About Anna Salvans


The ‘grama’, a social currency and a motor for the local economy

Photo: Vicente Zambrano

A shop in Santa Coloma de Gramanet with the sign showing they accept local currency.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Santa Coloma de Gramenet has issued a social currency it calls the grama, with the object of incentivising local trade and strengthening residents’ commitment to their town. Inspired by this and other projects, Barcelona City Council is preparing a test local currency for introducing to the Besòs neighbourhoods.


Some years ago, Santa Coloma Town Council realised that a lot of local businesses were putting up the shutters, customers were leaving to shop in department stores in the neighbouring cities and there was a high risk that Santa Coloma would become a dormitory town. The wealth being generated in the town was leaking away and there was a liquidity crisis. According to one study, 90% of the money paid out by the local authority had left within three days. For a town without much industry or tourism, trade is the motor of wealth.

The grama, as this local currency is called, began circulating in January 2017. Behind the initiative was the wish to incentivise local business and strengthen residents’ commitment to their town. ‘I’m from Santa Coloma. I shop in Santa Coloma’ is the campaign included in this overall objective set by the local authority presided by Núria Parlon, which has issued the social currency linked to the subventions provided by the municipal departments of Sport, Culture and Trade (the first phase doesn’t include the Department of Social Welfare). At present, some 30% of the total aid coming out of these departments is in grames, which can be changed for products in the town’s shops. One grama can be changed for one euro after 45 days, but if it’s changed before that a penalisation of 5% is incurred. While this is a project for creating consumers, it also has an ethical element, as it’s linked to the ethical bank Triodos.

It’s too early to draw conclusions and make assessments yet, as it’s one of those initiatives that needs time to get established. Andreu Honzawa, a consultant and member of Ubiquat Technologies, the organisation launching the project, feels that for it to succeed traders need to take it on board and there needs to be more money circulating. Also, it should be opened up to communities especially dedicated to trade like the large Chinese and Pakistani communities, who could see it as particularly useful. At the moment, Santa Coloma’s traders are adapting to what a change in culture involves. There is no physical exchange of money or coins, which means security is at a maximum and people always know where the money is, but people who have only seen banknotes and coins all their life, especially if they’re getting on, will probably need to be patient to adapt to this virtual world.

The Bristol Pound

With help from the Dutch NGO STRO, the world’s first organisation specialising in local currencies, the project officials presented it to the European Union four years ago, along with the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF) and the Learning by Doing consultancy –at first, Granollers Town Council was also taking part. This is an example of the successful new tendencies in the management of medium-sized towns, based on collaboration between the public and private sectors, universities and the public. They looked around the world and one place that inspired them was Bristol, where for four years people have been able to shop with the Bristol Pound, which, issued by the Bristol Credit Union, a financial services cooperative, has fully caught on among the population. ‘Our city. Our money’ is the slogan for the project, which springs from consumers through a movement like the transition town movement.

When Bristol Council saw the success of the initiative, it gave its support to the circulation of the currency and extended the range of its use. Today almost half a million inhabitants in Bristol pay their rates with the Bristol pound, which goes to show that social currency can also be a way of promoting and stimulating public policies, because it’s linked to a project for energy, ecological agriculture and promoting the uniqueness of local establishments.


Photo: Vicente Zambrano

Barcelona’s project for a social currency is linked to the municipal minimum income pilot scheme in the neighbourhoods making up the Besòs Hub. In the image, the Besòs market.
Photo: Vicente Zambrano

The social project of Barcelona

This is the idea Barcelona City Council is working on, closely following the introduction of the grama as well as the Bristol experience. It plans to issue Barcelona’s social currency –as yet unnamed– at the end of the present term of office. Lluís Torrens, Director of Planning and Innovation at the Council’s Social Rights Area, explains that they might decide to print coins and notes like in Bristol –Santa Coloma’s is the world’s first 100% digital social currency–, because if the idea catches on with tourists they’ll be able to take it home as a souvenir, which would be an important source of income for public funds.

However, the Barcelona project is a long way from being aimed at tourists, as in fact it’s linked to a pilot test of the municipal minimum income being introduced in the ten neighbourhoods making up the Besòs hub. The test is intended to find out the result of paying some beneficiaries part of the minimum income in social currency. In this case, a twofold social effect is sought, benefiting people receiving the aid directly and also traders, as the commercial fabric in the Besòs hub is very weak. What’s more, paying benefits in social currency will be an innovative experiment in channelling public social spending and analysing its impact on the welfare of the recipients. It’s foreseen that in the first two years a million euros will be injected in social currency. In this way the Besòs could become a social innovation sector attracting wealth thanks to the introduction of the social currency.

