Currency Wars

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Over ten years ago I was doing some teaching assistant work at the University of Manchester to get some extra cash while doing my PhD. This involved running seminars on the politics of globalisation. As anyone knows when you first start working as a teaching assistant the trick is to just know a little bit more than those you teach and they will be none the wiser that you were where they are only two years ago. I think I managed to pull this off until one week the module leader could not give the lecture and asked if any of the teaching assistants wanted to do it. Being a keen bean I immediately offered, crucially without asking what the lecture was on: International Finance. Ah. This was before the financial crisis of 2007/8, before Greece and Spain, or Occupy or anything seemingly interesting or problematic (well, easy to explain problematic, there was a lot of problematic stuff going on at the time but involved complex financial wizardry or a gamblers understanding of gaming) I could get my head around. I had avoided finance questions wherever possible during my MA in International Political Economy and now I had to give the lecture. Undeterred I gave the lecture: it lasted 30 mins, if that, and students clapped at the end. Cringe. My boyfriend’s sister was also in the lecture hall and reminds me of this regularly. We all survived, the students excelled, and I now give good lectures. However I am regularly reminded of this finance mega cringe whenever I am dealing with multiple currencies as I am now.

This film project is funded by a grant that was awarded in Euros. I make all my calculations in British Pounds, as I understand the purchasing value of the pound more than the Euro. However, hotel bills, taxi transfers, and anything significant in Tanzania is paid for in US Dollars. Government film permits (and research permits while we’re on the subject) are paid for in US Dollars. Everyday payments – food, water, local taxis and buses – are paid for in Tanzanian Shillings. I am therefore managing a project budget in four currencies and must be losing money somewhere. If the Euro goes down the project loses money. If the Dollar goes up the project loses money. It would seem anyway the currency markets bounce the project loses money.

Spending the money and accounting for it has its own range of challenges. Many of the people working on this project – interpreters, the storytellers, the drivers – work in the informal economy and do not have bank accounts, receipt books or invoice slips. We decided to pay those who told us their stories in November a small fee to cover their expenses and time but not be so high as to distort their wage income in the economies in which they live. This fee was paid daily when we were in Tanzania so that they would be free to walk away from the project at any time (this of course makes us the film producers vulnerable, but this project is also linked to the ethical standards of QMUL so it is imperative that these people are protected and not coerced to participate or continue to do so when they don’t want to). However as an externally funded project we had to account for these payments, participants sign or use their thumbprint – the team became a dab hand at this system and I got to pretend to be a mafia don handing out envelopes with cash (in small amounts, but why let that spoil the illusion?!). The Finance department at QMUL accepted my pages of thumb prints, and come the main shoot I will be constantly collecting the correct denominations (different notes have different purchasing value in the towns and communities we’re working in), while updating my spreadsheet of four different currencies, using the latest exchange rates. I may leave currency to the finance geeks, as working with four is twisting my melon.

However, I have taken advice of the excellent and experienced Producer Luke I met with this week, and when in doubt embraced Stationery! Like most geeks, I love me some stationery. And to become a financial accounting whizz have treated myself to a petty cash book, receipt book, and, er, some envelopes. The glamour!

Now, don’t get me started on insurance… I have become an insurance bore.

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