June's floods took the village of Clonakilty by surprise. Two inches of rain fell in just a few hours, pushing a flood of water through the main streets of the town. The cost of repair is estimated at more than €10m. A relief fund has been set up to help the residents cope.
Homes and businesses in the town were washed out, with property damaged and inventory destroyed. In the days that followed the floods, as the water receded, everyone needed help to restore the town. Help came from an unlikely source.
In this column on April 3, I wrote about the Clonakilty Favour Exchange. The favour exchange works as a sort of directory, helping to connect people who will do things for one another, and have those activities credited through a time bank. Essentially you just register your name, describe your skills, and then people who want those skills contact you.
I give you an economics grind for an hour; you clean my gutters for an hour, that sort of thing. Members can also bank time from a series of favours and recoup that time from others. The exchange stores who is in credit, and who is in debit, at any time.
It is a potentially important idea: you could meet people's needs through the service and build up goodwill in the community as a positive spillover.
As I wrote in the article on April 3: "The favour exchange in Clonakilty also creates a valuable positive spillover, as it connects two perhaps previously unconnected neighbours, strengthening the social fabric of the community."
Since April, the exchange has expanded, with lifts being a very common favour, as well as a book exchange and more members, each of them with a range of skills and favours to offer.
Then the floods came, and the nice idea became a crucial resource to help locals respond to the crisis. The speed of the flooding took everyone by surprise, so no defences were in place. This increased the damage, and the requirements to restore normality.
The organisers of the favour exchange set up www.clonflood.com, on the same model as www.clonfavour.com, with the same exchange system in operation. The flood exchange is now hosting offers of help and requests for help to deal with the crisis. The system is the same; only this time the focus is on repair, carpentry, plumbing, drainage, and the like. Offers of help include providing temporary accommodation, cleaning, free storage space, vans for transport, counseling, and more. No one is being paid; people just want to help. This is Irish community organising at its best. The social fabric of the community I wrote about on April 3 is very much on display.
What the people of Clonakilty have created is a bank that really helps people. Imagine if we had more of these across Ireland, and not just for emergencies.
The form of the favour exchange is malleable enough to meet a range of needs. Experimentation with the idea of favour exchanges and time banks will give us vital information on what aids local development, and what doesn't.
The theory of social capital as developed by Partha Dasgupta of the University of Cambridge and others suggests that an individual's wellbeing is enhanced through building up social cohesion and personal investment in their community.
You build up social capital by increasing the trust you have in others, and they have in you. Some institution has to exist to allow people to build up this trust, however. When people can build up a store of this capital, and have some means to spend it, the benefits can be enormous -- as Clonakilty is discovering.
Rather than simply being a local Golden Pages for favours, really the exchange is an engine for increasing and exchanging mutual empathy. Once the crisis has passed, and people return to their normal lives, the goodwill built up does not dissipate -- at least not entirely.
Where to go from here? The favour exchange model works, and works well, not because it is particularly innovative -- essentially it takes advantage of a pool of people who are willing to help one another anyway -- but because the exchange allows a means to connect these people together. What the exchange does is help form a real-world social network, instead of one just on Facebook. And this network, like all networks, can change, react, and adapt when things go wrong.
The people of Clonakilty have a lot of work to do to restore the walls, roads and bridges of their town. With the help they are giving themselves through the clonflood.com site, and with adequate state support, they can move that restoration on much more quickly. They've shown us that social capital can be saved up and invested if the right bank exists. We should follow their lead.