Do mutual aid networks mean new life for local economies?

Henry George, perhaps the best-known economist from the end of the US Wild West era, pointed out that with progress comes poverty. This is ever more true today. Communities, once places that were home to people with the skills and tools to provide most of what  you needed, from midwives to undertakers, from roofers  to foundation layers, are now mere dormitory units serving in a global network of corporations. As the fortunes of corporations change, and their hunt for cheaper labour takes them offshore, it can happen that dormitory areas are thrown into poverty. Poverty, then, is the other side of the coin of progress. And most seem to accept it.

But attitudes are starting to change. People are starting to understand that living local economies can withstand the whims of corporate relocation. People are starting to see that helping each other is a better deal than finding ways of getting people to pay for literally everything in a monetarized world rapidly going nowhere.

Some call them Mutual Aid Networks (MAN)

These networks are community responses to the failure of modern industry and finance to actually provide living spaces and livelihoods that are inclusive, supportive, generous and environmentally sustainable.  The MAN concept originates from community action specialist Stephanie Rearick. Drawing on her experience with community currencies, time banking and social enterprises, Stephanie has pulled together an impressive array of tools and expertise to inspire communities all over the world to leave the competitive, extractive paradigms aside for more inclusive, sustainable approaches. Just now there are 13 MAN networks in different places around the world. The largest, DCTB, boasts 2500 members.

Stephanie  Rearick got involved with a community currency, Madison Hours, which she helped start around the coffee house which she part owned.  Community currencies have been around for decades. Many would say they show promise, but they have never really lived up to that promise to the full. Stephanie Rearick would agree with that.  Although by community currency standards, Madison hours was modestly successful with  around 400 members at its peak and high recognition, the system failed to connect with people and activities marginalized in the market economy. This is  partly because there is still a feeling of scarcity attached to this kind of currency, and there is only so much you can do with volunteer time. Wanting to do more, h later got involved in a time banking initiative, Dane County TimeBank (DCTB) . Says Stephanie

“We see the power of time banking when it is connected to a community development project like the restorative justice program we are running. Ours is the only area where the number of juvenile arrests are actually dropping.”

But Time Banking is only one part of the puzzle, Stephanie says;

“I wanted time banking to really be the one and only answer to creating the kind of local economy I want to be part of. I want there to be care for people when they are sick or old, I want there to be demand for the kind of work of that people want to do, I want a feeling of abundance and security. I saw however after a while that we need a variety of tools working in concert to complete the whole picture.”

Stephanie asked herself how support could be developed for neighborhoods, cities, towns, and regions to develop the fertile ground for the kind of economy we need? She coined the expression  for a community that forms around these tools a Mutual Aid Network (MAN).

Basically, a MAN is a (usually) local cooperative venture around a common purpose, for example energy efficiency, a particular place or a set of challenges like juvenile crime. Because of its cooperative nature, the MAN comprises local governance, shared resources and joint responsibility for stewardship of these resources and the community.

Examples of tools that help MANs develop

Project facilitation tools. The project method is perhaps our most effective way of cooperating. All sorts of projects are needed, from mapping local resources, setting up social events to creating local entrepreneurs forums and even community banks and housing trusts.

Business and financial planning. Good financial planning can actually reduce the need for money by finding alternative ways to create and bring resources to the community.

Template agreements. Well-framed agreements and contracts give the necessary structure and security in creating working relationships in new ways, replacing what Stephanie terms extractive corporate industrial paradigms.

Redefining the culture of work. Many have difficulty in seeing their own gifts and will therefore not think of offering to help out. Finding ways to commission work from each other frees up these talents. Stephanie envisages the time bank helping out where people can present their skills and experience.

Time banking. A valuable tool to mobilize volunteer work and get people involved.

Savings tools. Mutual credit schemes, community banking, easy tools for taking payment are needed  for the local economy , with local businesses, to flourish.

Shared resources: these provide resources that many otherwise not be available individually and can include tool libraries, production kitchens, maker spaces, etc.

What characterizes a Mutual Aid Network?

1 Redesigning Work.  MANs recognize that everyone possesses passions and skills which they can contribute to their communities and the larger MAN network and will work to find the highest uses to which those qualities and abilities can be put.

2 Voluntary and Open Membership.   MANs are voluntary organizations, open to all persons able to use their services and willing to accept the responsibilities of membership, without gender, social, sexual, racial, political or religious discrimination.

3 Democratic Member Control.  MANs are democratic organizations with transparent governance structures controlled by their members, who actively participate in setting their policies and making decisions. Persons serving as elected representatives are accountable to the membership.

4 Member Economic Participation.  Members contribute equitably to, and democratically control, the capital of their MANs. At least part of that capital is usually the common property of the MAN. Members usually receive limited compensation, if any, on capital subscribed as a condition of membership. Members allocate surpluses for any or all of the following purposes: developing their MAN co-operative, possibly by setting up reserves, part of which at least would be indivisible; benefiting members in proportion to their contributions within their co-operative; and supporting other activities approved by the membership.

How to start a MAN

Several stages of development can be envisaged, starting with a group of people with a shared purpose in a specific place. Projects can develop, from simple meeting places to joint owned entreprises.

All kinds of projects are needed that enhance and build on each other.

 

TO DATE

There are several local MANs in the concept stage around the world. Stephanie is initiating  a kind of umbrella organization for all MAN initiatives, offering them a platform to share tools and experiences.

ITHACASH is A new regional currency program focused on generating economic and food security in Ithaca, NY and surrounding areas. http://www.ithacash.org

Producia is an  all-in-one entrepreneurship gaming platform for co-creating social enterprises. http://producia.org

Next steps

Stephanie hopes that budding MANs will join the Main MAN and share experiences and tools, and that these initiatives will support each other and add to the toolboxes. Join the movement at    http://www.mutualaidnetwork.org/

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