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How (not) to send money to Nicaragua July 27, 2014

Posted by stinawp in Uncategorized.

Thomas Friedman has been claiming for the last nine years that the world is flat: that we are all economically and electronically connected, for better or worse, til death do us part, yadda yadda. This certainly seemed true when my sub-letter from Spain was casually making electronic transfers to pay for everything from rent to shipping a forgotten cell phone. I didn’t even have to cash a check. So when I was planning for this field season, how to pay my field assistant didn’t even rate a thought. Electronic transfers were the way to go!

Unfortunately, regardless of how flat it is between Spain and the United States these days, there’s still an awful lot of topography between the US and Nicaragua. And it all seems to be uphill. When my assistant was getting ready to leave in the last week of June, I started looking into how to make a transfer. I immediately ran into an obstacle at either end: my credit union does not make international transfers, and my assistant does not have a bank account. After briefly contemplating having someone make an electronic transfer to the graduate student/naturalist’s bank account, and having her withdraw the money for my assistant, we settled on what seemed like a much simpler alternative: Western Union.

So I went to their website and carefully filled out the money transfer form. That got me an email saying that they just needed to check a few things. Followed, a few hours later, by another email saying that they could not complete the transfer. With that utter lack of information, I did what any person, frustrated by the vagaries of ecommerce might do: I tried to resubmit the order several times, using two cards and slight variations of address, in an attempt to unjam whichever piece of processing machinery had gotten jammed.

This not only failed, but when I tried to pay my monthly station bill, I discovered that one of my cards had been frozen. One call was sufficient to get them to unfreeze the card—my flailing around apparently having set off their fraud detectors. But it took another call to someone else to find out that they have a policy of not paying internet Western Union transfers because they are so likely to be fraudulent. When I asked if they could make an exception, since I was right there telling them I wanted to make the payment, the person on the other end said something about “international transfer something something”. Whatever that was, it translated to “no”.

My field assistant did get paid eventually, because I got someone to make a phone Western Union transfer. I couldn’t do it, because I don’t have any international calling capacity, other than Skype. I don’t need anything else, unless something complicated comes up. After a field season and a half, I’m realizing that something always does. So as soon as I get back, I’m opening an account somewhere that does international transfers and getting an international calling card. Because as far as I can tell, the world is still round.




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