TimeBanks with Emma McGuirk

1 Aug 2012 -- Posted by : admin

Researcher Emma McGuirk explains Time Banking to interviewer Rose Diamond in this extract from Diamond's 2012 book True Wealth: How You Can Create Local Currency Systems and Why You Must Start Now.


Emma: Timebanks operate using time as the unit of measurement, so rather than a range of goods or food, we have one hour of time as the currency. One hour of work is equal to one time credit. Members have an online account and when you do one hour of work, you get one time credit that you can spend on any other service offered by anyone else in the network. Like the H.A.N.D.S. system, people are encouraged to go on either side of zero, so there’s no reason to stop spending if you’ve gone below zero in your credits.

This system was first developed in Japan by Teruko Mizushima in 1973 (see Elizabeth Miller's PhD thesis, Both Borrowers and Lenders: Time Banks and the Aged in Japan) and then independently of that system it was developed again in the US by Edgar Cahn in 1980. Timebanks are quite well established in Japan, the US and the UK, but quite new in New Zealand. Our first timebank was set up in Lyttelton in 2004 and now has over 400 members, and we have many other timebanks now starting up all around the country. I’ve been lucky enough to visit most of the timebanks in the North Island and the Lyttelton Timebank.

Giving skills, time and support to people in your community is something we’re all familiar with and do a lot of, but timebanks help us to do this with a wider range of people. You’re able to meet and build relationships with new people through the time bank and learn about the skills and talents out there in your community, and also discover skills that you didn’t know you had and that you didn’t know other people would value. A great way to use a timebank is to earn credits doing things that are easy, that you enjoy, and spend them on things that are difficult or feel like a hassle.

Some of the common things traded in a timebank are gardening, babysitting, DIY, home help, companionship, music lessons, cooking and cooking lessons, and car maintenance. There are also things like helping someone set up skype, legal advice and lifts to the supermarket. Kids can get involved too. There's quite a wide range of things to do. Thinking of what to ask for and offer can be a good exercise in creative thinking! Non-essential services like massage, when traded in a timebank, also give you the opportunity to meet somebody new, and any time you trade with someone you get the chance to find out more about what people are offering. There are also lots of opportunities to work alongside other people, at working bees, gardening blitzes, helping to organise a potluck dinner for members. The Lyttelton Timebank members earn credits for working on community festivals.

When Edgar Cahn developed this system in the United States, he based the system around five core values, and I’d like to share some anecdotes around those core values. They are:

  • Reciprocity: "You need me" becomes "We need each other"
  • Redefining work: Some work is beyond price
  • We are all assets: We all have something to give
  • Respect: Every human being matters
  • Social Networks: Reweaving communities of support, strength and trust

So let's begin with Reciprocity. Margaret Jefferies, one of the founders of time banking in New Zealand, has a great phrase that she shared with me: “Reciprocity is a principle and not a mathematical formula.”

So we don’t need to be in direct balance with the time credits we give and receive, whether we’re individuals or organisations. An as example, in the Eastbay Timebank in Whakatane, a woman had locked her keys inside her car and didn’t have the tools or the knowledge to get into her car and get them out, without breaking something. She couldn’t afford to pay somebody to do it, so for two months she was without the use of her car. But through the timebank she found a retired panel beater who got them out with ease! And she was back on the road again. This made a huge difference in her life, but it was just a quick and easy job for him. So you can see that it was a real win-win situation and a great way to build a new connection with someone in the community, based on help and trust. Also, because this was such a massive help to her, as well as giving him a time credit she also gave him some vegetables out of her garden and a bit of cash as well. You can see these different methods of exchange all working alongside each other and I think it’s good to have a bit of flexibility. Thinking of the timebank as complementary to other forms of exchange lets you be quite flexible and do whatever feels right for the context of building the relationship.

(It's common within timebanks for people to offer cash to cover expenses. For example, if you were getting a cooking lesson at your home, you might provide the ingredients yourself or offer some cash to cover the cost. It might not be necessary, but it’s a good idea to talk about it beforehand, especially if it’s going to be a regular trade.)

