They say the best ideas are the simplest. What could be simpler than a time-based barter? When I first heard of the concept of a time bank a few years ago, I thought what a throwback to primitive times.
It struck me as a left-wing, almost communist idea, that was not only utopic but ultimately pointless. As a good capitalist, I thought why take money out of the equation when it is the most efficient way to run a market. But last week I saw a TV programme about a time bank in Chile and I was dazzled by the beauty of this simple idea put in action.
Here is the basic principle. I join a community of people who have signed on to a timebank. I list all the services I could offer to do for other people and the services I seek. Then I give an English lesson to A, who gives me an hour credit, with which I pay B to vacuum my apartment, in turn C uses my hour credit to have D teach her how to use a programme on her computer, which enables D to ask E to take his children to the park for an hour, and so on...
It is a mechanism that facilitates barter. Whereas straight barter is common and easy: I do this for you, you do this for me, time banks enable sophisticated and complex barter to take place, a little bit like money does. So why not just use money?
We all have skills that could help other people. Some of these skills we could sell for money but many of these skills are soft skills that are not easily priced, sold and marketed. Similarly we all need help and have a wishlist of things we would like to do. Time banks facilitate this exchange in a way that money is not able to do. It may seem wrong that an accountant should give an hour of her time giving financial advice, while she spends an hour of her time getting a dance lesson, when the first she could charge $100 for and the second she could get for $50, but a time bank is not a commercial enterprise, it is a tool for community adhesion.
Besides, the great thing about a time bank is that it takes money out of the equation. Time becomes a currency in its own right. It’s not what you do for someone but how much time it takes that is the criterion. It is egalitarian: everyone’s time is equal.
What converted me to the idea was not the theory but the reality of seeing it in action. It quite literally changes peoples lives. In the TV programme, a retired woman spoke of how using up her free time to help other people had enabled her to do things she only dreamt of doing previously. It also enriched her life by enabling her to fill her time with activities that she enjoyed, some of which she was paid for and some of which she paid for.
Imagine an apartment block as a community. On the third floor, Reema, an elderly Lebanese lady wishes someone could drive her to the supermarket once a week. She would also like someone to wire up her new television set. On the second floor, Ella wishes someone could teach her how to make kibbeh. She would also like someone to take her children to the park for an hour once a week. On the first floor, Sam, wishes someone could cook him dinner every now and then. He also would like Arabic lessons. In this community of just three people, you can see how a time bank could enable all three members to get what they want. Reema could teach Ella how to make Kibbeh, Sam could take Reema to the supermarket, Ella could cook for Sam, and so on... If you extrapolate that to a community of 300 you see the infinite possibilities it opens up.
What I like best about this is that it enables people to ask for help without feeling indebted. Think of Reema the elderly Lebanese lady. Yes, her neighbours could and should help her out but it is so much nicer for her to feel that she need not ask for favours. It is also highly rewarding to know that she has skills that are valuable to other people.
With modern technology time banks are easy to set up and run. They can be run via a web-site, where members are listed and transactions are done by e-mail and e-accounting. Or they can be run the old fashioned way, like the time bank I saw in Chile, where members have cheque books and sign cheques of time which they deposit into a time bank account. Either way time banks enables people in communities to help each other in a way that is equitable and easy. Time is our most valuable asset. Why not use it well.
Iman Kurdi is an Arab writer based in Nice, France. For comments, write to firstname.lastname@example.org