Residents of Mombasa, Kenya, use local Bangla-Pesa currency. Photo courtesy of Bangla-Pesa. If you've been following recent headlines about alternative currencies, you probably find them Ulbricht also faces charges in Maryland regarding murder for hire.
Ulbricht committed his crimes while operating Silk Road, a massive online drugs marketplace. The website, hidden by the anonymity software Tor, allowed anyone to purchase not only drugs, but weapons and counterfeiting services via the cryptocurrency and payments system known as Bitcoin. Most alternative currency projects are not indexed to murder and mayhem. Cryptocurrencies—so named because they use encryption to secure transactions and circulate units—have served a central role in digital black markets.
But the world of alternative currencies—those not issued by nation-states—is much deeper and broader than cryptocurrencies or Bitcoin, and it is not limited to unsavory activity. Indeed, people around the world have long used alternative currencies to empower their communities in the face of austerity and financial crisis. They are now being established in gritty South London, Kenyan slums, and Native American reservations. How do they help? Money, credit, and currency To understand the how and why of alternative currencies, it is helpful to know the history of money and the history of credit more generally.
Today, most purchasing power—the ability to buy goods and services— is created by governments issuing money and licensed banks making loans. Yet long before the time of modern money, credit existed in the form of people exchanging IOUs without governments and banks acting as middlemen. Growth in the use of alternative currencies might pressure governments and banks to be better financial stewards. To better illustrate this distinction, Wartburg College economics professor Scott Fullwiler asks us think of the use of sovereign currencies like the U.
Governments and banks put cash into our hands and loans into our bank accounts. Simultaneously, the government requires us all to pay taxes, thus driving demand for its currency, which we need to avoid legal trouble. At the end of the day, for better or worse, most money circulation in the present is backed by guns, courts, and jails. The cooperation required to make a horizontal system work can be facilitated by cryptography, as in the case of Bitcoin, or it can be generated by custom, law, or simply a high level of mutual trust.
With this distinction in mind, it's easy to see how alternative currencies, especially cryptocurrencies, are attractive to people seeking to avoid or subvert governments. Ross Ulbricht, like many other Bitcoin enthusiasts, is a self-described libertarian and fan of the right-wing Austrian School of Economics, as detailed on page 26 of the criminal complaint against him.
Silk Road was, if nothing else, a paragon of deregulation. A cryptocurrency like Bitcoin is an intuitive part of the network.
Yet dread pirates are not the only people who benefit from financial privacy or access to new sources of funding. Many low-income people struggle to access credit, and in an increasingly surveilled digital world, they are often treated unjustly when doing so. Interacting with most financial services providers means interacting with Big Data in one way or another, which can have harmful consequences.
Just last month, the Federal Trade Commission FTC sued a data broker for allegedly selling payday loan applications to marketers, ad agencies, and far more nefarious clients. These loan applications, which included bank account information, Social Security numbers, credit card history, and other forms of personal financial data, belonged mostly to low-income people.
The worst part is, the lawsuit offers only a glimpse into the dark side of financial surveillance. The world of alternative currencies has been portrayed by the media as a sinister realm, defined by privileged access to complex technology for concentrating wealth. But such a picture is incomplete. It is true that Bitcoin has done little to promote economic justice in any authentically democratic sense.
Most importantly, alternative currencies can and are helping communities that have the physical resources for economic activity, yet lack money to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. At the very least, growth in the use of alternative currencies, as competitive or relatively unmonitored economic activity, might pressure governments and banks to be better financial stewards and provide for the basic needs of the public.
Brixton's own colorful currency. Photo courtesy of Brixton pound. A storied district in the middle of South London, Brixton is indeed an atypical home for a thriving local currency.
As Tom notes, other local currencies in the U. Indeed, the Brixton Pound is officially both pegged and backed by pounds sterling at a 1: There is no issuer, per se. Because the Brixton Pound organization isn't making loans, the U. Forty percent of local businesses now accept the Brixton pound.
At this stage, the goal of the Brixton Pound isn't credit or value creation. So why use it? Admittedly, the main reason to use the Brixton Pound is precisely because it empowers local businesses and traders in the neighborhood, 40 percent of which now accept the currency, Shakhli told me. Since you can only spend Brixton Pounds in Brixton, the currency stays around, at least until it is exchanged, maintaining the vibrancy of the neighborhood's world-famous markets and entrepreneurs.