Rose: What you’re actually stimulating is care, isn’t it? You’re encouraging people to care and to give, and people want opportunities to give and to care and to extend themselves.

Emma: Absolutely. And not just to care, but also to ask for help, because you need people to be doing both.

Rose: So the economy is all about stimulating the flow of giving and receiving, and the flow of energy.

Emma: Yes, it’s also Redefining work. The way that skills and labour are classified as work in the market economy can be very limiting. In addition to the five core values, there’s one other key principle of time banking: that one hour is equal to one hour, no exceptions. Sometimes when I talk to people about this, they say something like, well, what about one hour of neurosurgery? How can one hour of neurosurgery be equal to one hour of babysitting?

But if we think about it, what if that neurosurgeon had never been toilet-trained, or never been taught good manners, or what if nobody had sat down with her and helped her do her homework every night after school? So thinking about and using time banking is helping to change the conversation, the way we’re thinking about all the many different forms of labour that are done in our community, and how they are all interrelated and interdependent. Many of the skills and services in the market economy wouldn’t be possible without all the hours of unpaid work behind them.

I’d like share to share an example from a recent Wellington South Timebank newsletter. They mention that one of their members has been receiving time credits for teaching someone to download audio recordings from the Radio New Zealand website, and that person then spent their time credits learning how to use Google Maps and Google Earth. You might not offer those services for cash in the market economy, but they are useful. Things like that are often easy to do and fun to share, and really helpful for someone.

And as a personal example, I lived in Japan for two years and I can still speak Japanese quite well. I’ve also done a lot of Te Reo Māori studies, but I wouldn’t like to offer Māori or Japanese language lessons for money. It just doesn't feel quite right; I don't feel "qualified" enough. But I have happily offered them through a time bank. I find that because you're not asking for cash, it really broadens the range of skills that you feel comfortable trading. Also, it's easier to ask for help when you know that you can give someone something useful in return straightaway – time credits – and not have to scratch your head to think of a way to repay them. You know that they'll find something to spend their time credits on that they need or want later, from another timebank member.

The next core value is that “We are all assets”. Children, people with special needs and elderly members of the community are all encouraged to join and are highly valued in a time bank. If you don't have a full-time job, from a time banking perspective, you are time rich! I remember hearing a lovely story about a woman in Lyttelton in her 80s who earned time credits by sharing stories of her childhood with a 10-year-old girl who was doing a local history project at school.

In Whakatane, one organisation that’s a member of the timebank works with people who have intellectual disabilities and many of their clients are also members of the timebank as individuals. They have earned time credits for gardening and lawn mowing, and spent them on evening classes. One class was learning how to make models, like miniature planes and ships. So alongside the skills development from the classes, they also have an extra opportunity to get out into the community and make a contribution. One of Edgar Cahn's key messages in his book is that most people don’t feel comfortable when they’re on the receiving end of help or charity, especially when it's long-term. It’s not really good for selfesteem to be always receiving help and feeling like you have nothing of value to give in return. Timebanks try to create opportunities for everyone to give help as well as receive it. So in regard to your earlier point about stimulating the flow of energy in an economy, again, you can see that timebanks help to get that energy flow happening again in places where the market economy might be creating blocks, places where the energy stops.

Respect: Edgar Cahn writes that when respect is denied to anyone we are all harmed. One of the most striking examples of this for me was reading about timebanks that have been set up in prisons in Scotland. Six prisons are currently running time banking programmes, so this means that members of the prison community are able to earn time credits for working in the prison gardens, on the prison magazine or radio station, or for providing peer tutoring to fellow inmates. They are donating their time credits out into the community chest of the local time bank in their area. The community chest is something that all timebanks have. It’s a pool of credits that any member of a timebank can donate to, and they’re used to pay timebank members to work on community projects or given to people in the time bank who need a bit of extra support. So the people in the prison are making a direct, measurable contribution to individuals and projects happening in their local community.

