics. I write non-fiction books, Hollywood movies that mostly never get made, and TV shows that open with a dead body and a pun.

Yet somehow the FoBHs and their do-gooding might wind up being my legacy.

How did this happen?

Fun as it is for my ego to take more credit, it’s only possible thanks to the non-profit Kiva.org, the world’s first and largest microlending platform, and their partners worldwide.

Kiva is successful in part because unlike most charities, when you lend via Kiva, you actually see the specific person or group you’re supporting, read what they’re doing, and know with clarity where your money is going. More than a million people have lent through Kiva so far, with a repayment rate of roughly 98 percent.

Flashback to 2008, not long after Kiva was first founded, before they were even on my radar. I was just busy making a living. As a writer, my employment history is a 30-year-long Plinko game. I’ve written for TV, movies, radio, Mexican telenovelas, Star Wars comic books, quiz questions for a Kenyan game show, and even luxury hotel reviews for Forbes Traveler.

That Forbes gig turned out to be life-changing in an unexpected way. I was writing formulaic summaries of five-star hotels all over the world, many in places where wealth and poverty grind hard against each other.

This was challenging. It’s one thing to know intellectually that the world is a savagely unequal place. But suddenly it was right in my face, anytime I left my air-conditioned suite, in whatever developing-world megacity I was visiting, and passed workers downstairs making six bucks a day to construct the next billion-dollar palace.

In Dubai I found myself way more interested in the laborers, sweating in 105-degree heat, than another boring meal with a Michelin star. This was because of the legacy that my parents left to me.

My parents were both from rural Appalachia. With little education, putting food on the table while nobody died prematurely was a lofty enough goal. Their main legacy to me was the example of hard work and the knowledge that it might someday improve your family’s life.

So why do guys from small villages in India and Pakistan sign up to work 12-hour days for years on end? Simple: back home, they’d only make one or two bucks a day. In Dubai or Abu Dhabi, they could make six, maybe eight. Live cheaply, send the rest back home, and their families would be better off.

These guys go through hell because they love their kids.

And they’re a lot like my own dad was.

Eventually, I decided to take the full proceeds from my travel writing — about $20K — and do … something. TBD. Somehow, I wanted to help improve the living situations of guys from a jillion South Asian towns I’d never visited. This was puzzling.

However, in late 2008, Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank had recently won the Nobel Peace Prize for pioneering microfinance, bringing the basic tools of credit and savings to the poor. Hmm. If the local economies had been better where these workers had come from, maybe they wouldn’t be living ten to a room in labor camps in the Arabian Desert.

So I decided to put the whole $20K into microloans, via Kiva. Then, to see if it did any good, I’d travel to follow the money, meet some of my own clients, and write a book about what I found.

A few years later, I’d met clients in Peru, Rwanda, Bosnia, Lebanon, Cambodia, and a dozen other countries, and The International Bank of Bob was published.

Before the book even came out, some dude named Aaron, a Kiva lender whom I’d never met but who was familiar with my previous books, informed me that he was creating a group called Friends of Bob Harris. I was about to have friends. I said, “Um, okay.”

I didn’t think much would happen. I was wrong. Instead, if you think of kindness generosity as the formless raw sugary goo in the middle of a cotton candy machine, my book turned out to be a wooden stick that the goo could form around. Now we’re up to $8 million lent to clients in 90 countries.

I don’t attribute this to the awesomeness of my prose. Human beings simply want to be good. We want to help each other. We want to find a way to make the world a brighter, safer, more equitable, more connected place.

Kiva created a site where you can see the faces of the people you’re helping. I pointed to Kiva. People liked how I pointed. So, FoBH.

Do the loans help? Usually. Sometimes a lot. Not always. But even in break-even cases, ripple effects can be huge in ways not measurable in 18-month academic studies. If a convenience store in Kigali barely breaks even, is it a success? Narrow studies might say no, but it’s a resounding yes for the entire neighborhood. A new convenience store means that everyone within walking distance is better able to allocate time for their own productive work or care for their children.

I learned enough similar things along the way to fill a book. (Conveniently, I wrote one. You’re welcome.) I’ll share just one more:

I’ve now been to 80 countries, including many of the richest and poorest on earth. I’ve hung out with people of every major faith, butchered my attempts with least 20 languages, and played with kids of all descriptions.

Everywhere I’ve been, most people hope that we’re all similar. They hope that language, religion, culture, etc. might all be slightly cosmetic. They hope that the human heart is basically the same.

I don’t have to hope anymore. I know. If you’re human, anywhere in the world: You want a better life for your kids. You want to feel part of a community. You want hope.

It really is true. Everywhere. Unfortunately, we also share the ability to be awful.

Every culture seems also able to rationalize the deaths of outsiders for a greater good. If that idea causes you stress, feel good about that—you’re human. You want instinctively to identify with good. This is a fundamental human instinct.

We are the same, good and bad. All of us.

Realizing this: who do we choose to be? What world do we want to create?

The FoBHs choose to be generous, lending to total strangers from Afghanistan to Zambia, getting repaid more than 98 percent of the time, and re-lending, over and over.

If that’s my legacy, okay. I’m good with it. So what will your legacy be?

True thing: nearly everybody around you wants to go good. Even in parts of the world you’d be afraid to visit, that’s generally the case as well. The best part of your own heart is reflected outside your window more than seven billion times.

If you can live every day like you know that, your own legacy just might start forming in unexpected ways, too.

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03d Bob HarrisAs a screenwriter, Bob has written for Bones and CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, has consulted on one of the biggest films in Marvel’s cinematic universe, and currently has TV and film projects in development in three countries. As an author, Bob is the author of five books, including the bestselling The International Bank of Bob, about his charity work with Kiva.org and his travels to study the lives of the working poor on five continents, and Prisoner of Trebekistan, about his 14 appearances on the quiz show Jeopardy. In other fields, Bob has also been a travel writer for Forbes and Travel+Leisure; an AP award-winning syndicated radio commentator; and a guest speaker at Google, eBay, Citi, Visa, the European Parliament, the US Dept. of State, and more than 50 US colleges and universities. You can join Friends of Bob Harris at http://www.kiva.org/team/bobharrisdotcom.