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Is it time for the rise of local currencies?

Prof. Murray Hunter

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It’s an almost long forgotten historical fact that most trade was undertaken by local based currencies right upto the 20th Century. Australia had a number of colonial currencies before federation in 1901. The United States of America had a number of currencies issued by private banks before the Federal Reserve Bank was formed in 1913, and individual states of the European Union had their own national currencies before the mega-currency, the Euro was launched in 1999.

However given the trend to larger and “stronger” currencies, the hype of the Euro, the protection of the US Dollar as the major trading currency, a very quiet trend has been going the other way. In contrast, more than 2,000 local currencies, in some form or the other, have been launched in various communities around the world.

Literature on the phenomenon of the local currency almost doesn’t exist in contemporary economic literature. Therefore the purpose of this article is to have a look at local currencies, and try and answer the following questions; Why do communities launch them? Do local currencies have any benefit to these communities?, and What is the real potential of these currencies?

A local currency, sometimes referred to as a community currency, is a means of exchange used by members of a community that have some common bonds. Local currencies are usually not backed by a national government, nor is it officially a legal tender within the region it circulates within. A local currency is usually intended for trade within a limited geographical area.

Money is essentially an agreement to use something as a means of exchange. Any local currency can be denominated by the prevailing national currency, or measured in any commodity, or even labor units to determine comparative unit value, so people know how to use it as a medium of exchange. This redemption measure, if realizable, is usually a major factor giving users confidence in its present and future value.

A local currency is a potential tool of monetarism, where it can help to define an economic boundary where certain groups readily accepts it as a medium of exchange.

Local currencies are usually created on the value judgment, supported by E.F. Schumacher’s ideas that there should be a focus on the development of local economy. The proponents of local currencies would usually aspire towards developing a diverse local economy full of diverse micro-activities which would promote local production, local self sufficiency, and the maintenance of profits within the local area by local businesses. They would hope that the local currency and the corresponding changing spending habits (use of a local rather than national currency) would promote a preference and loyalty to local products and businesses, rather than goods and businesses from outside.

The proponents of local currencies would also probably aspire towards developing personal relationships in trade and desire to get away from the “McDonalds landscape” where the same restaurants, stores, and service businesses exist in everyplace with an emerging mono-culture. Thus the introduction of a local currency would be seen as a method of encouraging the de-standardization of their local community through promoting the development of vibrant diverse community activities.

The success of any local currency depends upon the assumption that a single country may not be an optimum currency area, where different regions within a country may be better off with different currencies. This would allow the development of local comparative advantage over national comparative advantage. This is very much against the spirit and purpose of macro-economic policy during the development phase of most economies, which has generally promoted centralization, the growth of SMEs into larger corporations so that economies of scale are developed to the point where firms can exercise competitive advantage in the international market.

Even though local currencies worked extremely well in the 19th Century (remember they were most often redeemable in gold then), the track record of the contemporary local currencies hasn’t been good. The successful ones like the Berkshare have been proxy currencies with an a generally agreed par value with the national currency. In fact, it is only the Berkshare used in the Berkshire region of Massachusetts, that has been touted as the success story of local currencies. The Berkshire has a large number of users, which manages to keep the currency circulating within the local community. However in the Berkshire case, the community was already pre-disposed to producing local products for the local community. Many others have failed or ceased to exist through low levels of support within communities. While others like the Kelantan Dinar launched in 2006 was effectively sabotaged by the Malaysian Federal Government through repeated statements that the Dinar was not legal tender.

One of the impediments of any successful local currency is developing a critical mass of community support that would keep the circulation velocity high enough to maintain its perceived value.

A more notoriously use of a local currency was in the Cocoas Islands, where the Malay workers once ruled by the Clunies-Ross family were paid in Cocos Rupees, a currency John Clunies-Ross created and which could only be redeemed at the Clunies-Ross owned company store. Large retail corporations have successfully used forms of complementary local currencies as coupons, gift certificates, and point systems, to enlist customer loyalty.

Although there is scant evidence that any local currency to date has actually promoted local economic wealth, the mediocre track record of local currencies does not mean they don’t have great potential in the future as a means of achieving specific economic objectives needed in many economies today. From a macro-economic point of view, a local currency is a perfect tool for local micro-economic management, where the objective is to develop micro and SME industry to serve the immediate community. This will more and more become an important objective both in developing and developed economies around the world due to poor local enterprise diversity in many places.

