Cut my grass? Take my shirt. Why not more barter in Jamaica?

We shouldn’t be surprised that hard times lead to creative solutions. Several years ago, a spate of articles focused on the development of bartering in developed countries when the recession started to pinch people.

One inventive idea in New York, ‘Art Barter’, was an art exhibition where pieces could be acquired for anything BUT money: art was presented anonymously, only with reference numbers.

Another idea, in Pennsylvania, was ‘time dollars’, where members were credited for services they provide to other members–cooking, housekeeping, car rides, home repairs, etc.. For each hour of work, one ‘time dollar’ is deposited into a member’s account, good for services offered by other membersone-good-turn-a3Time Banks USA, which was formed in 1995,  indicated that well over 100 such schemes existed across the USA in 2011. As its website reports “TimeBanking is a medium of exchange — like money, but having its own qualities. It was designed in 1980 by TimeBanking founder Edgar Cahn to reward “decency, caring, and a passion for justice.” Cahn was a law fellow at the London School of Economics and a famous social justice advocate. Time banks or ‘community exchanges’ have developed worldwide.

While I can find evidence of formalised community exchange or time banking in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, I cannot find any information about such schemes in Jamaica, West Indies. To clarify, Jamaica has a barter exchange, Anbell Trade Exchange Limited, recently created in June 2012, but it’s aim is to trade Jamaican goods internationally. As the government minister said, it was Jamaica bartering to the world.

However, I know that people in Jamaica are bartering. I’ve known of this happening here for decades, well back into the history of the country. People in my family talk about bringing produce up from St. Elizabeth, known as the nation’s bread basket (especially mangoes), to exchange with people in Manchester, well-known for its citrus and Irish potatoes. It was simple and gave people what they needed directly.

More recently, I heard of a Kingston city dweller who could not pay his landscaper so traded some used shoes and shirts for the man’s grass cutting and lawn care services: the ‘seller’ was happy as the clothing and footwear were not much worn by him, and the ‘buyer’ was very happy with his new gears.

Barter in such circumstances is not as sustainable as when you offer time or produce as your assets will be depleted, and when you end up naked or just with the socks you got last Christmas, you may still need to ‘pay’ for things.

I have some hefty medical bills to pay, after my father spent a few weeks at the University hospital in Kingston. I jokingly offered to work off some of the money due by washing dishes. What was funny was that one of the hospital administrators said “Nothing is off the table”. Maybe, I need to take her at her word.

I know that one of Jamaica’s major problems in a high rate of unemployment, especially amongst young people. Bartering for them may not be a cool option, but if it’s about getting food into their bellies. Of course, hunger is only one of the needs to be satisfied, but one step at a time. Working is one of those social actions that make a person aware that they have some significant worth, and if it’s in exchange for some goods instead of money shouldnt make it an unacceptable option.  Europe and other major developed areas also have ‘work for food and accommodation’ schemes are also popular.

Jamaica’s economy and society have been boxed in by many problems, so maybe it’s time for more ‘out of the box’ thinking to get out of some of these problems.