Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

How the Money Flows (or not)

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Reading Time: 5 minutes

It’s been that kind of week. You know, the kind of week where, someone asks you a question last week, and many things happen this week and you just notice them so clearly. I wrote recently about domains and how people (like many young people in Egypt) without credit cards couldn’t pay for domains and hosting (some would have access to their parents’ cards, but not all parents are generous with their cards; and again, not all parents have them). Someone asked how young Egyptians paid for stuff online. I said most people just pirate stuff like music and movies and books. That Uber accepted cash payment. And we pretty much don’t need credit cards unless we choose to use them. As you read the rest of this, you’ll kind of see why it’s complicated even if you do have a credit card.

This week I was reminded of how the issue is much bigger than that. Of course it is. And again, I’m not talking about the poorest of the poor. I’m talking the privileged among Egyptians.

Books for Americans

It starts with the professor I bump into on campus who is panicking because the eBook she assigns each semester to her students has switched to a different publisher and students can no longer buy it with a non-US/Canada credit card. This is waaaaaaaaaaaaay more common than you think. Publishers that won’t allow a book to be sold outside the US. eBook people. eBook. It shouldn’t matter!!! But it does. I often have to trick certain websites/apps into thinking I am in the US or UK in order to buy stuff. This sometimes works (especially if I use my previous US/UK addresses or had used a US/UK debit card on them before) but quite often doesn’t because some places ask you to enter the billing address and if it’s not in the US, you’re busted. I gave the professor several solutions, the most workable being to ask the library to order the eBook and students to read it through the library. Guess I saved those students some money. Meanwhile, I’ve also sent her an open textbook to explore for the future. But the point is – when she emailed the publishers of the book to ask their help, they basically told her to go look for another publisher. Because they couldn’t be bothered to make an effort to accept international payment. But hey, if you’re Egyptian and you know of a way to make yourself look like u have a US credit card, please let me know! Privately 🙂

See, that’s the thing. We’re the American University in Cairo. We are expected to (and usually do) assign the same textbooks used in American universities. Our students aren’t surprised to have to pay expensive prices for textbooks (unlike national/public universities where copyright infringement is more common and it REALLY matters if third world edition textbooks in soft cover are available). I mean, it is still crazy unfair, and expensive for students AND the university; so our university is encouraging use of eBooks – hence this professor’s use of one… leading to this dilemma. Open textbooks won’t always solve this problem.

Software for Americans

And then for me this week… my bank renewed my credit card and I’ve used it a few times (OK, many times), but this one software just wasn’t accepting the payment from it to renew my subscription. The bank never explains why, so neither I nor the person helping me from the software company, know what was up. But this guy from the company was REALLY helpful. First, he suggested we try PayPal. I told him I’d tried before and it didn’t work here in Egypt, but I’d give it a shot. It doesn’t work here. Well, at least now I know it’s still the case. Then I suggested I get HIM an Amazon gift card and he pay for my subscription.

I know. I know what you’re thinking. Just go out and say it 🙂

Actually, he agreed. And actually, he’s not a total stranger, we had talked a lot before on email, so it wasn’t like a random tech support person, but someone I know a little. So, yeah. He got a gift card today. Hopefully my subscription is now renewed. But DUDE. It was a week of trying to use this software EVERY DAY and getting error messages coz of this credit card thing. And something like 5 failed attempts to pay. Thanks, Adam 🙂

Currency Conversion and BitCoins Anyone?

Then a combination of this novel I was reading (which mentions BitCoins in a completely tangential way, but got me thinking…) and a chapter on austerity I am writing… all reminded me of some of the currency hell I went through to organize a DigPedLab in Cairo

  1. The majority of the grant I received to fund the event came in Euros. A big chunk of the costs were in US dollars; some of the money was spent in Egyptian pounds. The SAP system showed everything in Egyptian pounds. The exchange rates of everything changed at least 3 times (big shifts) from the day I got the grant to the day we closed the grant. I don’t even want to get into how complicated the financial planning, spending and reporting of that was. I can’t even…
  2. Because this is a bureaucracy, I was told to fix some problems and delays and uncertainties by letting people pay some of their own things and reimbursing them when they came to Cairo in cash. It was supposed to simplify stuff. But guess what? The money to pay them back didn’t get to me in time… so I had to use my own money to reimburse people and then get the money back from the university (even though the grant was sitting RIGHT THERE – I had to be reimbursed for reimbursing the reimbursed…uhhhhh)
  3. To reimburse people in US dollars, I had to either convert some Egyptian money to dollars, or withdraw from my own dollars. Funny story. There is a limit to how much Egyptian money you can convert to dollars (depending on whether you’re travelling or not) per day and sometimes per month or more. There is also occasionally (and it was the case at the time) a limit on how much of your OWN money in hard currency you can withdraw at a time. I know. I know. You don’t even need to say it. It took me like daily trips to the bank for a week to get this sorted out. And that includes having to ask the bank teller to put in an order so he could give me dollars in change because I had to pay some people things like $362

All of which really makes me want to find a way for all of us to pay for stuff without having to feel inferior because we’re not Americans, don’t have American addresses attached to our non-American credit cards.

And this is me – who supposedly has access to everything… just not within my reach at all times. Which brings me to the next one…

Pay Me Creatively

It’s pretty complicated to pay me for something if it’s not coming from here in Egypt. Gift cards, yay for consumerism. Anything else: complicated. I have the misfortune of having a social security number. So I fill that part in (one software didn’t like my social security number. Tough. Maybe it’s because I got it as an “alien” and aliens don’t pay taxes or something and that system wants my SSN for the taxes… but I can’t like, lie, and say I don’t have one, because… lie). Occasionally someone will want to make my life easier with a bank transfer. Yay? I’m always worried it will look politically weird. Sometimes someone will send a cheque. Yay? I’ll ask them to send to a US address and…then hopefully after a period of time approximating 4 weeks some money will magically appear in my account… or something. Coz no one is giving it to me in my hands or anything. So my new new idea is to (whenever possible) ask people to pay me by donating to a cause of my choosing on my behalf. I think. This might work well. Maybe.

END OF RANT

4 Comments

  1. Great post Maha … I do think a lot of people don’t realize just how complicated it can be. I had no idea how complicated the money logistics were for DPC … it is amazing that with all the extra levels of logistics you managed to make it all work …

  2. Oh ya, and PS: I’m a resident alien and pay US taxes … between Canada and US there is a tax treaty that says that I pay taxes to the country where I am physically residing when I do the work, so I pay US taxes even for work that I do in Canada. But taxation is complicated … I don’t think an SSN means you pay US tax, but you need one to access US healthcare (that’s why I got my SSN originally) … my SSN does not give me the right to work, I have a different permit for that … also complicated … so living in a country that isn’t the country that you are citizen of, and also working on international projects makes things complicated …

    • Yes i had to get employment authorization to work. Took 3 months or so! But my J2 visa I think is why i never paid US tax. I don’t pay income tax either coz AUC doesn’t pay tax (coz non-profit maybe?)

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