Informal economies offer new insight into prosperity

Better than anything you can get in the shops. And it’s free. mikecogh

Oxfam released a highly critical report last week warning that austerity measures in the UK are having a damaging effect on welfare.

Despite the recent hurrah for Chancellor George Osborne over signs of economic growth, this has come at the cost of living standards and well-being. Drawing on research conducted by the International Monetary Fund Oxfam suggest that the number of people in poverty is increasing and looks set to rise over the next decade. Given this insight, and many others like it, why do we still revere aggregate level economic growth statistics as some kind of welfare-o-meter?

Gross domestic product, gross national product, interest rates and other high-level indicators all provide a useful insight into national monetary policy but they are often used to obscure the single most important aspect of our economic lives: prosperity.

While we continue to use these outdated measures to reflect on our economic progress, the informal economy is growing. The unregulated and often non-financial means through which we provide and furnish ourselves and our families go unnoticed in the corridors of power but are becoming an increasingly important part of our lives.

When we give, share, lend, borrow, take or even steal, we often do so in the absence of calculated, quid pro quo reasoning which characterises monetary transactions. We regularly act through intrinsic motivation rather than always relying on a need of reciprocity to persuade us in our economic relations. Many people are turning away from the market and taking their economic lives into their own hands by finding alternative means of subsistence. More and more these alternatives are being mediated via the Internet. Deep in the heart of the unregulated, informal, digital wilderness there are services that encourage people to give and share.

Subcultures are forming. People are making plans online to meet in the real world in order to give away or share belongings, homes, and time. They range from the extraordinarily popular recycling websites such as Freecycle and Freegle to smaller examples like Streetbank, through which neighbours can lend each other a lawnmower or give away an old sofa. They are helping millions of people find accommodation and social space through sites like Couchsurfing, while sites like Landshare help people with spare garden space find others that want to grow their own food. This is particularly interesting given that recent research has suggested food banks are being inundated with requests.

With the help of the internet, the gift has permeated almost all spheres of economic life, from the seemingly trivial growing of fruit and veg, to acquiring furniture, and even to tourism. The altruistic syndicalism found in so many digital communities such as Wikipedia, Linux and many other open source projects is being emulated offline.

The diversity of these services is enormous, but the value they generate for the economy is simply not understood properly because they privilege access over ownership. Technology is helping all sorts of people to provide economic alternatives instead of spending. This is surely something to be celebrated, but if we persist in looking at success only through the lens of economic growth then we will be blind to this value.

It would be short-sighted to assume that people are increasingly turning to these sites as a direct result of financial hardship in the face of austerity policies, but many of us have certainly been forced to re-evaluate what is important in our consumption habits.

People use these services for many reasons. Some seek them out when they hit hard times, others are concerned about the environment. What links most users, however, is the desire to consume and find social meaning without relying on money.

We need to be more mindful about the real economic value that these sites bring to people that is not captured by traditional measures such as GDP. The transactions are not quantified in monetary terms but they are economically and socially significant. As people turn away from the market through choice, or indeed lack of choice, greater attention needs to be given to the transactions that are not counted but count enormously to the well-being of millions across the UK.

Our current economic policies are premised upon the flawed assumption of an insatiable human need for ownership. At a time when politicians from all sides are being chastised for the bland uniformity of their approaches, now is an opportune moment to break with the antiquated, myopic conception of prosperity as simply economic growth and recognise the significance of the informal means through which we flourish.