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Volunteers fertilising the ground. Photo (CC): Copyright: Torekes De Site

In a deprived district of the small Belgian city of Ghent, the local Toreke coin reveals how big the transformative impact of alternative currency systems can be.

Ilias Cosé approaches me self-assuredly. The 60-year-old has a mischievous smile on his face and is wearing a black sweater with the words ‘De Site’ on it. This is the name of a plot of land in the extremely heterogeneous and socio-economically deprived Ghent district of Rabot-Blaisantvest where an alternative coinage system has been introduced. The residents – men and women from a wide variety of backgrounds and faiths – come together here to earn a few extra cents and to meet other people.

‘De Site’ was previously just the premises of a disused factory, but now vegetable gardens, greenhouses and containers can be found here. The mood is very relaxed. Children help out in the allotments, new greenhouses are being constructed and occasionally someone can be heard laughing at the top of their voice. Cosé has been working here as a volunteer for several years now because he enjoys the social contact and needs the extra income: “As I’ve got debts to pay off, I only have around 20 euros a week left over. I can earn 10 euros by working four hours at ‘De Site’. To me, this extra cash is the difference between eating and not eating.”
Extra change for the district, neighbours and the environment
The local ‘Toreke’ coin first saw the light of day here, in one of the poorest areas of Flanders, in November 2010. The Toreke – which means little tower – owes its name to the large residential blocks in the area. The introduction of the complementary currency system was an experiment carried out by Netwerk Vlaanderen (Network Flanders) on behalf of the Flemish Minister for Employment and Social Economy. Netwerk Vlaanderen, which has since been renamed FairiFin, hopes to inspire society as well as banks to adopt a different approach to money. The Toreke monetary unit aims to contribute to social growth by rewarding residents’ voluntary work.
In principle anyone from the Rabot district can earn Torekes, but in practice it is primarily those residents who have plenty of time on their hands and who are short of money taking advantage of this opportunity. Activities include, for example, small repair jobs at De Site on specially scheduled afternoons, the conversion to ‘green’ electricity, the maintenance of Petanque playing areas or doing shopping for neighbours. In short, Torekes reward tasks carried out on behalf of the district, neighbours and the environment.
The coins are circulated via the Toreke counter. Ten Torekes are worth one euro. 25 Torekes, or a modest 2.50 Euro, can be earned in an hour working for the district. The work nevertheless still falls under volunteer legislation. The Torekes are paid out at the counter and can for instance be spent on bus travel, refuse sacks and cinema tickets etc.
The complementary coin system does not replace the Euro. It is much rather a response to the area’s particular social hardship that aims to stimulate both local and sustainable consumption. As the local coins can only be spent in the area, the district can use it for instance to support the cultural sector.
Alternatively, a decision could be made to allow everyone to pay a share of their taxes in the alternative currency to relieve the burden on residents. The Toreke thus helps to ensure greater social cohesion in the area.
Mobilising the ‘un-mobilisable’
The Toreke places the emphasis on the trust-based and equitable treatment of citizens: “We do not differentiate between participants. It does not matter how well or badly someone does something as long as they do it,” remarks Marika Laureyns. The business studies graduate in her early twenties manages the Torekes project. The alternative coin system also offers greater scope for self-development and tailoured work opportunities. The Turkish community, for example, is responsible for the allotments and urban plots as most of them come from rural regions.
The use of the Toreke also brings to light issues to which the mainstream economy is blind. According to Laureyns, the alternative coin system raises a question mark regarding the way in which we usually organise our work: “I find it incredible how many people we are able to mobilise that are pigeonholed as ‘non-mobilisable for the labour market’ by the government and other organisations.” Statistics indicate that the district achieved more in a short period of time with the Toreke than it had planned to do with the same budget in Euros. In light of the Toreke’s success story, there are now plans to introduce the complementary currency in the Ghent district of Ledeberg, as well.
Solidarity and diversity
The residents of Rabot are very diverse. People from all age groups and from different backgrounds and religions can be found here. The relationship between men and women varies depending upon the culture. There are also many prejudices. The Toreke cuts through such stereotypes by bringing people together. Cosé comes from Kruja in Albania. He was initially anxious about living in the Ghent area “with a large Turkish population”. But ever since they started working together on the site, his perception has changed completely: “The Turks are great people who work hard.” This sense of solidarity is emerging not just between different cultures but also between young and old people, the long-term unemployed and members of the middle class, people without residents’ permits and volunteers on low pensions.
What is striking about this system is that people in the most difficult circumstances do the most for one another. One of the poorest volunteers used his Torekes to buy a second-hand bicycle for the son of another volunteer who could not afford it himself. The less people have, the more they suddenly seem willing to give. At any rate, the Toreke makes changes possible without first requiring a radical upheaval of the entire economic system. Above all, everyone who uses Torekes is enriched.