By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata, Jan 17 (IANS): Leveraging the power of social capital, community currencies such as Social Capital Credits (SoCCs) have a "very important" role in situations such as demonetisation, says its developer, New York-based Indian American Geeta Mehta.
Mehta, an architect and urban designer, developed the concept of SoCCs inspired by carbon credits and airline points.
"If you look at the history of the world -- when currencies break down, community currencies spring up. In Switzerland, WIR was launched as an alternative currency to overcome shortage of regular currency. Ecuador has a community currency called Sintral you can even pay taxes with.
"In places or situations such as demonetisation, community currencies have a very important role. They could help in the transition (to a cashless society)," Mehta told IANS.
She was speaking here on the sidelines of the International Symposium on Water Urbanism and Infrastructure Development in Eco-Sensitive Zones.
SoCCs are currently in use in India, Ghana and Kenya and in Washington.
"One of our Indian partners has been writing to us about it (demonetisation) and has asked us to bring this (SoCCs) to the government," said Mehta, Adjunct Professor of Architecture and Urban Design, at the Graduate School of Architecture Planning and Preservation of Columbia University in New York.
SoCCs essentially work like a barter system for social good, Mehta pointed out. It incentivises people to undertake projects in waste management, tree-planting, neighbourhood improvement, river restoration and the like in their communities and earn SoCCs.
"SoCCs is the community currency for social work. People can trade their SoCC credits for healthcare, education and skill empowerment. So you can be doing social good to earn SoCCs and then spend them on personal good for your family. It's like a barter system but every time I benefit myself, I am benefiting my family as well as my community," Mehta explained.
Elaborating, she said there were two types of SoCC menus -- SoCC Earning and SoCC Redeeming -- that need to be tracked.
"Healthcare may feature on the SoCC Earning as well as SoCC Redeeming menus. For example, women may earn SoCCs for attending health camps, or getting kids vaccinated in projects where this is not already happening -- and people are not aware of their health issues.
"In other projects, SoCCs may be redeemed for purchasing health insurance, or for doctor visits. In such cases, Asia Initiatives or a local NGO or a corporate partner bears this expense," she said.
Mehta, also the founder and president of Asia Initiatives, a non-profit organisation that has supported over 200 micro-credit banks and 40 village knowledge centres, and backed education and technology initiatives, says the advantages of community currency are not restricted to times of crisis.
"What is poverty? If poverty is money poverty then that can be addressed with SoCCs. Usually, social currencies are very local. Our system is different as it is applicable to different locations," she said.
The initiative addresses community development tied to women's empowerment.
"We target the whole family, but it's aimed at women because if its women-centric development, it reaches the whole family; if it's man-centric, it might or might not. The position of women in India, and in most developing countries, is low. So, if you raise that up you raise the whole society. So it's very effective and cost-effective to work with women. Women in our projects are so enthusiastic about it," Mehta said.
While the situation is similar in India and Ghana in terms of the burden being borne by women, Mehta felt the problem in the Sub-Saharan African nations is more serious.
"It is because their families are breaking down due to excessive burden on single mothers and poverty and problems such as teen pregnancies. In such situations children may be abandoned or not adequately cared for. I think the social capital of families here (in India) is more intact," Mehta noted.
Co-author of several books on architecture, Mehta also underscored the importance of community accountability and trust to successfully implement SoCCs -- currently being used in locations in Gujarat, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, among others.
"Record-keeping is important and it can't be corrupted. We have to be very vigilant and careful. SoCCs are awarded in community meetings and there's a chart. So if a neighbour spots that someone has not done a particular task, they can point out. So there is community accountability," she said.
To build social capital and greater community spirit is the goal of SoCCs, Mehta said.
"Traditionally, in India, people took care of village ponds (and the like) and each other, but that is breaking down. We want to bring that back and enable people to get together and solve their own problems rather than waiting for the government or some other organisation.
"We want them to think that they can do it, and they can if they get together," she added.