This social project for the Besòs, called B-Mincome, is a world first and has an estimated budget of 13 million euros, of which 4.85 million is being provided by the European Union. It’s one of the three initiatives in the Urban Innovative Actions programme whose object is to fight poverty and inequality –the other two proposals are the ones in Madrid and Turin.

The Besòs hub project, which will benefit a total of one thousand homes chosen at random, will take place with the collaboration of various partners: the Young Foundation, the Novact Foundation, Ivàlua, the IGOP of the Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) and the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC).

Although the way it’s to be put into practice is still under study, what is clear is that care will be taken over the viability and security of Barcelona’s social currency to avoid fraud of any kind taking place. The biggest challenge, though, is to avoid it becoming a ‘beggar’s currency’, as it’s starting life linked to the introduction of the minimum income.

Preventing its use from becoming stigmatised will depend on how it’s received by part of the rest of the citizens and on them coming to see it as a useful proposal. In this respect, the Director of Planning and Innovation at the Council’s Social Rights Area, Lluís Torrens, says work is going ahead on a strategy for it to reach a lot of people and many more neighbourhoods than the ones in the Besòs hub. It’s been discovered that 37,000 families in Barcelona would be in need of the municipal benefit, but this figure goes up to 120,000 families with incomes below the poverty threshold –not taking assets into account.

Traditionally, social currency projects have been driven from the bottom up by civil society. Among other experiments, in Catalonia there’s the turuta in Vilanova i la Geltrú, which even has a game. These currencies successfully set out to create social and personal ties around an alternative project for economic exchange, but their most obvious weakness is that they don’t reach many people and are often idealised by their users.

According to Andreu Honzawa, the success of a social currency comes about when people find it makes sense to use it. He compares it with transport: there are lots of types and people use the one that makes life easiest for them. There are two reasons for promoting social currencies. The first is economic: promoting local business. This is the case of Santa Coloma, and also of Sardinia, where small traders decided to create the sardex. The economic reason is also one of the main ones in the project for Barcelona’s social currency. The second reason is a social one, a question of identity, and this is where we find examples in the Bristol Pound and the turuta, as well as in time banking. The spirit behind these initiatives aims at avoiding the accumulation of capital and encouraging the rapid circulation of currency within local economies.

Social currency goes beyond its strictly economic purpose and has an added value for everyone involved, because it’s also a letter of presentation and a way of promoting certain values, like a socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable system, and the well-being of society in general and of the local commercial and productive fabric in particular. The implementation of social currencies, as well as a critical mass, calls for a change of mentality, which takes longer to bring about. Andreu Honzawa and Lluís Torrens agree that Santa Coloma and the Barcelona’s ten Besòs neighbourhoods are a real-time laboratory.

A long-standing peace

There has been a very strong network of associations in Barcelona that has reacted to large-scale international crises. It all has roots in the past. Civil society is at the cutting edge, it is what drives governments and has offered responses for acting in Greece, Bosnia, Colombia, the Sahara and Lebanon.

Photo: Pere Virgili

The demonstration held in Barcelona in support of refugees on 19 June 2016 under the slogan “Open borders, we want to welcome”.
Photo: Pere Virgili.

Cécile Barbeito has spent the past 13 years working at the School for a Culture of Peace, an entity founded in 1999 by Vicenç Fisas, its director thus far, which is attached to the Autonomous University of Barcelona. Peace, points out Barbeito, is an element with deep roots in Catalan culture, going back to the Peace and Truce of God in the 11thcentury, a social movement led by the Church and peasants to deal with the violence of the nobility. Catalan society has long exercised peace through this deeper democracy.

One of the most prominent projects of the school, and especially its founder, has consisted in discreetly participating in a reflection on how the guerillas in Colombia could be demobilised. That meant getting to know people on the inside and understanding their way of thinking in order to make reasonable proposals. To that end, four ex-guerrillas were taken in by a state programme to protect threatened persons. In fact, the school has been involved in Colombia since the beginning and has offered scholarships to people from Colombian social movements so they can apply their knowledge and generate an exchange of information and awareness raising; this is where the Taula Catalana per Colòmbia (Catalan Platform for Colombia) was born.

