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Opinion

ADB: How thick was your brick?

The Asian Development Bank took its annual meeting to central Asia last month, as its many officials made the tricky trek from Manila to Tashkent, Uzbekistan. There was plenty to talk about: Greece’s impact on emerging markets, asset bubbles in Asia, and the wholesale boycott of the meeting by NGOs on the grounds of Uzbekistan’s human rights record. But one subject dominated delegate conversation: how thick is your brick? It’s a money thing. Uzbekistan’s currency, the som, comes in maximum denominations of 1,000, which is roughly equal to 65 US cents. Delegates prudently changing $100 into local cash were confronted with a som wad more than an inch thick. Those who thought ahead and changed $200 just in case found themselves without any combination of pockets able to accommodate their wealth. Worse still, delegates at the ADB were unable to change surplus currency at Tashkent airport when they left the country.

And so, in taxis and bars around Tashkent, the refrain was always the same: "How much of a brick have you got left?" Volunteering to pay for taxis and drinks became widespread as delegates sought to reduce the sheer weight and bulk of their hoard.

Paying for an entire meal became an exercise in old-fashioned, note-tallying bank telling. "Shut up! You made me lose count!" a banker was heard to remark to a distracting colleague while trying to settle a bill. "I was up to 97!"

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