"The Greek state is completely absent," says Katarina with a deep chuckle. We are standing across from each other inside a sweltering building on the outskirts of the Greek city of Volos, about 200 miles north of Athens on the Mediterranean. Both Katarina and her daughter, who stands beside her, have been unemployed for months. They are at this makeshift market to sell their array of homemade jams, pickled vegetables and liqueurs, which are spread out on the table between us.
But this isn't a typical market. In fact, there isn't a euro in sight. Katarina is part of a network of more than 500 people in Volos who are taking financial matters into their own hands as part of an alternative local currency, known here by its Greek acronym TEM. "In the network, people can trade their goods and services," says Christos Papaioannou, one of the network's founders. "If I do a service for you, then you owe me a favour. And I can use that favour to get some service from someone else. So, we don't have to exchange directly, I can get it from some third person."
To be clear, there is no actual currency or scrip exchanged. Credits are tracked via an open-source community banking software system called Cyclos. Katarina, for example, banks her credits from selling jam to buy staple foods such as eggs and fresh vegetables that are offered through the network.
The barter idea is catching on in a number of cities in Greece during these lean economic times, returning communities to a centuries old system but with a digital twist. And it's not just in Greece. The global economic downturn has created renewed interest worldwide in alternative economic models.
"I think that people are becoming increasingly aware, over the past few years, that financial systems aren't sustainable. And that boom and bust is always going to be with us, despite politicians continually telling us they are going to work to remove [them]," says Ken Banks, who recently launched a project called Means of Exchange. The idea behind the project, says Banks, is to create a "toolbox" of web-based and mobile apps that will make it easier for people to engage in things like bartering, swapping and alternative currencies.
Banks certainly knows a thing or two about creating technology for development and social change. Back in 2005, he built FrontlineSMS, a mobile and web-based platform designed to allow communities to harness the power of text messaging to meet local needs. Today it is used for everything from election monitoring, dispensing legal advice to powering local radio talk shows.
While Banks has been thrilled with FrontlineSMS's success, the project completely consumed him. He says he kept a list of other ideas for potential projects but never had the time to follow them through. Then, earlier this year, Banks decided to step out of the day-to-day leadership role at FrontlineSMS. Spurred on by the very visible signs of the global economic crisis, the tackled the first item on his list: Means of Exchange.
“I was just seeing people having their lives trashed. I was reading about people lives being destroyed, people losing their homes, and really feeling it wasn't their fault in most cases," says Banks. "I started asking, 'how do you give people a little bit more control, buffer them slightly from the booms and busts of the system, and give people who care and want to do something a bit different the tools to enable them to do that?'"
Banks has already done his homework. For a couple of years, he has had two researchers looking into alternative currencies and barter systems around the world and feeding him ideas. Mostly, Banks says, he found that such projects failed to thrive because they could never reach a critical mass of users.