Spaniards Turn to Barter, Alternative Banks to Alleviate Economic Pain

Article excerpt

Spanish institutions are in no shape to help struggling Spaniards, so they're turning to alternative banks and ways of exchanging goods to get by.

With Spain's crisis deepening, its citizens are not waiting for its institutions and leaders to deliver a recovery. They are instead turning to cooperative economic models: bartering, professional exchanges, ethical banking, and crowdfunding efforts to hold powerful institutions accountable.

Nurya Lafuente found her niche here. Back in 2008, armed with a degree in social education and anthropology, she could find no work, so she created an online company called Yo Voy (which translates to "I go").

Hundreds of people contact her and tell her what service they can offer, and she connects them with people who need that service. She charges an hourly wage for the time it takes her to make the connection or to do the work herself - filing immigration papers, paying a traffic fine, or organizing a party. "I don't know how to do anything, but I know where to find everything," she says. "I'm the middleman. I didn't intend it that way, but that's how it happened. I specialize in making things work for others."

The quest for economic alternatives has picked up in recent months. Neighbors are organizing online and on the ground to do what banks and government institutions no longer can or are willing to do. They are repopulating the countryside with communes; they are moving savings from traditional national banks to home-grown socially responsible entities; and they are connecting those in need with those who can help. "We are witnessing a significant increase in cooperative economy, alternatives to survive the crisis," says Jaime Pastor, political science professor at Universidad Nacional de Educacion a Distancia. "Spanish and European institutions and the market in general fueled the idea that everyone could buy anything with cheap credit. It created the illusion of popular capitalism and a real estate bubble, and the crisis showed us it wasn't real."

Cash-strapped citizens are also turning to exchanges, rather than the typical buy-and-sell process: a city apartment for a country home, a car for a motorcycle, one toy for another, plumbing for language courses, room and board for baby-sitting, cleaning for senior care, and even repopulating deserted towns for a plot of land to live on.

These alternatives represent only a minute segment of the economy; and their impact, if there even is one, will only be felt in the long term. But the fact that Spaniards are increasingly seeking not to fix the system, but to work outside it, could catalyze the kind of political and economic reforms that the country needs. "Quantitatively it's very limited and reaches only a minority of people, especially the unemployed, but they are reviving an economy that had long been forgotten," Dr. Pastor says.

Talking through their bank deposits

Grass-roots activism is already forcing politicians into action. Last month, the government was refusing to investigate the collapse of Bankia, one of Spain's largest banks, despite being forced to nationalize it and seek a European bailout of the financial system.

The public prosecutor announced an investigation only after the 15M movement, the Spanish version of the global "Occupy" movement, raised more than EUR 20,000 (about $25,000) via crowdfunding to launch a class action suit against Bankia and its former top executives. …