The School for a Culture of Peace has done a great deal of work on the major problems related to peace and conflicts: wars, refugees, the arms trade, etc. It has published a large volume of educational materials, such as the book 22 accions fàcils (i difícils) per la pau (22 easy (and difficult) actions for peace), and those that have just been finished for the Audiéncia Pública project, where teenagers from Barcelona reflect on a topic and make proposals to the city council on how to better address it. Refugees will be the focus of the 20th edition, an area that Cécile Barbeito knows well. She explains that there are now 63 million refugees in the world, whereas there were only 40 million five years ago. Of the top ten host countries, none are European: Turkey tops the list with 2.5 million. In terms of the number of internally displaced persons, there is only one European country on the top 10 list: Ukraine, with 800,000 displaced persons and 175,000 applications for asylum in Europe.

Handling refugees

With 737 people, the Ukrainian refugee community is the largest in Barcelona, explains Gloria Redón, coordinator of the Service Centre for Immigrants, Emigrants and Refugees (SAIER), an agency of Barcelona City Council that is run by various entities and was created in 1989 to initially support people escaping the dictatorships in Latin America. She emphasises that the Spanish state has exclusive jurisdiction to deal with refugees, and that it handles them through NGOs.

SAIER is important because it provides reassurance. The people who arrive have had to pay money to mafias and have made a very long journey, so they are very much afraid of being deported. In addition, the process to apply for asylum is very complicated and can take up to two years. There are applications from nationals of more than 50 countries, such as Pakistan, Venezuela, Afghanistan and Honduras, and they also cover legal immigrants when applications are refused. Some groups consider that street vendors should receive aid, as many come from Africa, the continent with the most wars and refugees in the world (Congo, Eritrea, Sudan, etc.). However, city councils have an important role in this crisis, and a local network is being promoted that five families are already benefiting from.

With a voice in Europe

Ignasi Calbó, director of the Barcelona, Refuge City Plan, explains that the aim is to go beyond the temporary reception plan. At the moment, they are encountering many complications in the state’s management of resources and information, but even so Barcelona has found a space in which it can represent itself at international level: it currently forms part of the European Commission’s working table on refugees. Barcelona is a prestigious interlocutor in international forums, and it is the only city that is not a national capital to hold exchanges and debates with the mayors of Berlin, Helsinki, Athens and Amsterdam, with representatives from the governments of Italy, Greece and Portugal and with civil society organisations and various European bodies.

Calbó recognises the difficulty in receiving refugees; it requires know-how that states do not have or do not understand, like Spain, which makes NGOs compete for resources and reserves the right to do whatever it wants without having the ability.

Barcelona also forms part of Eurocities, a network of European cities. For the director of the Barcelona, Refuge City Plan, the role of municipalism is key because we are facing an urban crisis; cities are the ones that have people sleeping on the streets, and thus a solution from city councils is also needed.

Òscar Camps, director of ProActiva Open Arms, decided to buy two tickets to Lesbos and set about saving lives. When he arrived, there were only photojournalists and volunteers. They all had the same determination. It was September 2015 and thousands of refugees were arriving at the beaches every day. It was a true humanitarian emergency.

When we were writing these lines it was aboard the Astral, in the Strait of Sicily, a crowded enclave – 70,000 people had entered since 1 January, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). We hear the voice on the public radio: those arriving by sea are fleeing the violence and war in Nigeria, Eritrea, Gambia, the Ivory Coast…

It is civil society in action faced with the biggest European humanitarian crisis since the Second World War. It is one of the first crises fully managed by civil society. Individual conscience has gone where governments have not wanted to act, and it is multiplied and multiplies.

Civil society at the forefront

With the campaign “Sarajevo depèn de tu” (“Sarajevo depends on you”), Barcelona received over 2,000 people who were escaping war, an idea that came from the bottom up, when Pasqual Maragall was mayor. A truce in the siege of Sarajevo was called in the midst of the Olympic Games, and Barcelona gave a supportive response. One of the people who experienced it first-hand was Manel Vila, current Managing Director of the Catalan Agency for Development Cooperation (ACCD), then manager of Districte 11.

With over 20 years’ experience in the world of cooperation, Vila remembers a statement from George Bush at Camp David: what’s happening in Barcelona with the Iraq war?

There has been a very strong network of associations in Barcelona that has reacted to large-scale international crises. It should not come as a surprise that Catalonia has a law to promote peace or that there is an International Catalan Institute for Peace. It all has roots in the past. Civil society is at the cutting edge, it is what drives governments and has offered responses for acting in Greece, Bosnia, Colombia, the Sahara and Lebanon. In the latter country, the government, together with the city council, coordinates an action plan between the Catalan entities there and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) to better manage support for refugees – 1.5 million of them. It is the country with the highest ratio per inhabitant in the world. All these actions have to do with this culture of peace forged over centuries, and positions Barcelona as a benchmark so that future peace summits, in addition to Vienna or Oslo, can also take place in the Catalan capital.