What if I told you that you could just conjure up money from thin air, when you needed it? You could pay for childcare, transport, food, cleaning, IT support, tool rental, clothes, a bed for the night, maths lessons for your child, and almost anything you can think of. You might think I was joking, right?
Many communities have used items other than the central currency as a medium of exchange. All that is required is an agreement that the item in question has value, and belief of the person who receives it that the item will be accepted for trade by others. It may have an equivalent of cash exchange, or it might stand on its own without reference to it.
Physical complementary currencies
The item used as tender may have value as a commodity in itself – like gold, silver, or prison cigarettes. Or sometimes the value is purely symbolic, perhaps no more than a piece of paper with a stamp or writing on it like a cheque or credit note. Such items of self-invented money still allow for economic activity, like remote mining towns, impoverished neighbourhoods, or challenges/collapse of a banking system. These “Scrips” or “Chits” are used as a substitute for legal tender. A famous example of a Scrip formed the part of the “Wörgl Miracle” in Austria in 1932-33. It helped the local mayor complete many local building projects whilst the rest of the country (and western world) was in the throes of a economic depression.
There have been some successful recent local currencies tied to the value of the central currency experiments. These often have associations with the Transition Towns movement in the UK: Brixton, Lewes, Exeter, Stroud, Bristol and Totnes Pound to name a few. They celebrate the uniqueness of the place, and use images of local notable persons.
The initial exchange of the currency releases capital for local group that is managing the scheme. If the note being exchanged is say £10, and the cost of printing of the note was £0.20, then the group running the exchange has a cool £9.80, which they can now invest in local projects. The individual who made the exchange still has their £10, though their spending is limited to a particular area and to those who accept it. The value is not diminished.
Many of the currencies that had physical notes have since stopped trading, sadly. Schemes do take time and energy to run. The printed notes are still sought after as artistic and cultural curiosities on ebay.
Virtual complementary currencies
Virtual complementary currencies are useful for community wealth-building and social regeneration. After perhaps initial distrust – not to mention a confusion over taxation – local authorities will tolerate or whole-heartedly embrace them. Many district councils in the UK promote timebank schemes and accept time hours as payment for room rental at libraries and community centres. The schemes will receive a grant from the council or community fund, that finances the set-up or ongoing costs. Local authorities may reward volunteers for litter-picking or parkland clean-up projects, or compensate helpers at community centres or events for older people to tackle loneliness and isolation.
Here are a few good recent examples of complementary currencies used for social regeneration and care. The value is created by, and for, the communities that use them.
- The Bangla-Pesa, a complementary currency used in a slum called Bangladesh in Mombasa, Kenya, allows residents to earn and purchase what they need – like food, transport, labour – even when the official currency is in short supply.
- The Zeitvorsorge scheme, literally translated as “time provision”, was started in St Gallen, Switzerland. Every citizen over the age of 60 is invited to earn care-time credits by helping a local elderly resident with everyday tasks such as shopping and cooking.
- Torekes, in the Rabot-Blaisantvest district in Ghent, Belgium, can be earned by many socially-minded activities like reading to children in a school, teaching sports lessons, and cleaning up litter. Torekes are accepted by many businesses in the district.
Community Trading Schemes
A Local Exchange and Trading Scheme (LETS) is an interesting proposition. It allows members of the scheme to trade goods and services without the need for money. A LETS is what is called a metric currency, the currency is created and measured at the point of exchange as opposed to “fiat” currencies. It was designed by currency pioneer Michael Linton. Similar schemes are Community Exchange Systems, Mutual Credit Trading Systems, or Time Banks, that are all metric currencies, with a value derived and agreed locally.
How LETS Schemes work
Judith looks after Ann’s kids from time to time. Ann is feeling a bit embarrassed about asking for favours, and would quite like to do something nice in return, but money is tight, being a single mum.
Ann plants tomato and courgette seedlings every spring with her kids, and she always has plenty to spare. Judith doesn’t have a garden, so has no use for seedlings. Phil does, he has an allotment and plenty of space for growing. If they are all members of a community LETS scheme and so have access to their complimentary currency, Phil can pay Ann for the seedlings in the LETS currency, so she in turn can pay Judith.
What Judith really wants is to have a new lightbulb in her outside light at the front of her house. Luckily, Phil has a ladder, and he is happy to bring it over and climb it to fix Judith’s light. Judith pays Phil in the LETS currency, and the circle is complete. Now, everyone gets what they need. No money is exchanged, and no one feels taken advantage of. Balances can be both positive and negative, and no interest or fines are paid. The currency is controlled and given value by the people that use it.
Kate Raworth, author of Doughnut Economics (2017), extols the virtues of complementary currencies to redress the imbalance of power inherent in a national, centralised monetary system. In contrast to the norm, a regional complementary currency can “boost the local economy, empower marginalised communities, [and] reward work that is traditionally unpaid”.
Join the scheme for Cambridge
CamLETS is the community complementary currency for Cambridge. It is free to join right now, and is open to new members. You can earn Cams (the currency) by doing anything you like doing, or are good at. There are regular trading and social events throughout the year, including a plant and seedling sale in Spring and a Christmas Craft Fair in Winter.
CamLETS welcomes members from all over the Cambridgeshire area and all kinds of skills are both valued and needed.
In addition to CamLETS, there are a variety of time credits and skillshare schemes in and around Cambridge. Drop us a line and we will try to locate one near you.
If you don’t live in Cambridge, never fear. There are other local currency schemes. Here’s where you can look:
- Currency Exchange System – a global ledger based in South Africa that runs may schemes around the world
- Letslink UK – a UK network of LETS schemes.
If you still need help hooking up to a local scheme, drop us a line.
The image is craft play money from Hilary from the Lily Bean Market.
Clara just wants websites, software, cities, farming, economy, politics, and world finance systems to work better for people and planet, OK? Web developer and UX architect. Mum of two boys. Opinions about most things and an ambition to be a good ancestor.