Three MILLION dollars!

Dr Evil

The Friends of Bob Harris Kiva team just completed lending its third million dollars.

Not taking credit here. I have little to do with any of this. I didn’t create the team, three other folks manage it, and the 1000+ members do virtually all of the lending. I pop in periodically, say things like “hurray!” and “you guys rule!” and not a lot more. I’ve just been writing a book, and this weird thing happened, and my best guess as to why is still only my best guess as to why.

What I do want to point out: the incredible generosity of people if given a damn chance. Hundreds of total strangers have come together this way, just as they have on hundreds of other Kiva teams, because their idea of fun is to help thousands of other total strangers.

If there’s anything the book has to say, it’s that if the situations were reversed, the recipients of that generosity would be just as kind.

Blowing it up in Nicaragua

I’m about to help a new friend blow up some stuff in Nicaragua.

This really isn’t what I originally set out to do here. But it seems like a good idea now. Mostly because Luis Alberto is so pleased about it.

Luis Alberto and I are standing on a deserted rural road flanked by barbed wire, marking the edges of dry empty fields. Just a 20-minute ride from the bustling streets of León, the only sounds here are the rustling of dry leaves, the occasional bark of a distant dog, and metallic hammering from a nearby tin-roofed work site.

This quiet strip of pavement is a perfect place to light a fuse, plug our ears, and giggle.

Luis Alberto blows things up for a living. He and his employees make fireworks, and his business has been financed in part by Fundación León 2000, the local Kiva partner. They’ve loaned Luis the equivalent of $850 to buy gunpowder, coal, sulfur, nitrate, and assorted kablowie necessities. Fundación León 2000, in turn, has financed Luis’s loan through Kiva. I’ve chipped in $25 to his loan at Kiva here.

Meanwhile, I’ve spent sizable chunks of the last few years traveling to visit borrowers in Bosnia, Lebanon, Cambodia, and so on, writing a book about Kiva and microfinance while meeting as many loan recipients as I can. That’s why I’m here in Nicaragua, where a Fundación León 2000 loan officer has kindly led me to Luis Alberto’s door in a working-class quarter of León, and Luis’s family has immediately welcomed me with cold drinks, family photos, wedding pictures, and stories.* 

We’ve talked about business as well: the fireworks trade has high periods around holidays, so depending on the calendar, Luis Alberto may have eight, ten, maybe a dozen men working for him. (Knock-on job creation like this can be a positive side effect of many microloans, not always apparent in a Kiva profile.) At the time of my visit, he employs about a half a dozen men, all at a work site safely far from any residential area. Would I like to see it?

So now, trying to return his trusting spirit, I’ve followed Luis Alberto to his outdoor explosives-making workshop along this rural Nicaraguan road. As he places a single three-walnut-sized firework on the ground, my inner Cub Scout kicks in, compelling me to check the wind direction, raise my arms to warn nonexistent traffic, and scan the ground worriedly for some kind of makeshift ear protection. (Look! Two squirrels! That should work!)

I’m also hoping that this one demonstration will be the only kaboom that I hear. The manufacturing work is all done by hand, with people sitting between bins filled with various powders, fuses, and kaboom-containers, creating each firework with assembly-line repetition: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, mash it down with this metal thing, and repeat.

In skilled hands, each firework takes about 45 seconds to make. The guys are friendly and eager to demonstrate the process for their skittish American visitor. Tengo miedo un poco, I manage to summon from my gringo-watching-telenovelas Spanish. I’m a little afraid. This brings only friendly laughter — it’s perfectly safe, they tell me. I should try it myself and see! Um… okay.

The results, in my hands: grab one of these, scoop some of this into there, drop that thing by accident, spill the powder back into the bin, get some of it on my pants, grab one of these again, and so on. Five minutes later: one firework and all ten fingers. A moral victory.

Now I’m dripping in sweat from the heat. And I’ve only been out here for maybe an hour, tops. These men work up to ten hours a day, but they have dreams and families to work for, so there it is.

As with nearly every client and business I’ve visited in these travels, I can barely imagine the patience and physical endurance involved. All I can map it to: when I was growing up in Ohio, my dad spent his entire adult life doing manual labor to support our family. He’d work in a warehouse, take third shift, lay sod in the hot sun, whatever was necessary. It’s hard to look at these workers in Nicaragua—or anywhere I’ve visited—and not see at least some resemblance. And my dad obviously had things a lot easier, given a minimum wage, occupational health and safety regulations, and so on.

One of the cruelest stereotypes about economic struggle is that it’s caused by a lack of hard work. Just one day in the field with microlending clients should be enough to convince anyone otherwise.