A local currency, coupled together with a hybrid of crowd funding organized by local cooperative banks, would be a powerful alternative for providing credit to local enterprises that the conventional ‘big’ banks have been hesitant to service.

There may be another philosophical reason for adopting this approach as well. The banking sector has become so centralized, that most governments across the world have deemed their local banks ‘too big to fail”, where these privately owned institutions are almost above the law, or worse still, become a law unto themselves. All lending, trade, interest rates, and other credit facilities are controlled by these banks. No government took any great effort to regulate these institutions post 2008, because the job was too difficult and very few had the political will to do it.

The nature of a national currency has given banks great power to create money through debt creation. Most money that makes up the currency system is actually electronic. There are no notes or coins or supporting wealth to back up this money. It’s just a figure on a computerized ledger system where, if any bank was asked to produce the physical currency, it would be impossible. Technology has allowed this system to evolve, which arguably has been one of the underlying causes of financial crises i.e., electronic selling mortgages and derivatives etc. This is upsetting the balance of wealth in every country, where GINI indexes are actually widening.

Centralization has generally meant higher interest rates over time since single currencies and centralised banking came into existence. This suited government which found it easier to deal with a more centralised banking industry and fund economic activity. This also caused a rural crisis which was partly solved through the formation of specialized and subsidized rural banks in some cases.

One could also argue that the housing crisis was also caused by central currencies where investments made in land as a ledge against inflation of a national currency was encouraged and promoted.

However a local currency may be able to challenge the dominance of these banks, which impose their credit policies upon communities from outside. The local currency may help to provide some economic freedom from the interest rates banks apply to communities, and the prevailing inflation rates on the national scene.

This can be done by using local currencies to provide new means of obtaining credit and capital funding for businesses that banks won’t fund. It is here local currencies can help most, where governments all over the world have failed to influence the banking sector to step into the area of micro-finance. In this period, nearing on deflation, i.e., real wages are relatively decreasing, a local currency may enable local trades people to exchange labor for local goods much more effectively.

The means of trade is typically changing today where the traditional means of exchange with state currencies are being discarded for electronic and cyber alternatives. One thing is for certain is that national currencies will be weakened by the number of alternatives to currencies and banking that are springing up on the internet and social media today.

The potential of local currencies has become a forgotten tool of development. New employment in the future is likely to be created through small business with limited capital. Very few large corporations will dramatically increase employment as they are looking for ways to reduce employment.

Many multinationals open and shut in the developing world, and move on to places where they can make larger profits, leaving vacuums in employment. Therefore micro enterprise and SME development, as well as seeking to diversify local economies should be a major economic objective.

A local currency should go hand in hand with a local community banking system. Any local banking system should have a simple system that is easily understood, be consistent with existing system, be redeemers of currency (i.e., current currencies are not redeemable in anything, if a local currency is redeemable against a national currency gives it intrinsic value), provide a universal measurement of value to provide a sense of security, eliminate interest and install discount rates on loan repayments – i.e., voucher, and be organized at a local and community level.

Credit unions have existed for a long time and this is not far away from the concept espoused here. However governments through their support for ‘big’ banks, and banks through acquisitions and aggressive commercial practices have done their best to destroy this type of institution, which has stood in the way of banks taking over control of the economy, through central lending policies.

One must not forget that money is a social instrument. Local currencies are a ‘bottom-up’ approach to development rather than usual policy initiatives which come from a central government. Local currencies seem to have one thing in common, which may be the primary reason that promoters create them in the first place. That is the enhancement of local identity and sense of community within a region. Advocates of local currencies would argue that a local currency helps to form a sense of community which may lead to localized entrepreneurial start-ups in ventures that serve these communities. This would primarily be in specialized food businesses, etc. Thus local currencies could be seen as a source of social justice in helping to promote local entrepreneurial activities. Opportunity is also a human right.

A local currency, imaginably used, may be able to promote a micro-business sector to cover the local economic void that now exists in many communities. Local businesses can be nurtured through using hybrids of local currencies for alternative financing linking into variations of local crowd funding, and thus reflect local economic value better.

Local currencies may be more protective of international exchange rate fluctuation, thus protecting local economic buoyancy, which appears to be on the rise of late. A local currency may even be able to assist in lowering the high cost levels many developed economies, which has destroyed the simple economic model of local production to serve local communities. It is all about going back to the future in macro-economic policy to recreate local comparative advantage once again.

