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TIME AS CURRENCY Conference Report

More and more institutions in this country are becoming interested in LETS. On Wednesday 15th October 1997, Tony Gibson, long-time instigator of neighbourhood initiatives in the UK, and Professor Edgar Cahn, inventor of Time Dollars (a scheme which according to the LETSlink UK's info-pack was an antecedent to LETS), were both welcomed by a mixture of well-healed, funded, delegates from Local Authorities and the Voluntary Sector, as well as a few enthusiasts from the world of LETS, at a Conference named "Time as Currency - valuing the hidden resource, organised by the London Health Partnership and the New Economics Foundation, with the King's Fund and the Princes Trust. Both speakers gave inspirational accounts of their successful schemes and the profound social consequences of encouraging people to help their neighbours. In such a short day there was insufficient time to find out what problems if any there might be in both systems, and in the discussion sessions many delegates focussed on trying to figure out the extent to which Time Dollars was similar (or not) to LETS.

Obvious differences were that in Time Dollars, participants' time is rated equally no matter what task they were doing, whereas most LET schemes allow for any agreed value to placed on ones time. Another was that Time Dollars seemed to have retired people helping other older people whereas LETS involves a variety of ages. In LETS the organisers try to encourage participants to spend as well as earn credits, but only 15% of Time Dollars earned are ever spent, so that individuals seem to accumulate them as brownie points or indeed as an insurance policy against the day when they might need ask for help. Indeed it was not clear who issues the currency or what it could be spent on - it sounded as though the sponsoring organisation might decide what discounts or perks could be given to the participants, eg free tickets to facilities or events, whereas in a LETS system the person receiving a service will have their own account debited in paying for work done, so in effect the members themselves jointly issue the currency in the act of trading. In Time Dollars it was not clear whether recipients were debited at all, so the whole thing looks more like a well-organised and recorded system of voluntary work than a mutual trading system.

Another major difference was that Time Dollar schemes are invariably funded by organisations in whose interests it is to encourage people to help their neighbours in order to lower the costs of institutional provision, whereas LETS so far are mostly grass-roots initiatives without much support from major institutions - although this is now changing with an increasing level of interest from Local Councils who are looking to assist the development of LETS under their Anti-Povery Strategy or Local Agenda 21 initiatives. Furthermore, it appears that welfare laws in the states give positive support to Time Dollars, in that claimants can only get benefits if they can show that they are involved in voluntary work, for which purpose the computerised list of Time-Dollar transactions is ideal, and the feeling of social approval seemed vitally important to the participants, whereas with LETS, individuals may feel threatened by the official DSS legislation which allows local offices to view LETS credits as financial earnings, or at least deem the individual as not "available to work".

Finally, the transactions in Time Dollar systems were set up by the office rather than independently by the individuals concerned, which had the advantage of putting strangers in touch with each other and spreading out the work - the computer system (which is available free of charge on the internet) brought up those who had traded longest ago as a priority for each job. Professor Cahn was very open to discussion about how the system could be developed to complement or augment LETS trading, and I understand that some LETS schemes are now working with volunteer bureaus to help supply workers for their hard-to-fill assignments. Pursuing strategies to gain institutional support and ensure that legislation actively supports LETS rather than (in the usual British way) merely allows them, would seem to be crucial elements in their future success, and underlines the importance of the Benefits Campaign which has just been launched by LETSLINK UK to change our current legislation.


© October 1997 Mary Fee

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