In one of these towns, Castlemilk, the members of the local timebank had the opportunity to come to the prison and meet with the men who’d been earning and donating time credits. They were able to thank them in person, to thank them for the things their time credits had been spent on, all the positive ways they had contributed to their community. There was also one case in which one of the men on the inside was able to donate time credits directly to his own family, because his partner had joined the local time bank. We can imagine that by the time he left prison, he might have been regularly sending his partner several time credits a week, and she could have used those to pay for things like afterschool tutoring for their kids and extra help with the housework.

Rose: That really builds self-esteem, feeling you can contribute no matter what your situation.

Emma: Yes, it gives people an opportunity to contribute on an equal footing. I really like the way that time banking works from people's strengths. It is a system that encourages us to look for positives in a situation and build on them.

Social networks: We’re stronger together than as individuals. I think that point speaks for itself, and I'd like to talk about the networks that are forming not just within each timebank, but also between the timebanks in New Zealand. The timebanks here are now starting to collaborate with each other. That has happened in the past and there’s been a resurgence in the last year or so. We had our first national time banking Hui (conference) last year in Lyttelton, which brought 30 time bank members and coordinators together from around the country. Delegates came from as far north as Kaitaia, as far south as Gore, and everywhere in between.

Following the hui we developed a national website, and you can read the notes from our discussions in its forum [2018 editor's note: this web resource is no longer available or has moved location]. On the forum you'll also see that we are holding skype conference calls once a month that have been fantastic. Just as we’re doing in this discussion today, it's so helpful to hear all these stories about the exciting things people are creating, and it's also a chance to give feedback and advice between all the different timebanks, because we’re all still experimenting and figuring out how it all works. It’s quite a flexible system, so apart from one hour always being equal to one hour, and supporting the five core values, each community is free to go where their interest and imagination takes them!

Also as I briefly mentioned earlier, trading time and skills in our communities is not something new. It happens in families, church groups, sports teams, between neighbours, in lots of ways. And in Aotearoa New Zealand, we have very rich traditions in Māori communities of exchanging food, skills and support. These go back hundreds of years and are still a big part of Māori culture. These practices are based on the same values of reciprocity and valuing everybody's contribution equally. There's also a huge focus on showing generosity and hospitality to visitors, “manaaki ki te tangata”, which is part of this same discussion. Again it's about reciprocity. I just wanted to briefly acknowledge that the ideas and values behind time banking are not something new. However, as we've talked about, time banking is an innovative way to get more of this kind of support for each other happening in our communities.

Rose: If anyone wants to find out more or set up a timebank, where can they go?

Emma: In New Zealand, TBANZ. Internationally, TimeBanks USA has a lot of great resources, including start-up kits (look on their online store for the explorer pack and guidebooks). [...]

There are also timebanks that aren’t registered on those websites, so if you can’t find one in your area I encourage you to talk to people in your community to find out if there's one already under way or talk about starting one. I’d also look for any group or organisation that’s already working in your community that has similar goals, like Transition Towns, or perhaps an organisation that has keywords or phrases in their mission statement like "building community", "increasing social inclusion", "neighbours helping neighbours" etc. If you find a group like that, approach them and see if they'd be interested in starting up a time bank or donating some office space or other resources to the project. Edgar Cahn said, “We have what we need if we use what we have”, so I encourage you to look for resources and networks that already exist in your community to help you in setting up a time bank, rather than starting from scratch.

About Emma

Emma McGuirk attended a Living Economies presentation on time banking at the 2010 Permaculture Conference in Raglan and was so inspired by the presentation and by Edgar Cahn’s seminal work No More Throw-Away People that she has since conducted a three-year research project on time banking in Aotearoa towards a PhD in Anthropology at the University of Otago. As part of her research, Emma has contributed to communication among TimeBanks through TBANZ and visits in person.

Emma was a board member of the Living Economies Educational Trust from April 2011 to June 2012. She is a founding member of the Dunedin Timebank and has also written a short play for radio that takes a whimsical sci-fi look at monetary reform.

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