In communities from India to Africa to Washington, D.C., doing something good for your community will now get you more than just good karma. Planting a tree, cleaning a river, tutoring a child, and cooking meals for the homeless could earn you credits that can be redeemed for education or low-interest loans. It’s part of a plan called Social Capital Credits, or SoCCs, a different kind of currency created by the nonprofit Asia Initiatives.
“I strongly believe that the world is in all kinds of crisis right now because we only focus on financial capital and we do not honor and leverage social capital,” says Geeta Mehta, founder and president of Asia Initiatives and a professor at Columbia University‘s Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation. Mehta says we can see this social capital in action when people come together after disasters like Katrina and even during the coronavirus pandemic: “Communities that have that social bond and social strength,” she says, “always come out better than communities where social bonds have been broken.” Yet social capital still isn’t as valued as money in everyday life.
Asia Initiatives has helped communities harness this social capital since 2014, holding Socratic dialogues with a community (though the nonprofit spells it “SoCCratic,” like SoCCs) to figure out what they need and what they’re willing to do for those needs, creating a local exchange rate between specific acts of good and local rewards.
“This is very different than the normal way of development organizations, [where] the expert sitting in New York or somewhere decides what needs to be done and then they go and give charity,” Mehta says. That can make local communities feel as if they don’t have control over anything; they’re just on the receiving end. SoCCs, on the other hand, create leadership and local capacity. “People know that if they do something good, they get something good.” Each community creates a “redeeming menu,” allocating SoCCs for laptops at community centers, school fees, digital or in-person literacy sessions, or low-interest loans for purchasing goats and other resources necessary to start a local businesses.
For the past year, Asia Initiatives has been working on SoCCs 2.0, which is the winner of the social justice category in Fast Company’s 2020 World Changing Ideas Awards. The second iteration builds on their social capital system by using an app and online platform to better track and encourage this kind of currency. Smartphones are becoming ubiquitous even in poorer areas, Mehta says—in India, smartphones are available for about $25—so there will at least be someone in a family or a community who can use the app.
Giving communities a different kind of currency can help balance gender and wealth inequalities. Mehta has seen in many Indian communities how women’s work was invisible before an SoCCs system was in place. Asia Initiatives would go into villages and ask people what they do. The men would say they were farmers, and the women would say they do nothing. But when they would talk about what filled their days, it became clear that they cooked meals for their families, fetched water, helped the kids with school, helped their husbands in the field. “There was a lot of good being done by women that was invisible, not just for their own families but for the communities,” she says. “The idea was to make social capital fungible and women’s work to be visible.”
With the app, someone can see their community’s “earning menu,” which outlines exactly what they need to do to earn SoCCs: tutor their peers, participate in community farming, plant trees, clean public areas. Once earned, the app keeps track of those SoCCs and how they can be redeemed for both community initiatives and individual advancement—vouchers for school supplies, chickens with which to start a poultry farming business, food grain, hygiene kits for girls and women, literacy classes, or a village fleet of bicycles, depending on the area. Those rewards are funded through donations, Asia Initiatives’ nonprofit fundraising, grants, and collaborations with other nonprofit partners; in 2016, for example, a grant from the PepsiCo Foundation funded an SoCC project in Ahmedabad, India, in which people earned SoCCs for waste management and sending school-aged children to classes for the first time, and redeemed them for groceries and home improvement materials.
In many situations where a husband may also control his wife’s finances, it’s even more empowering to have SoCCs, Mehta says, rather than simply earning their own money. If they did work that earned them money, it may eventually go to, say, their husband’s drinking habit, without benefiting the women at all, but SoCC credits, Mehta notes, can “only be used for a good thing.” Even if a household or community is sharing a phone, the app keeps track of how many SoCCs someone individually has. “We’ve seen a tremendous change in women’s own self-esteem and economic status,” she says. Plus, an entire community, not just those earning these SoCCs, can see the benefit, such as a clean river or a new well.
With the new app, Mehta says it will be even easier for a community to track this currency and encourage people to partake, rather than just designating one person to keep track of this exchange manually. That was how they did it in the beginning, but now Asia Initiatives serves more than 25,000 people a year through this program, and the projects and the numbers involved are too big to account for by hand. Asia Initiatives has plans to grow this program further, and is in talks with the New York City Housing Authority to develop an SoCCs project. “We would like it to spread to any country, anyplace where people like the idea of coming together,” Mehta says. “We hope this currency will empower people to come together for the thing they want to do.”