I learned the five most important words of my life in Beirut. I was working on my book about microfinance, The First International Bank of...
I learned the five most important words of my life in Beirut.
I was working on my book about microfinance, The First International Bank of Bob, wherein I made hundreds of Kiva loans, then took a backpack to Nepal, Rwanda, Peru, and a dozen other countries, hoping to meet the people on the other side of the computer screen. Did the loans actually help? Is a Kiva lender’s laptop-generosity well-placed? I needed to know.
What I learned about lending might not surprise anyone who understands credit. What I learned about humanity, however, will stay with me forever. Especially the five words I heard in Beirut.
Many clients are ingenious, with unbelievable work ethics. In Bosnia, Sead and Munira, war refugees with nothing, tore apart their own bed, back-engineered its construction, and—with appropriate financing—created a thriving furniture business that now has a Facebook page. In Cambodia, a Killing Fields survivor I’ll call “Bo” turned loans into land to plant morning glories, which she harvests at significant profit. In Kenya, farmers Symon and Jenn financed a high-yielding dairy cow whose extra milk paid off their loan in the first year, and which continue to provide cash-flow, free and clear, for the life of the cow.
But credit isn’t wealth. It’s just opportunity. Many clients merely hang in, which can be a victory in itself. (Your credit cards may not make you rich, either, but you probably wouldn’t want to give them up.) Hanging in, in many places, means the kids get to eat, have a home, and get an education—long-term generational benefits that might not show as “wealth” in an 18-month study, but valuable beyond words. And of course some clients—some entire institutions, in fact—may fail, as happens in any enterprise, and often for predictable reasons.
Microlending turns out to be a tool—no more, no less. It “works” much the way a hammer “works”—the results depend on our aim, skill, and care. The large majority of Kiva partners turned out to wield their tools well, thanks to due diligence that Kiva improves every year. Kiva can now also finance anything from solar power for an entire village to a tiny no-interest loan to a farmer at the edge of civilization. What I saw convinced me about Kiva.
But that’s not the long-term lesson here. Kiva is an Internet platform. Microfinance is increasingly becoming a telecom activity. And technology changes far faster than we can predict. I don’t pretend to know what microfinance might look like in ten years. What I do know is that that people will need it, and others will administer it, and all for the same reasons they do today.
I heard five words in Beirut because microfinance had meant the world to a guy I’ll call “Ahmed” here. He’d once had a restaurant, a thriving family business of 16 years that served clients regardless of faith or ethnicity. Ahmed prided himself on his open heart. And he flourished.
But a 2006 conflict led to a rocket strike that obliterated everything Ahmed had built. Through no fault of his own, his business was gone.
So now, he works for Al Majmoua, a Beirut MFI, helping others to rebuild their lives while he does the same.
I asked Ahmed if he was bitter. Was he angry at the Israelis? Hezbollah? God? Humanity?
Ahmed now spoke to me as if I were a child, reciting a phrase that was clearly guiding him through this difficult period of reinvesting—in himself, his community, his future, his faith, his very hope for us all:
“You love more, you win,” Ahmed said simply.
And once more, for emphasis: “You love more, you win.”
Microfinance was created around trust and hope. At its best, it still is.
But isn’t that also what motivates everyone here at GOOD? Whatever causes may drive you, I bet those five words may be at the very center of why you’re here.
The knowledge that this is believed by good people nearly everywhere—this is what my travels ultimately taught me. I hope you will find more of it in my book.
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