As pointed out by the author of Sacred EconomiesCharles Eisenstein, it was Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea, which fostered local production through import replacement protectionist policies in the 1980s that have prospering middle classes today. Compare this with Mexico which opened up free trade and openly allowing in foreign investors, gained very little in knowhow, technology, and permanent capital. Further, countries like Brazil and Thailand are taking measures to protect their economies from the flood of cheap US dollars buying up domestic assets. In both these cases the currency acted as a protection mechanism from the outside world in a form of economic sovereignty. Compare this to the situation in Greece which does not have its own currency.

Perhaps the real reasons why local currencies are introduced are non-economic. Local currencies are more about building community pride and developing ‘cultural capital’ against national and international trends.

The objective of a local currency and the attached value system to it, is to create or recreate a local community, product and service economy that meets the needs of local society from the local society itself. It aspires to develop a self financing community.

This is a very powerful tool for community development, to create micro-economic activity back in the communities that have become economically barren, and then to capture the value of local trade and hold it within the community.

As Bernard Lietaer said, ‘civilization needs a new operating system and fast’. This is indeed very relevant for many parts of the world today.

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Economy

E-commerce: Helping Djiboutian Women Entrepreneurs Reach the World

MD Staff

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Djiboutian women entrepreneurs attended the launch of We-Fi MENA e-commerce, November 13, 2018. Photo: World Bank

Look around any café, bus, doctor’s waiting room or university campus and you will see heads down, fingers tapping as people immerse themselves into their screens. Increasingly, people are using their devices for shopping, with retail sales via e-commerce set to triple between 2004-2021.

Although significant gender gaps exist with internet use, and although online sales are currently dominated by US-based tech giants, this growing e-commerce trend presents an interesting opportunity for small businesses, and more specifically women’s businesses in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA).

This is a region where women’s economic empowerment is a significant challenge. With a female labor force participation rate of 19 percent, women’s participation in firm ownership at only 23 percent, and a rate of only 5 percent women top managers of firms across MENA’s non-high-income countries, there is significant scope for improving women’s participation in business and employment.

Access to finance also remains a problem, where 53 percent of women-led small and medium enterprises (SMEs) do not have access to credit and 70 percent of surveyed MENA female entrepreneurs agree that lending conditions in their economy are too restrictive and do not allow them to secure the financing needed for growth.

Several obstacles stand in the way of women’s entrepreneurship and access to markets, such as social norms, family care duties, and transportation issues. Not being able to physically access markets to sell their goods or to participate in international trade fairs to market their products is also a challenge.

This is where e-commerce can play a role, allowing women to circumvent these obstacles and sell their products online. For this, they need to rely on e-commerce platforms connecting them to clients around the world, on performant and affordable logistics, and on reliable payment systems. Building the e-commerce ecosystem will be key to allowing women entrepreneurs to access markets and grow their business, thereby employing more women, as data shows that firms run by women tend to employ more women.

The situation for women in Djibouti is no different. Gender inequality in the labor market remains substantial, with less than a third of women between the ages of 15 to 64 active in the labor market. Unemployment among both genders is high, with a rate of 34 percent for men but it is considerably higher for women at close to 50 percent.

Djiboutian women are also at a disadvantage in terms of education and skills to access economic opportunities. Women in Djibouti typically run small and informal firms in lower value-added sectors, which are less attractive to creditors, thus impeding their access to finance. Women entrepreneurs face difficulties accessing finance and launching formal enterprises.

There are, however, opportunities to increase women’s economic empowerment. Over 57 percent of inactive women in Djibouti say that they do not work because of family and household responsibilities. However, they also indicated they are generally not discouraged or prevented from accessing training or work opportunities by male family members, and there are no legal barriers against women’s entrepreneurship.

Years of research have shown, that when women do well, everyone benefits. Research has found women tend to spend more of the income they earn on child welfare, school fees, health care, and food for their families. Empowering women is an important path to ending poverty.

It’s vital to enable women to participate constructively in economic activities in Djibouti. More entrepreneurship will allow Djibouti to benefit from the talents, energy, and ideas that women bring to the labor market.

To help address this issue, on November 13, 2018, the World Bank launched a $3.82 million regional project called “E-commerce for Women-led SMEs.”  The project targets small and medium enterprises run or managed by women that produce goods marketable via e-commerce.

This project is at the crossroads of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy, which are two levers for the economic transformation of the region, and that it was very opportune to be able to launch it at the digital economy days of Djibouti.

The launch event took place with the participation of the Minister of Women and Family, the Minister of Economy, the Minister of Communication, the Head of the Women Business Association, and several Djiboutian women entrepreneurs.

