Discovering and using what we have

Author: Pablo Torregrosa

Exchange networks are groups of people which are formed to exchange goods and services without money, with a view to obtaining what they want or need outside the market system. This means that individuals can produce and receive goods and services in the network, irrespective of how much money they have or whether they are in paid employment.

There are many types of network which are differently organised and focus on different areas. They range from groups of neighbours who devote their spare time to learning each other’s skills, to authentic parallel local economic systems, as in the case of the town of Ithaca in the US, where thousands of people use a local coinage to pay in shops and there is an alternative local banking system.

The most common objectives include restoring trust and bringing people closer together, to counteract the increasingly individualistic and distant lifestyle of large cities; making people aware of their own skills and using them; having a positive influence on the world of work, obtaining proper social recognition for different types of work, trying to equate the prestige of doctors and lawyers with other professions such as caregivers and road sweepers; and reducing our dependence on the conventional economic system and moving towards a more self-managed life.

Barter is as old as humankind itself. In recent years, these exchange networks have been proliferating in the Western world and many have sprung up at times when there were problems in the conventional economic system: serious recessions, the post-war years, or times of scarcity, when people found they needed to be organised to improve their situation or simply to survive.

How they work

Like a notice board
Each participant informs the group about what they can offer and what they would like to receive. The network establishes an internal communication system to inform members of everything that is offered or needed and to facilitate contacts. When someone finds something they are interested in, they try to reach an agreement, either directly with the person offering it or via an intermediary.

How much does it cost?
If, for example, John needs his house painted and George can do it, they agree on a price in the network’s currency, called elms for the purposes of our example (some networks value certain goods and services collectively). A system of accounting similar to that used by banks is in place, so that the agreed number of elms will be added to George’s account and subtracted from John’s account. Some networks print their own currency notes.

Recovering real money
The credits play the role of an exchange currency, which is to record the value of the goods and services we exchange, so that we don’t have to carry them round with us.

There are two major differences with respect to exchanges based on money: first, nobody can acquire credits without doing something for someone in the network, so that anyone benefiting from the system is also giving something to others. Secondly, the currency has no value in itself beyond its use as a tool, and there is no point in accumulating it, as it does not generate interest. Indeed, the best position is for people’s accounts to return to zero, as this means that everyone is giving as much as they receive.

Specific types
There are certain standard models which are very widely used. Many networks combine features from different models or create variations of their own; the possibilities are endless.

  • Time banks This is a model that can be applied in networks for exchanging services. Time is used to value services, which are assessed according to the number of hours needed to carry them out, whether the service is a visit to a doctor or walking someone’s dog.
  • Knowledge exchange networks Members exchange knowledge of languages, cookery, academic subjects and other skills.
  • Barter networks Markets are organised where people can ‘buy’ goods using the currency notes issued by the network. This model was used throughout Argentina during the 2001 crisis.

How to set up a network

It is important to have a clear idea of the objectives and discuss which model is most suitable and how it will be implemented. One or more people must assume responsibility for running the network: keeping lists of members, keeping a record of goods and services offered and requested, keeping accounts, and possibly acting as mediators. As well as the initial meetings to set up the network, it is good for the members to meet from time to time to keep the project alive.

You can learn a great deal from the experience of existing networks. It would be very difficult to provide a complete listing, but here are contact details for some well-established networks:

  • Nou Barris Knowledge Exchange Network (Barcelona): +34 93 354 87 21, www.xic9barris.ca.cx, xarxa9barris@tiscali.es.
  • Castelldefels Knowledge Exchange Network (Barcelona): +34 675 748 869, www.castelldefels.org/xarxa, intercanvicastell@yahoo.es.
  • Almatroque (Alacant): almatroque@yahoo.es.
  • COR, Barter Association of the Balearic Islands: +34 670 478 434, perso.wanadoo.es/cor_asociacion, truequebaleares@yahoo.es.
  • Ecologistas en Acción Barter Cooperative (Madrid): +34 91 531 27 39.
  • There are many neighbourhood time banks, although they frequently go unnoticed. They are often supported by local councils, and you may be able to get information from residents’ associations.

Is it very difficult?

  • The project needs a committed group of people to get it started.
  • People often find it difficult to identify what they can offer and what they want to receive.
  • Initially people will find it difficult not to put a monetary value on what is exchanged.
  • We are very accustomed to receiving goods and services in exchange for money. If someone gives us something and no payment is involved, we see it as a favour, so we may feel uncomfortable accepting it and be reluctant to complain if we need to.

What do we get from them?

  • Networks facilitate relations between people, based on trust and mutual support, while they also help to provide what we need and want.
  • They help us to realise what we know and can do, which is often a lot more than we think. For many people, it is an opportunity to feel like useful members of a community. All of this improves our self-esteem, makes us more creative and encourages us to enjoy participating.
  • We can choose freely from the range of goods and services available to us.
  • Their value is determined within the group running the exchange scheme and is not set by a global economic system which is beyond our control.
  • The network promotes the local economy and a sense of community.