Complementary Currency

Complementary Currency

Complementary currency, also known as community currency, is a payment system that can be used in complement or in addition to the existing currency. In order for it to be implemented, a community must formally agree on a structure or a recognized means of bartering. A complementary currency is used in addition to current national currencies to use sell-able resources that national currencies disregard (Quintiliani, 2002). The point of these currency systems is to keep government control out for several clear cut reasons. Severing ties with the overall national and global economies means shying away from a world of instability with cutthroat competition in the marketplace and an appalling lack of unity (Roukens de Lange, 2001). Complementary currencies encourage communities to work together rather than against each other. For these reasons, there has been experimentation with these currencies worldwide.

Time Banks

One of the largest issues facing the informal settlements within Africa is the community’s lack of unity in fighting against the poverty and neglect that engulfs them. They face a wide array of issues, and without proper communication there is no way of knowing which to attempt first. Because of this, their sense of community is seriously lacking, any pride is diminished, depression reigns, and the people are left wanting. The only way for them to mend this feeling of vulnerability is to come together on common ground and to realize that they are all facing the same issues. Why not work through them together?

The idea of time banks began in the United States in the mid 1980s when Edgar Cahn, after observing the area around him, decided it was becoming corrupted by the money economy (Seyfang, 2002). It has come to a point in society that people will no longer do something for nothing. Money is the cause of this thought process. After all, why should a person perform a task as a favour when they can be paid for it? Cahn decided to implement “time dollars,” or credit points that could be spent, that one would receive in exchange for a given service (Seyfang, 2002). His system was eventually used to form the skeleton idea of a time bank.

The general definition of a time bank is that it “reward[s] participation in community activities, or help for neighbourhoods, with time credits which can be saved up and then donated or spent on services from other participants” (Seyfang, 2002). Another important aspect of time banks is the idea of the time broker, who is basically the manager of the project. This broker keeps a record of the current points of the participants, takes “orders” when it comes to the needs of the partakers, and records all the skills and abilities of each person should someone else need a favour (Seyfang, 2002). In order for time banks to work successfully, community members need to work together to ensure the system runs smoothly, that people are participating, and that participants are following the rules of the established program.

A Tool for Development

Time banks have many positive aspects when implemented in a community. The first is active citizenship. Active citizenship is the idea of “mobilising voluntary activities and channelling informal support among populations where levels of participation are generally low” (Seyfang, 2002). In other words, it is an idea that calls people within a community to action, to work towards making their community a better place for everyone. Volunteer work is becoming obsolete because people do not want to work without getting rewarded or recognized for it. The goal of active citizenship is to get people more involved and to make them want to work together towards one common goal (Seyfang, 2002). The sense of unity and satisfaction they get from helping one another can be extremely rewarding. When time banks promote active citizenship, it encourages people to join other local groups within their community (Seyfang, 2002). Many times, these groups have major leadership roles and can be used as good recruiting tools for the time bank.

Time banks can also help raise the self esteem of those who participate. It is important to realize that a time bank system runs on equality and that for one hour of work, a worker receives one credit, no matter the task or service (Seyfang, 2003). This is done to show people that they are all equal and that no one person’s skill is particularly better than another’s skill. The entire point of a time bank is to give back to the community, which is why it is measured by the amount of time you give, not what you are giving. Generally, people feel a boost of happiness when they help others. It is important to have pride in the community that you live in and pride in yourself. In the end, most people that participate enjoy knowing that they have support in the community and that they always have someone to rely on when they need them (Seyfang, 2003). It is an added bonus that instead of accepting their reliability as charity or a gift, the receiver will eventually pay the giver back.

In addition to raising the self esteem of the community, Time banks also help to bridge social divides between different groups (Seyfang, 2002). Throughout the world there are racial, political, and gender separations. But South Africa, after facing apartheid, could not be a more divided country. Disagreements within smaller communities have a caused a remarkable amount of tension. Time banks can help to mend some of these broken ties. It forces groups that are normally socially excluded to join in on community activities (Seyfang, 2002). Groups that would never normally associate with each other actually end up doing each other favours. Once again, this brings up the idea of unity and coming together for a common cause.

