For some it’s a way of surviving unemployment, for others it's a grassroots revolution. While the German economy is down, the country's bartering networks are growing in popularity.
Need child care for your kids, but can't afford it? Cologne's bartering network TalentSkulptur could provide help
They call their currencies "Talente" (talents), "Klüngel" (clique), "peanuts", or "Knöpfe" (buttons). Yet real money isn’t part of the game when Germany's bartering networks go about their business.
The idea behind local exchange trading networks, such as the Cologne-based "TalentSkulptur" founded in 1994, is that members offer services to other members, from plumbing, baby-sitting and house-cleaning to yoga or language classes. Instead of getting paid for these services, they receive a voucher in their own currency, the "Talente". These vouchers can then be spent for different services.
Getting by without money
For many people, these networks provide the key to thrifty living. "I had just arrived in the city and didn't know a lot of people here," said Iris, who joined TalentSkulptur in 1997. "Besides, I found the idea of exchanging things without cash very appealing. I was an apprentice at the time and didn't have much money."
The prospect of saving money on services was also one of the main things that attracted Marina Carboga's attention. She first read about local exchange trading networks in a magazine for parents.
Carboga works part-time in TalentSkulptur’s small office while finishing her college degree. One of her assignments is to collect service offers, which are then published twice a year in the Yellow Talent Pages and distributed to its 260 members.
Carboga has tried out different things within the network, from homeopathic treatment, foot acupuncture to house renovations. Since she'll be taking her exams shortly, she has limited her own offers to helping others organize parties. "I like being at other people's parties," she says and grins. "This is also what I recommend to new members of the TalentSkulptur, to offer something that's fun to do. Because that's what you are really good at."
Bartering networks are not a new invention. The idea hails from Canada’s Vancouver Island, where some 20 years ago Michael Linton set up a barter network in this place known for social experimentation. From Canada, barter networks spread to the U.S., Australia and England and, in the early 1990s, to Germany.
And the movement is growing in popularity, according to Klaus Kleffmann, head of an Osnabrück-based umbrella organization that comprises some 350 exchange networks with an estimated 25,000 members -- and counting.
Kleffmann himself is now also working on a new local exchange trading project co-funded by the European Union. Once it's implemented it will provide a special exchange forum for people with special needs, such as the handicapped, the elderly and other disadvantaged groups.
Even Germany's Federal Ministry of Health has become interested in the country's flourishing barter systems and has donated some 9,300 euro ($9,300) to sponsor a meeting of all German exchange networks in September.
Already, there is also a growing body of academic research in the area, looking at issues ranging from liability concerns to fiscal implications. In the past there has been some discussion about whether the services offered should be considered as under-the-table work and thus be taxed accordingly. But since turnover that could be measured in hard currency is very low, tax authorities so far have turned a blind eye on the networks.
Talent is more important than money
Committed barterers such as Ariane, however, need no scientific proof of the benefits of this system. She has also been part of the TalentSkulptur almost from the beginning. Her motivation for joining the organization, however, goes beyond saving a little money and getting to know people.
"I think that money isn't good for us because it's poisonous for human relations," says Ariane. "Our whole system works in such a way that it gives an incentive to make more money from the money we already have. And because of this, the social climate is changing, it's becoming ever more colder."
"Your prestige depends on how much money you have," Ariane added. "And I find that quite unhealthy. I think other attributes are much more important and I like the fact that here at the "TalentSkulptur", these 'talents' are much more important than money."
However, not every member of the Cologne TalentSkulptur has a political agenda. "Ask ten people what their motivation is for joining our network, and you'll get ten different answers," says Carboga. "It's made my life so much richer that I couldn't imagine what I'd do without it."