Author | Esther Fuldauer
Timebanking is a system of reciprocal service exchange, it doesn’t replace the money system but complements it. By being reciprocal it honors the fact that everyone has something to offer and all our time has the same value. It’s not tied to a cash value but based on the currency of time, where one-time credit is an hour. An hour of a human being is as important as any hour of any other. By this simple rule, it gives humans the real value they have.
Our money system is failing to support our basic needs of family, relationships, and communities. There is an abundance of human resources that remain untapped while countless needs go unmet, many times in the same neighborhoods or the same block.
We keep giving everything a money value according to the law of supply and demand. If it is available in very low quantities it becomes expensive, if it is very abundant it’s so cheap that hardly has no market value at all. Because of this, the burden of caregiving has mainly fallen on the shoulders of women, immigrants and the most marginalized groups of society.
Timebanks can provide for many individual and community needs to be met without recourse to money, markets or state welfare arrangements
Meanwhile, governments keep on cutting back on social services, health care included. There never seems to be enough money to pay for all the social work we need. The core of our society is made by families and relationships. If it crumbles, our whole market economy goes down with it. The market economy keeps taking for granted this core, undervalues human beings making them “throwaway people” and gives basic caring skills no value at all.
Timebanking’s reciprocity in service exchange has a magical effect. Otherwise passive recipients of care services become active providers and it’s a great community builder. Those who thought of themselves as just a burden to society find new value as they discover skills they didn’t know they had. By helping each other, we build relationships and gain experience that could later develop into finding a paid job and giving life a new meaning.
Otherwise, isolated people discarded for their age become important for someone again. The elderly’s “need to be needed” is one of the most neglected needs among the elderly today. They might be too old to work at a day job but they have a wealth of experience. By using that experience they become valuable to the community. They even regain health and happiness.
Improving an ancient idea with a modern twist
The world’s first timebank was started in Japan by Teruko Mizushima in 1973 with the idea that participants could earn time credits which they could spend any time during their lives. In her mind was the urgent need of giving a solution to the care of Japan’s growing ageing society. The idea took off in 1995 as the Fureai Kippu, “Caring Relationship Tickets,” which has since spread and is currently operated in 138 locations from 40 administrative districts and it plans to grow to 1000 locations.
In the west, the movement took off in the 1990s with a pioneer law professor, Dr Edgar S. Cahn who established it as a way to build community and meet social services needs in an era when the social safety net was being shredded. He developed the theory of timebanking that explained and popularized the idea. He also founded TimeBanks USA as a membership organization for timebanks both in the US and around the world.
Timebanks are hard to start and are difficult to support only with donations. Support from the local government and institutions go a long way. Barcelona is known as one of the world’s leading timebank cities because the support from the city administration has grown 28 timebanks. It was first realised by Elvira Méndez, a doctor and collaborator with what is now one of the most important social support associations in Barcelona, Salut i Família, who was inspired by a women’s collective in Italy.
Timebanking into the future: Blockchain, AI and Non-Fiat Universal Basic Income
It is not hard to see that timebanks would benefit from peer-to-peer apps that match needs and services in a community. It is similar to the shared economy which uses spare capacity. Timebanks use the skills of people that money gives no value.
One notorious technology that could help is blockchain, with trust, checks, and rules ingrained into its structure. The exchange would take place within the trusted system. Both parties in a reciprocal exchange can also add information about the experience, becoming an accessible record system for all the organization to check and use.
Cryptocurrency Seva Exchange is one such idea to apply blockchain to timebanking becoming a way to support any kind of volunteer work. Seva Exchange is an official for-profit Benefit Corporation and subsidiary of TimeBanks USA. Dr. Cahn serves as the Chairman of the Board for Seva Exchange, while Anitha Beberg serves as its CEO.
One limitation of timebanks is their inability to scale beyond 250 members. This is because brokering, matching needs and services and recording, means a lot of work for the organization. Matchmaking and time credit exchange now happens directly between users. Seva exchange is even exploring the use of A.I. for enhancing the matchmaking.
What a cryptocurrency based on timebanking principles could become in the future? It’s easy to see a fair system for a proto-UBI (or Universal Basic Income), where tokens could be issued directly to those most in need within a community, a supplemental assistance that could run alongside the welfare system.
If a culture of giving value to caregiving could be rewarded with a strong system based on time exchange perhaps we could solve the worst problems ailing our society and build stronger communities. Technologies like blockchain and AI could make it easier, motivate whole communities and really become the way of giving value to which makes us human: “our willingness to teach each other, care for each other, come to each other’s rescue, stand up for what is right, and take collective action in response to injustice.” Edgar S. Cahn.