For time banks to be successful, people who participate need to have a specific skill that they can barter with. Many people, especially in Africa, are undereducated and do not have any talents they would deem worthy of using in this situation. Therefore, it is important to have some sort of skills training in addition to the time banks. A good example of this is the Rushey Green time bank, located in the United Kingdom, that employs a project officer part time to help participants learn a new skill and to shadow them to make sure they are doing good work (Seyfang, 2002). If, in the end, the skills bank does not work out, at least the participants were able to learn something from the experience that they may be able to use in the future. Besides learning new skills to trade, there is also the idea of rewarding people with credits so they will attend literacy and professional development classes. This idea was put into practice by a local economic development organization, Gorbals Initiatives, to encourage people to strive for a better education (Seyfang, 2002). This could be especially valuable in Africa where the education comes up short.

The Downfalls of Time Banks

Despite the fact that time banks have so many positive aspects, there are an abundance of barriers to establishing and maintaining them that many times cannot be overcome. For starters, people are generally reluctant to ask for help, and most people would rather make their own living than accept charity or a gift from someone else (Seyfang, 2002). Even though complementary currency is an exchange, people still feel awkward asking for a favour from someone else. They would rather give to another than take. Another hurdle that needs to be overcome to establish a time bank is funding. Most time banks that start either fail because they lack the funds needed for survival or they live facing a “constant struggle for finances” (Seyfang, 2002). A major cause of this is ineffective promotion for the time bank. If more people were willing to participate and more local businesses became involved, then they would be more successful. New means of communicating the idea of time banks need to be explored so that more people are aware and able to participate (Seyfang, 2002).

Probably the biggest issue of time banks that will need to be overcome is the overall acceptance of a currency that is intangible. Ultimately, people will be content buying an item or service with their credits, but unhappy when they receive these credits in exchange for a service they provide (Seyfang, 2002). This craving for national currency is what will deter people from participating in the program. Without backing for the time banks, they will eventually fail. Ultimately, “to make complementary currency really work will require active trade-offs and community negotiations” (Roukens de Lange, 2001).

Complementary Currencies within Africa

Although time banks and the design of time dollars began in the United States, similar ideas have been attempted all around the world. Informal settlements within Africa provide good starting groundwork for a complementary currency system. After apartheid, “South Africa’s poor communities [were] densely populated, where communities of up to 20,000 live[d] in 25-50 square meter shacks, constructed side-by-side forming a sea of shacks filling a defined plot of land” (Quintiliani, 2002). Because of these close quarters, stress and tension mounted and made it difficult for the community members to work together to achieve the newer, better lifestyle they were all striving for (Quintiliani, 2002). Ultimately, the people’s pride and sense of community dwindled. Starting with small projects as simple as community gatherings or a straightforward system of give and take could raise the self-esteem of the community to new heights. If the African people can learn to trust one another and work together, then complementary currencies will benefit them in the long run (Quintiliani, 2002).

Complementary Currencies within Cape Town

As a team, we looked into the Cape Town branch of Community Exchange System (CES). CES is a global network of complementary currency exchanges. The Cape Town Talent Exchange features multiple pages with listed goods and services offered by the community members. The rate is in Talents (T) and each good and service offered has a price next to it. Also listed is the location nearby Cape Town where the person is located, making it even easier for people to find others. Some examples of services that are offered include sewing at T100 per hour, counseling at T300 per hour, art classes at T200 per hour, and a massage for T300 per hour. People can earn Talents by providing their own goods and services. As CES note on their website, “From child care to karate lessons to phone companionship, to computer programming and gardening, there’s no limit to the ways of earning money in these systems (Community Exchange System).” Visit the CES webpage here.