Finally, out in the street, ready to demonstrate the results of all the handiwork, Luis Alberto has the happy grin of a teenager. He’s 63 years old, mind you, and he speaks to his employees more as a father than as a boss. But when he’s about to light a fuse, he has the same smile he must have had when he was a kid.

Finally: match, fuse, ba-BAMM! We giggle like ten-year-olds. For one gorgeous instant, language, age, religion, and nationality disappear. It’s only one moment, sadly, and a Beavis and Butthead one at that. But this was hardly the only such moment of connection.

On my arrival at Luis Alberto’s home, recall, the discussion was immediately of things that matter everywhere: work, love, marriage, age, death, hope for the children, pride in small victories. I bet you feel connected to all of that, too, even through a computer, wherever you are.

I can’t change the birth lottery, any government, nor the slightest whim of the global economy. I don’t pretend for one second that my $25 loan or the afternoon I spent counting and re-counting my fingers (Ten? Yes!) with Luis Alberto, by themselves, had any great effect on his life.

But I can and do feel grateful to be able to help this gentle, funny man to create great effects in his own life, to provide a home for his family and employment for those around him.

And after visiting clients from Kenya to the Philippines, when I look at the Kiva website and scan through the thousands of photos and stories, I can only feel excited for more.

* Incidentally, I don’t volunteer to clients that I’m a lender. An indebtedness vibe would not only feel kinda gross, but factually inappropriate, what with pre-disbursed funds and the likelihood that some other Kiva lender would have invested in the loan if I hadn’t. I’ll admit that I’m a lender if anybody asks, but almost nobody does, and it seems a lot friendlier, simpler, and more accurate just to say that I’m an American interested in their lives. This is certainly true.

5000 Kiva loans and counting…

Just made my 5000th loan at the other day.

The $20K I originally invested has now cycled through more than six times, totaling nearly $130,000 in these $25 loans to mom-and-pop businesses in 66 countries.  (My lender page is here if you're curious.)

So far, the repayment rate for my loans is just under 99.5 percent.  And of course, the book about the whole shindig is the big rectangle at the upper right here.

In other news, if you're stuck for a holiday gift idea, Kiva Cards — like gift cards for any retailer, but you're giving your friend or loved one their first loan to a small business via Kiva — are pretty cool.  You give, lend, and give the opportunity to lend, sort of all at once.

Kiva Cards can also be delivered by mail, email, Facebook, or your own two hands when you download and print.

If you haven't finished your holiday shopping and you'd like to be done in about twenty minutes, grab a few Kiva Cards here.


Shout-out in Economist blog about Jeopardy, IBM’s Watson, and strategy

I've been alerted to this fun recent piece about Jeopardy by "G.F." at the Economist blog.

The writer was a contestant earlier this season, and he later interviewed several IBM programmers about Watson, their Jeopardy-playing computer, and the strategies they developed from extensive game simulation.

At the end, there's a surprising shout-out:

Prisoner of Trebekistan, a book written by Bob Harris about his multiple campaigns, dovetails neatly with their more exhaustive data analysis.

Yes, but Watson is smart enough to actually follow its own strategy.  So there you go.

On The Innocence of Muslims

With protests flaring around the world, some TV news reports make things look pretty bad right now. But that's TV for you. 

If you do the math, about one in every 135,000 Muslims is protesting. The violence is criminal and deplorable, and it deserves a carefully planned response, but it's insane to stereotype Islam by it. 

If Islam were a city of 135,000, the protesters would be one angry guy. Maybe a small minority could be talked into actively supporting him, and a few more would also be peeved about the same stuff he's screaming about on his lawn, but the overwhelming majority of people are reasonable, understand that there are hateful idiots in every country, and just want to get on with life. 

If you'd like an example, look at Libya: the TV never seems to mention it, but on Wednesday—this week, right in the middle of all this—they just elected a new and remarkably Western-facing prime minister (the guy has a Ph.D from CalTech and used to teach in Huntsville, Alabama, no less), Libyans as a whole rate the U.S. twice as favorably as the Muslim Brotherhood, the bad guys are already being hunted down, and their organization (Ansar Al-Sharia) is tiny and probably about to get Seal Team Sixed into oblivion. 

The world is not on fire. Adults know not to feed the trolls. Not escalating, and simply treating criminal behavior as criminal, not as some act of war between civilizations, is the only sane response.

Top of my head, I've been to mosques in 14 countries, and I've been welcomed everywhere I've ever gone in the Muslim world. Hatred is not a Judeo-Christian value, an Islamic value, nor a human value. It is just hatred.

More hatred is never the answer.