The project will contribute to development of women’s entrepreneurship, digital commerce, and the economy in Djibouti and across the region. It will facilitate access for women-led SMEs to domestic and export markets through better access to e-commerce platforms. This will be done by training e-commerce consultants who, in turn, will train and help women-led SME’s access e-commerce platforms.

The project will also aim to ease access to finance for these SMEs by connecting them to financial institutions lending to women, particularly the IFC’s Banking on Women network. It will also work to create an ecosystem conducive to e-commerce by diagnosing regulatory, logistical, and e-payment constraints and supporting governments to lift them.

This launch comes following a successful pilot program in Tunisia, Morocco, and Jordan where women entrepreneurs were enabled to export handicrafts, organic cosmetics, and garments to several overseas destinations including Australia, Europe, and the United States.

The development of women’s entrepreneurship and the digital economy—including better access to domestic markets and exports—are essential levers for the development and economic diversification of the MENA region that the Women Entrepreneurs and Finance Initiative (We-Fi) e-commerce project strives to support. The Women Entrepreneurs Finance Initiative (We-Fi) is a collaborative partnership launched in October 2017 that seeks to unlock billions of dollars in financing to tackle the full range of barriers facing women entrepreneurs.

World Bank

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Getting around sanctions with crypto-rial

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In April 2018, the Central Bank of Iran banned domestic banks and people from dealing in foreign cryptocurrency because of money laundering and financing risks.

However, the CBI decided to take a more moderate stance toward the digital money and blockchain technology following the imposition of a new round of U.S. sanctions, hoping that the digital technology would facilitate Iran’s international money transfers and let the country evade the sanctions.

Meanwhile, as an oil producer with an oil-reliant economy dominated by petrodollars, Iran settled on the plan to utilize cryptocurrencies and blockchain technology to make up for any drop in oil revenues due to the economic sanctions designed to cut its oil sales.

Moving on the same track as China, Russia and Venezuela, Iran also hopes that blockchainization of state-backed fiats would lead to the demise of the dollar and put an end to the tyrant U.S. policies.

Under the toughest U.S. sanctions ever and blacklisting of Iran from the Belgium-based international financial messaging system (SWIFT), the country’s plan to create an indigenous cryptocurrency is improving incrementally and thanks to highly dynamic nature of the cryptocurrency, it can act as a good means for Iran to skirt certain sanctions through untraceable banking operations.

The CBI has been working with domestic knowledge-based companies to develop a digital currency, called crypto-rial, supported by HyperLedger Fabric technology.

As reported, the Informatics Services Corporation, affiliated to the CBI but run by the private sector, has accomplished development of rial-based national cryptocurrency and when the CBI approves the uses of national cryptocurrency, it will be issued to financial institutions such as banks to test payments and internal and interbank settlements.

Transactions at the state-backed virtual currency are carried out on an online ledger called a blockchain, just the same as Bitcoin, but since the infrastructure is privately-owned it will not be possible for people to mine it.

In fact, Iran is mainly aimed at testing the potentials of blockchain and crypto technology in running its financial system, making banks able to use the tokens as a payment instrument in transactions and banking settlement at the first phase of the blockchain banking infrastructure. The country seems inclined to enjoy the new virtual currency businesses which includes little notice or footprint and has also prepared the required infrastructure for trading cryptocurrency in its stock exchange.

However, in spite of the CBI’s prohibition from trading cryptocurrencies, Iranians had commenced using cryptocurrency and Bitcoin mining for transactions with the rest of the world before its use was banned by the CBI in the country.

Individuals and businesses in Iran have had access to virtual currency platforms through “Iran-located, internet-based virtual currency exchanges; U.S. or other third country-based virtual currency exchanges; and peer-to-peer (P2P) exchangers,” according to reports.

But the U.S. embargo on a number of cryptocurrency exchange platforms, including Binance and Bittrex, restricted Iran from receiving services, however, no assets belonging to Iranians were blocked. U.S. sanctions have also ensnared Iranian bitcoin traders.

Furthermore, in December, the U.S. Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, known as Fincen, issued a warning in an advisory to assist U.S. banks and other financial actors such as cryptocurrency exchanges in identifying “potentially illicit transactions related to the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Bitcoin.com reported.

Fincen claimed that since 2013 Iran’s use of virtual currency includes at least $3.8 million worth of bitcoin-denominated transactions per year. The organization noted that “while the use of virtual currency in Iran is comparatively small, virtual currency is an emerging payment system that may provide potential avenues for individuals and entities to evade sanctions.”

