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Complementary Currencies
By Indy Media /

Makiko Takahashi lives in the central Japanese city of Okazaki. But when her 80 year-old aunt on the other side of the country fell ill, she still managed to care for her from afar thanks to a revolutionary way of looking at money. “Fureai Kippu” literally means caring-friendship tickets. Under this system, people in Japan can accumulate credits for helping their neighbors with day-to-day tasks like shopping, preparing food or aiding with the ritual bath. Some save the credits for a future date when they may require a similar service. In Takahashi’s case, she transferred her credits to a group that sent two visitors to care for her aunt on her behalf. Since the caregiver-patient interaction is not governed by a for-profi t model, there’s a different quality to the relationship, and surveys indicate that elderly Japanese actually prefer care from untrained neighbors to that of qualified health professionals. It’s cheap and provides meaningful work in the midst of a prolonged economic downturn, but Fureai Kippu expert Masako Kubota notes that perhaps its most positive impact is in “bringing old and young together to help each other in ways they never imagined.”

In fact, Fureai Kippu is just one of 60 community or complementary currencies being developed in Japan to succeed in sparking an economic turnaround where zero-interest rates and massive public works projects have failed. Jacqui Dunne, who co-founded the ACCESS foundation to promote complementary currencies, describes them as linking unmet needs with unmet resources. The needs, she notes, are easy to identify: “Look around, there’s a ton of things to be done. There are kids to educate, old people to care for, the list is endless.” The resources come in the form of time. The unemployed have plenty of time on their hands, but there’s no money to get them working. That’s where the alternative currency system comes in. But as the name suggests, complementary currencies are not meant to replace conventional money. Rather, Dunne frames them as the yin to conventional money’s yang; a model that is community-based, nurturing, and in sufficiency – i.e., just enough to get the job done - blended with one that is organized, hierarchical and competitive.

There are 7,000 complementary currencies and time dollar systems now operational around the world. In the US, 31 state governments are investing state governments are investing in time-dollar systems to solve social problems. Residents of Chicago, for example, used time-dollar-based neighborhood watch systems to protect their communities from drugs and gangs. In upstate New York, Ithaca dollars pay rent, purchase groceries and buy health club memberships. In Curitiba, Brazil, bus tokens are given to residents who bring in presorted garbage. Switzerland’s WIR cooperative bank is the granddaddy of complementary currencies. Since its creation in 1934, the co-op has experienced greater-than-average activity and growth in periods of economic downturn, demonstrating that it helps stabilize the Swiss economy. What all of these complementary currencies hold in common is that they cost little or nothing to the taxpayer, they don’t require much administration and they promote local solutions to local problems.

These new financial models are proliferating because we are experiencing a shift in an era. The modern banking system came into being when agrarian societies industrialized. Today, as we shift from an industrial age to an information one, our monetary systems will need to adjust accordingly. Complementary currencies are demonstrating the potential for local communities to shape the future of money. And there’s every reason to think that a totally different monetary paradigm is feasible. After all, money is simply an agreement to use something as a means of exchange, a tool to facilitate barter. As with any other agreement, when the terms of the agreement are unsatisfactory, you end the agreement and find something more suitable.

Dunne is confident that a more suitable arrangement is just around the corner and likens the current state of complementary currencies to the Wright brothers’ initial flight: “It’s a miracle the damn thing flew. We know that these things work. Now we just need to work out the aerodynamics of it all.”

Nicholas Klassen

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Complementary Currencies