The fact that bartering is popular nowadays is demonstrated by the spontaneous proliferation of LETS groups all over the world. LETS stands for ‘Local Exchange Trading System’. In Dutch, freely translated to preserve the acronym, it is a Lokaal Economisch Transactie Systeem or in other words, a ‘local economic transaction system’. It consists of local networks established in the community where people can exchange all kinds of goods and services with each other without the intervention of an official currency.
Before the advent of money or even commodity money, economic activity was organised by means of barter trade. Bartering is not just a relic of the past; in fact, it has existed throughout the ages. But It is particularly in periods when people find it hard to make ends meet or when official money is in short supply that barter systems take hold – just think of the Great Depression and the Yugoslavian civil war. Nowadays too, barter systems are making great strides. The most well-known is the LETSystem.
The LETSystem has various definitions. In general terms, it can certainly be said that it consists of a locally organised barter network within which non-professional goods and services are bartered on a voluntary basis. To prevent a situation where there always has to be a bilateral transaction, the system operates on the basis of points that serve as a notional unit of currency. This points system thus allows for multilateral transactions. As a rule, the points have no monetary value. They merely serve to prevent a situation where there are people who only provide or receive services. There are of course variations on the LETS model that operate with units of currency that can be exchanged. Thus, in the Rabotwijk area of Ghent, people are paid with ‘Torekes’ for carrying out community work and this alternative unit of currency can be used as a means of payment in certain shops.
A barter group has the status of a society or a not-for-profit association. The size of barter groups usually varies from a few tens to a few hundreds of participants. Groups with more than a thousand members are the exception. Some groups choose to operate only on a local basis. Others in turn have organised themselves into umbrella organisations. In Belgium, LETS Flanders and Intersel take on this role for Flanders and Wallonia respectively.
The LETS barter system has its origins in the social movement of the 1960s and 1970s in Vancouver. In a period of economic instability and influenced by the hippie movement, Michael Linton, together with David Weston, developed a first barter system in 1976 that they dubbed ‘Community Exchange’. This precursor of the LETSystem was based on the bartering of time and it met with little success initially. It was not until the decline in economic activity at the beginning of the 1980s that the ideas of Michael Linton gained support. The high level of unemployment and financial uncertainty prompted Michael Linton to set up a first LETS group in 1983. He wanted to give the jobless population a way of supporting itself. The system made use of the ‘Green Dollar’, a new local currency that was made equivalent in value to the Canadian dollar instead of time. This first pilot project only existed for a few years due to a lack of transparency and trust and an excessive centralisation. But it was not long before the LETS model was picked up once again. The imposition of fish quotas caused the Canadian maritime areas to suffer high unemployment figures but this time people did indeed succeed in withstanding the crisis by means of LETS groups. Moreover, the benefits in this respect are seen not only in economic terms but also in social terms.
The success story of LETSystems in the Canadian maritime regions was an example that also found imitators abroad. To begin with, the LETS model spread through the English-speaking world, then also in other industrialised countries. Four-fifths of the total number of LETS groups are located in Argentina, a statistic that is largely attributable to the currency crisis of 2001. It should also be pointed out that LETSystems hardly occur at all in Central America, Eastern Europe, Africa or Asia, with the exception of Japan.
The first Belgian LETS group was set up in Leuven in 1993. Today, there are 31 active LETS groups in Flanders and 14 in Brussels and Wallonia. It is possible to detect a marked increase over the last few years – the number of groups has almost doubled since 2008. The majority were set up to strengthen the sense of community but there are also LETS groups that were founded as a result of considerations relating to the social economy. For instance, the barter group of Sint-Niklaas, together with the Belgian Ministry of Employment and the Flemish Department of Employment and Professional Training, tries to help the jobless into work. Every barter group has its own points system – for instance, ‘Stropjes’ are used in Ghent, ‘Pollekens’ or ‘Handjes’ in Antwerp and ‘Vlasbloemen’ are used to make payment in Kortrijk.
The application of the model may vary considerably. In the UK, for instance, LETSystems were promoted during periods of unemployment to ensure that the jobless would not lose their skills and would even learn new skills. The acronym was given a different meaning: Local Employment and Training System. In Belgium, LETSystems were in turn promoted due to their social character and here too, a new meaning was put forward: Leuk Eigen Tijds Samenwerken, or in other words: doing Life-Enhancing Tasks for others in your Spare time. Lastly, LETSystems were stimulated as a result of ecological considerations. The various aims and organisational forms led to the development of new terms. In the US and the UK, for example, use is made of ‘timebanks’, where the number of hours worked is taken as the unit of account and not the value of the services provided. The majority of Belgian LETS groups are organised according to these principles. Another application comprises the Seniorengenossenschaften, or ‘senior citizens’ associations’, in Germany and the Japanese Hureia Kippu system, both these barter groups being specifically focused on care of the elderly. Those people who provide services can save their credits up for whenever they themselves need to make use of them.
JANNES VAN EECKHOUT
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