Some government employees receive portions of their salaries in electronic Brixton Pounds. This is clearly a sentiment shared by many local businesses. In return, they receive free advertising from the Brixton Pound organization, in addition to other benefits. In , the Brixton Pound followed the model of several services in sub-Saharan Africa by adopting pay-by-text—Shakhli estimates that 95 percent of transactions now occur with e-currency via SMS. The businesses pay lower transaction fees for this service than they normally do to debit card and credit card providers.
The fees are then collected and pooled in a micro-grant scheme—money that will soon be reinvested in the community. Without a doubt, the paper version of the Brixton Pound looks amazing: But texting is as easy as using a credit card, with lower fees, so many people go for the digital option. David Bowie graces the pound note. As for security and privacy , the Brixton Pound stacks up fairly well. The paper currency contains similar security features to pounds sterling, which help prevent counterfeiting.
Furthermore, when you exchange sterling for Brixton Pounds, the sterling goes into a local credit union, which is not only far more likely to lend to small businesses than a conventional bank, but succeeds at the expense of predatory and invasive payday lenders, which are becoming increasingly ubiquitous in low-income London.
On a macro level, as the link between the Brixton Pound and the local credit union is strengthened, it is less likely that the pounds of Brixton residents will be subject to the hazards and punishment that come from dealing with unseemly lenders. At this stage, the Brixton Pound is working for local economic empowerment. Shakhli says the currency succeeds because it is easily understood.
The local government also supports it—indeed, some government employees receive portions of their salaries in electronic Brixton Pounds, and some business pay local taxes with them. The future of the Brixton Pound may become more complicated: But, for now at least, Shakhli can confidently say that the Brixton Pound is both helping the neighborhood and encouraging people to reflect on crucial modern questions: Where does it come from?
Yet the scenarios could not be more different. Brixton is an admittedly hard neighborhood in a massive metro, but in the slums and villages where Ruddick and his Kenyan colleagues work, needs are more basic. They create credit where there is not enough. When Ruddick arrived in Kenya from the United States five years ago, his co-founders introduced him to a world of both waste and opportunity.
All for lack of particular pieces of paper and metal. Shop owners in the Bangladesh neighborhood accept Bangla-Pesas. The public is separated from its own potential for physical abundance by mere lack of legal tender. Businesses agreed to trade with the paper currency, and community members could earn extra by taking part in monthly service projects. Every month, people could exchange the vouchers for Kenyan shillings with the Green World Campaign , an anti-poverty environmentalist group.
Residents adopted the currency quickly, with many local business groups agreeing to become issuers, handing out the paper from community centers, health clinics, and schools. The network expanded based on trust: All you need to receive Bangla-Pesa free of charge is four guarantors within the network will who vouch for you. Part of your grant is placed in an actual network trust, which is used for administration, marketing, and community programs such as health care for elderly.
In May , the Bangla-Pesa went official. About participating businesses, 75 percent of them owned by women, received currency grants. An individual teacher, sex worker, nurse, or farmer can qualify. This inclusivity has repeatedly borne results. Since the launch, Ruddick estimates that total sales in the neighborhood of 8, have risen by 20 percent. Considering the financial paralysis of Bangladesh beforehand, this growth is tremendous.
Still, some academics and analysts are cautious. On May 29 of , Ruddick and some of his associates were locked in federal prison. Terrorism had struck, and Ruddick was lumped in with a secessionist movement in the resulting national security sweep. He and his associates had to make the case that the Bangla-Pesa was not meant to subvert the state nor destroy the Kenyan shilling. When people can't get enough shillings, they use Bangla-Pesa, but when the national economy is roaring, they inevitably switch back to using shillings.
Local outreach groups spread the word about the alternative currency. Supporting the strength of this case, hundreds of academics from the community currency movement, friends, and eventually the Kenyan attorney general rallied behind Ruddick and his associates. They were released within a few days and charges were finally dropped in August.
Now, Koru Kenya enjoys more support than ever, and faces few of the regulatory hurdles that often stifle local currency projects in the North Atlantic.
Ruddick will soon become a Kenyan citizen like his wife and daughter, and the organization is sharing its experience in implementing community currency programs across the continent, with a specific focus on gender equality and women's empowerment. The group will soon rebrand as Grassroots Economics, signifying their growth into a full-fledged international foundation.
Eventually they'll go digital, with the localized nature of each currency serving as a buffer against fraud and speculation. Perhaps more importantly, Ruddick has already talked with other African governments about supporting local currencies.