Battered By Economic Crisis, Greeks Turn to Barter Networks

Rachel Donadio – New York Times October 1, 2011

The first time he bought eggs, milk and jam at an outdoor market using not euros but an informal barter currency, Theodoros Mavridis, an unemployed electrician, was thrilled.

“I felt liberated, I felt free for the first time,” Mr. Mavridis said in a recent interview at a cafe in this port city in central Greece. “I instinctively reached into my pocket, but there was no need to.”

Angeliki Ioanniti, a seamstress, runs a small shop in Volos and participates in a network that uses barter and vouchers.

Mr. Mavridis is a co-founder of a growing network here in Volos that uses a so-called Local Alternative Unit, or TEM in Greek, to exchange goods and services — language classes, baby-sitting, computer support, home-cooked meals — and to receive discounts at some local businesses.

Part alternative currency, part barter system, part open-air market, the Volos network has grown exponentially in the past year, from 50 to 400 members. It is one of several such groups cropping up around the country, as Greeks squeezed by large wage cuts, tax increases and growing fears about whether they will continue to use the euro have looked for creative ways to cope with a radically changing economic landscape.

“Ever since the crisis there’s been a boom in such networks all over Greece,” said George Stathakis, a professor of political economy and vice chancellor of the University of Crete. In spite of the large public sector in Greece, which employs one in five workers, the country’s social services often are not up to the task of helping people in need, he added. “There are so many huge gaps that have to be filled by new kinds of networks,” he said.

Even the government is taking notice. Last week, Parliament passed a law sponsored by the Labor Ministry to encourage the creation of “alternative forms of entrepreneurship and local development,” including networks based on an exchange of goods and services. The law for the first time fills in a regulatory gray area, giving such groups nonprofit status.

Here in Volos, the group’s founders are adamant that they work in parallel to the regular economy, inspired more by a need for solidarity in rough times than a political push for Greece to leave the euro zone and return to the drachma.

“We’re not revolutionaries or tax evaders,” said Maria Houpis, a retired teacher at a technical high school and one of the group’s six co-founders. “We accept things as they are.”

Still, she added, if Greece does take a turn for the worse and eventually does stop using the euro, networks like hers are prepared to step into the breach. “In an imaginary scenario — and I stress imaginary — we would be ready for it.”

The group’s concept is simple. People sign up online and get access to a database that is kind of like a members-only Craigslist. One unit of TEM is equal in value to one euro, and it can be used to exchange good and services. Members start their accounts with zero, and they accrue credit by offering goods and services. They can borrow up to 300 TEMs, but they are expected to repay the loan within a fixed period of time.

Members also receive books of vouchers of the alternative currency itself, which look like gift certificates and are printed with a special seal that makes it difficult to counterfeit. Those vouchers can be used like checks. Several businesspeople in Volos, including a veterinarian, an optician and a seamstress, accept the alternative currency in exchange for a discount on the price in euros.

A recent glimpse of the database revealed people offering guitar and English lessons, bookkeeping services, computer technical support, discounts at hairdressers and the use of their yards for parties. There is a system of ratings so that people can describe their experiences, in order to keep transparent quality control.

(The network uses open-source software and is hosted on a Dutch server, cyclos.org, which offers low hosting fees.)

The group also holds a monthly open-air market that is like a cross between a garage sale and a farmers’ market, where Mr. Mavridis used his TEM credit to buy the milk, eggs and jam. Those goods came from local farmers who are also involved in the project.

“We’re still at the beginning,” said Mr. Mavridis, who lost his job as an electrician at a factory last year. In the coming months, the group hopes to have a borrowed office space where people without computers can join the network more easily, he said.

For Ms. Houpis, the network has a psychological dimension. “The most exciting thing you feel when you start is this sense of contribution,” she said. “You have much more than your bank account says. You have your mind and your hands.”

As she bustled around her sewing table in her small shop in downtown Volos, Angeliki Ioanniti, 63, said she gave discounts for sewing to members of the network, and she has also exchanged clothing alterations for help with her computer. “Being a small city helps, because there’s trust,” she said.

In exchange for euros and alternative currency, she also sells olive oil, olives and homemade bergamot-scented soap prepared by her daughter, who lives in the countryside outside Volos.

In her family’s optical shop, Klita Dimitriadis, 64, offers discounts to customers using alternative currency, but she said the network had not really gained momentum yet or brought in much business. “It’s helpful, but now it doesn’t work very much because everybody is discounting,” she said.

In an e-mail, the mayor of Volos, Panos Skotiniotis, said the city was following the alternative currency network with interest and was generally supportive of local development initiatives. He added that the city was looking at other ways of navigating the economic situation, including by setting aside public land for a municipal urban farm where citizens could grow produce for their own use or to sell.

After years of rampant consumerism and easy credit, such nascent initiatives speak to the new mood in Greece, where imposed austerity has caused people to come together — not only to protest en masse, but also to help one another.

Similar initiatives have been cropping up elsewhere in Greece. In Patras, in the Peloponnese, a network called Ovolos, named after an ancient Greek means of currency, was founded in 2009 and includes a local exchange currency, a barter system and a so-called time bank, in which members swap services like medical care and language classes. The group has about 100 transactions a week, and volunteers monitor for illegal services, said Nikos Bogonikolos, the president and a founding member.

Greece has long had other exchange networks, particularly among farmers. Since 1995, a group called Peliti has collected, preserved and distributed seeds from local varietals to growers free, and since 2002 it has operated as an exchange network throughout the country.

Beyond exchanges, there are newer signs of cooperation from the ground up. When bus and subway workers in Athens went on strike two weeks ago, Athenians flooded Twitter looking for carpools, using an account founded in 2009 to raise awareness of transportation issues in Athens. The outpouring made headlines, as a sign of something unthinkable before the crisis hit.

With unemployment rising above 16 percent and the economy still shrinking, many Greeks are preparing for the worst. “Things will turn very bad in the next year,” said Mr. Stathakis, the political economics professor.

Christos Papaioannou, 37, who runs the Web site for the network in Volos, said, “We’re in an uncharted area,” and hopes the group expands. “There’s going to be a lot of change. Maybe it’s the beginning of the future.”

Dimitris Bounias contributed reporting from Volos and Athens.

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