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Spaniards turn to barter, alternative banks to alleviate economic pain

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. 

By , Correspondent

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."

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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 Educación 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 €20,000 (about $25,000) via crowdfunding to launch a class action suit against Bankia and its former top executives.

But perhaps the greatest potential is in ethical banking, which forbids the kind of speculative investments that led to the crisis. It's soaring here, with twofold and threefold growth in the number of clients, deposits, loans, and profits. One of the biggest of such entities is the Spanish branch of Triodos Bank, headquartered in the Netherlands. Between 2007 and 2011, deposits increased 130 percent to €3.7 billion (about $4.7 billion); the number of account holders almost tripled, to 363,000; the amount of money loaned almost tripled, to €2.8 billion (about $3.5 billion); and the number of loans issued more than tripled, to 21,900.

"Ethical banking has a future in the context of this crisis as it consolidates as an alternative to traditional banking. It came late, but it can play an important role," Pastor says. "The growth of ethical banking could create more political pressure to support this cooperative economy."

Getting the 'suits' on board

One of the most popular efforts is Acaba con la Crisis (which translates into "end the crisis"), a website that cookbook author Ansel Cambra created in 2009 after seeking legal help for his former parents-in-law. From there, he started posting ways to survive the economic downturn, whether it was cheap recipes, advice, or morale-boosting messages.

The website only really took off in 2011; and since then, searches have more than doubled to 200,000 a month. Visitors barter all sorts of services and goods, and it now has dozens of sections, from groups organizing to repopulate towns to goodwill offers of used baby apparel.

Mr. Cambra has turned down offers of help from political parties. "I don't want to be another political front or a nongovernmental organization. I want people to help each other. No miracles, just small things," he explains. "We are turning things around, returning to an economy from years ago. Give me your time and I'll give you mine. This way we can learn to value what we have and what we don't."

But this message may not be reaching the groups who need to hear it most.

"Spaniards are asleep. And we needed this crisis to wake up," Ms. Lafuente, the woman who created the services company online, says. "But I'm very scared. I see the middle class disappearing. People cooperate more with each other, and it's working, but I don't know if it's enough or if we have enough time. I work with 'suits' every day and I don't think they realize how bad things are."

And those "suits" cannot be totally excluded from the process, Pastor explains. Even if this new economic model really takes off, for real growth, banks will have to start lending again.

"This has potential, but also limits because of the severity of the crisis," he says. "Spain has been left without an economic model, and people are starting to come to terms with that. [But] the risk is that [the EU and Spain] pursue short-term profitability, instead of addressing the needs of the people."

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