Fincen believes that P2P cryptocurrency exchangers are a significant means through which Iran can dodge economic sanctions.
Following the Fincen’s announcement, the United States lawmakers introduced a bill (HR 7321) to impose more sanctions on Iranian financial institutions and the development and use of the national digital currency, Cointelegeraph reported.

The act prohibits transactions, financing or other dealings related to an Iranian digital currency, and introduces sanctions on foreign individuals engaged in the sale, supply, holding or transfer of the digital currency.

In the wake of the U.S. restrictions, thus, cryptocurrency trades are limited into Iran’s domestic market and not possible at the international level and Bitcoin is sold at a significant premium relative to the global average price in Iran.

Unfortunately, the basic and premier regulations of using cryptocurrencies have not been ratified in Iran and Iranians are obliged to refer to stock exchange shops abroad to do their crypto-transactions, most of which are American obedient to U.S. regulations and of course, sanctions.

To make using cryptocurrency and blockchain technology legal and official in the country, the Iranian government is drafting a policy framework by the help of the CBI and the Stock Exchange Organization which clarifies all its regulations and policies over cryptocurrency and mining.

Being legislated, it is believed that SWIFT can be replaced by the digital money, i.e. the rial-pegged national currency, and transactions would be done faster and at lower prices.

Due to a lack of required regulations, cargos of equipment for mining cryptocurrency are seized by the customs administration. They are said to be released as soon as the government legalizes cryptocurrency use in the country.

First published in our partner Tehran Times

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How to build your entrepreneurial mindset today

MD Staff

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An entrepreneurial mindset is a way of life. Even if you aren’t starting your own business, an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that no problem is insurmountable: you can overcome challenges through perseverance and resilience.

Here are five things you can remember to build an entrepreneurial mindset today. If you’re aged between 18-30, why not start by applying to be a Young Champion of the Earth in 2019? Stay tuned—the competition is opening soon!

Transform problems into opportunities

There are so many clues in everyday life. Is there anything that you experience daily that frustrates you? Perhaps it is the prominence of unsustainable materials in your local shop and restaurants, such as plastic straws or unnecessary food packaging? Often, alternatives to problems do exist, but no one has thought of connecting them in specific circumstances. A good example is supplying restaurants and bars with paper straws. Entrepreneurial mindsets apply a lens which identifies problems not as negative issues but as opportunities to be solved, towards creating value in our economy.

Dare to dream and believe in yourself

If you can dream it and believe it, you are halfway there. How big you can dream is a component of your potential for success. Everyone has ideas—but daring to dream big, and then believing in yourself to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and bring them to reality, takes effort. This year, why not push yourself to think creatively? You could come up with a problem once a week, and each week, come up with one matching solution, for example. The key is to think outside the box, to think of a problem as a potential solution.

Know yourself and discover what you are passionate about

Solving problems, especially those associated with the environment, can be daunting. You will constantly be faced with challenges in your journey to change the world. Some environmental challenges feel so large—like those brought about by climate change. But helping to break down large issues into smaller ones which everyone can take steps to solve, is part of the entrepreneurial journey. Remember that you are capable. Find problems that you are passionate about solving and connect with others passionate about solving them too. This will help you through the tough times to stay motivated.

Go for it and don’t take no for an answer

We all have the foundations of an entrepreneurial mindset. We can all identify problems and think up ideas about how to solve them. Being an entrepreneur pushes you to go out there and take actions to achieve them. Often, this process forces you to think through a specific problem in more detail. It helps you to truly understand pathways towards a solution which others might not have thought about. An idea does not have application in the real world if it is not hammered out in real situations. Part of being an entrepreneur requires following this process, identifying real experiences which can be made better or more efficient, and talking with other people who experience similar challenges to find solutions. Using the resources you have at your disposal will force you to be creative. Keep improving your solution. As you go on, you will eventually gain traction and interest. From there, the possibilities are endless.

Learn, embrace uncertainty and accept failure

Eric Ries from the lean startup says that entrepreneurship is “management under conditions of extreme uncertainty”. Forging your own path to solve a problem that no one has solved before is scary—things change constantly. There will be many obstacles and there will be failure. But an entrepreneurial mindset teaches you that failures are opportunities to learn in disguise. An entrepreneurial mindset embraces uncertainty and learning, to leverage the opportunities that emerge from the space between them.

UN Environment

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