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Let’s Go Global with Barter

Ingrid HEIN, 2 December 2002
PHOTO: Dominic Morissette©

Imagine if you could pay for goods and services with time; an hour of babysitting could get you an hour of legal advice, five hours of community work could get you a used stove. Money would be almost redundent, leaving the IMF very little power indeed.

This might sound like a utopian dream, but dropping out of the money economy - exchanging goods and services directly without the medium of recognized currencies - is becoming a real option in many areas around the world.

Besides monetary benefits like avoiding the bank, barter or "LETS" (Local Exchange Trading Service) systems also help develop rewarding socio-economic relationships between people, giving manual labor the same value as professional services, by keeping track of hours, instead of dollars.
While LETS system were originally designed to work locally, they are starting to reach a global scale. For instance, before John Turmel made a trip to Europe, he agreed on an exchange standard with his hosts; a night was the equivalent of 5 hours work, or with a Canadian LETS system, $50. He didn’t have to do the work in Europe, he could do it back home, in due time, whenever his services were called upon. "You can’t get cheaper or better accommodation than that! It was easy to find places to stay, and much more personable," Turmel says.

Traditionally, the problem with barter is that exchanges are not always possible between two people. The baker doesn’t need his house painted - but could use a seamstress. The seamstress doesn’t need any painting or baked goods, but needs a plumber.
LETS solves direct-exchange bartering issues. Its uses an alternative time-based system as currency, allowing each member of a community to trade goods and services with any member they choose. Members are debited and credited as they give and take goods and services from one another, without ever having to "pay up". Whether you’re a plumber, a psychiatrist or a babysitter, the "receiving" end of the barter simply agrees on how many hours the service is worth. Real money does enter the system, in cases where obtaining supplies, such as the paint needed to paint a house.

Worldwide alternatives

Started in Canada in 1984 by Vancouver-based Michael Linton, LETS systems developed simultaneously around the world, wherever a need for alternative economics presented itself. Today, there are thousands of LETS communities worldwide in almost every country, including Japan, Australia, the U.S., and South Africa. There are systems in nearly every province in Canada, and in many cases, several systems.

Turmel isn’t the only one that wants to take LETS to the world. While the original LETS idea is sustaining local communities, cross-border barter is catching on. UNILETS Online, an Internet-based LETS group, is seeing a lot of success by posting services on its site, and keeping track of hours through an online computer system. Anyone can log on and exchange with another LETS group, and everything from accommodation to legal advice to babysitting to hard goods are available for barter.

In Victoria, B.C., "VicLETS" is also looking to expand outside of its home community. Using a system of Green Dollars, the 115 member group have spent $12,000 Green dollars in exchanges in the last two years. They are currently looking at how to interact with other LETS groups using partial local currencies. "I think that layers and levels are important," said "AdminisTrader" Kieth Moen.

"If a system remains local and relatively small, the economic relationship maintains an emphasis on relationship, rather than economic."

In Alberta, the Calgary Dollars (C$) system is steadily growing, with a high success rate locally. The system has $25,000 in C$ in circulation over the past six years, and has about 700 listings of things you can buy with Calgary dollars. Everything from childcare, flute lessons, translations and physiotherapy to bookkeeping, carpentry, plumbing, and autobody work are payable in C$. Coordinator Gerald Wheatley boasts, "There are five apartment buildings that accept C$ as part of rent, our city accepts C$ for a small number of transit tickets, and recreation center tickets, and is promoting C$ to seniors city-wide."

Quebec has seen more than a dozen barter systems in the past few years. Montreal-based BECS (Banque d’échanges communautaires de services) is one of the biggest. "It doesn`t replace the economy, rather, it stimulates it. Many of the exchanges are end up being things that people wouldn`t bother doing without the system. - Like repairing my clothes!" BECS member Charles Jutknecht says. "When you don`t have a lot of money, this is a great way to get things done."

LETS as a way of survival

The practical benefits of LETS are best seen in Argentina. The country’s economic crisis has led it to depend on them. Called "Trueque Clubs" ("Exchange Clubs"), they have nearly replaced the national money system. With strict government limits on bank withdrawals in an attempt to prevent the collapse of the financial system, barter became the only way to survive. Turmel reports that LETS systems in Argentina have grown exponentially, and are a good example of how the system works. "In Argentina, the last estimate was eight million members. It’s that or starve."
While LETS will probably never replace our entire economic system, it could very well become a popular secondary system. If nothing else, it connects people, and makes giving and taking a little more fun.