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Issue 473, 19 November 2001

Common currencies for social change, from Buenos Aires to Chapel Allerton

Money makes the world go round – we may not like it, but there’s no getting away from it. Or is there? By using money simply as a means of exchange, it becomes separated from the idea of wealth, and can be used to alleviate poverty and strengthen communities. Development studies professor Ruth Pearson had been looking at barter systems using alternative currencies in Buenos Aires and is now introducing a similar system into a very different context – Chapel Allerton, north Leeds.

Professor Ruth Pearson (right) was invited to Argentina with a film team from the Open University to see the country’s global exchange network first-hand. Although alternative currency schemes operate with different degrees of success elsewhere in both the northern and southern hemispheres, Argentina is the only country where the network has taken off to such an extent that it now boasts nearly a quarter of a million members and has an estimated turnover of $1billion.

Professor Pearson explains why the system has proved so popular: "Argentina was one of the wealthiest countries in South America, with an established professional class. However, severe economic problems and the decimation of the welfare state have left many people unemployed and outside the mainstream economy, with no means of support. The barter network offered survival, and so has quickly spread throughout the country."

Set up originally by sustainable development activists as a neighbourhood barter club, the network now covers 15 of the 23 provinces and is made up of 500 federated exchange systems. Each region or province can print its own currency (see picture below) – in Buenos Aires these are called créditos. Each local group or nodo holds its own weekly market and from time to time they come together in larger regional markets. The Buenos Aires market is pictured left.

Anyone can join a nodo, so long as they attend two meetings to learn about the system and agree to abide by trading rules. People set their own prices and the currency is not for accumulation, but purely for trade. New members are given 50 créditos – equivalent to around $50 – to begin trading.

The idea is very simple but it’s proved a lifeline to hundreds of thousands of Argentinians. The markets are full of stalls selling food and consumables, but there are also lawyers, dentists, hairdressers and even masseurs, some of whom come in solidarity, but many who would otherwise find no means of marketing their services.

The system has even gained official support, as Professor Pearson explains: "In many countries, governments perceive alternative currencies as a threat. However, in Argentina the goverrnment is realising that the network can keep many people above starvation level, and provide a stepping stone back into the mainstream economy.

The government is providing technical support to help new businesses be set up by people currently only able to function within the networks, and also some local government taxes can be paid with créditos. Other mainstream businesses help out by donating unused stock or food, or by accepting créditos as part payment. Even Buenos Aires taxi drivers can sometimes be paid by créditos!"

But Professor Pearson’s interest isn’t just academic. She believes it’s important to get involved on a practical level, and for this reason got in touch with a community group in Leeds to see if they’d be interested in starting a similar system here. Community Action Link in Chapel Allerton held its first barter market earlier this month (pictured below), but Professor Pearson stresses that although the system is similar, the two can’t be said to work for the same ends.

"You can never replicate schemes, but you can be inspired by them and adapt them to different situations and conditions. It is important to understand the context in which they will have to work.

"In Argentina, the system is about alleviating poverty and giving people a way to gain value from their skills or goods – acting as a safety net because there’s no welfare provision. Although there’s poverty in Leeds as well, the system of benefits and entitlement means that the unemployed can’t easily participate in alternative trading. Instead, the network is about creating a sense of community and solidarity, about looking at different ways that money can function, and about recycling rather than just throwing away."

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