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Interview with Professor Edgar Cahn

12 April 2012

The legendary Dr. Edgar S. Cahn came to North Wales to speak at the Communities Can Conference on 2 May 2012 (click here for more information on the conference). 

Widely known as the father of timebanking, he visited the UK at a time of widening social inequalities and deep public spending cuts. At the same time, it is now widely recognised that the long-term well-being of our communities depends not simply on government policies but on the strengths of their social networks, on well-functioning family structures and on economic self-sufficiency. How can we develop these key features in practice?

Dr. Edgar Cahn is the author of No More Throw Away People: The Co-Production Imperative, Time Dollars (co-author Jonathan Rowe, Rodale Press, 1992), Our Brother’s Keeper: The Indian in White America (1972) and Hunger USA. He is also a fellow of the new economics foundation (nef) and a visiting fellow of the London School of Economics.

We are delighted that Dr. Cahn has given the following interview to Governance International, in which he discusses his views on user and community co-production of public services.


Edgar Cahn and Chris Gray, Chief Executive TimeBanks USA.
Elke Loeffler and Frankie Hine-Hughes with Edgar Cahn at the Communities Can conference.

Interview questions

We all know the saying “Do not waste a good crisis”. Is the current economic crisis in the US and UK a good time for mainstreaming co-production in public services?

If the availability of money is allowed to define the range of the possible, then these are dire times. Because co-production expands the range of possibility, there is a new readiness to see if and what it can deliver. There are key learnings that are part of co-production. My focus has been the contribution of a different medium of exchange to reifying value, the ecological significance of the core economy, and the need to reframe initiatives as partnerships between the monetary economy and the core economy.

Circumstances enhance the significance of those ideas. But it is important also to realize the obstacles. Co-production comes with costs - so it will require risk takers. And co-production entails system change - and that will take patience and staying power. The pay-off can be major, both quantitative and qualitative - but it can take time.

What are the biggest successes co-production initiatives have achieved in the US since you founded Time Dollars in the 1980s?

I don't equate co-production with TimeBanking. Habitat for Humanity exemplifies co-production as much as TimeBanking. Both transform passive roles to active ones, consumers into co-producers. A partial list of specific successes all confirm the same principle: there are no 'Throw Away People'. Illustrations would include:

a.    cross-age peer tutoring of first and second graders by fifth and sixth graders in Chicago public schools and elsewhere;

b.    the Youth Court in Washington DC where teenagers serving on a jury have handled  65% or more of non-violent crimes by other teenagers and reduced recidivism by over 50% - (click here to see what the project means for participants)

c.    the National Homecomers Academy where persons returning from prison are providing safe passage to youngsters crossing gang territorial boundaries going to school – (click here to watch a video about their work);

d.    Community Exchange in Allentown where Neighbor-to-Neighbor Teams enlist persons with chronic diseases as integral parts of a  health promotion and hospital discharge system;

e.    Visiting Nurse Service of New York bring together thousands of members, 70% of whom were born outside the United States, into a grass roots United Nations enabling staff to communicate with patients and understand cultural and religious traditions;

f.    the Parent Support Network of Rhode Island where parents of children who are bipolar, schizophrenic, or are affected by autism or severe emotional disability have used TimeBanking to form a kind of extended family that has kept their kids from being institutionalised.

g.    ...and the list goes on and on.

What remain the biggest obstacles?


  1. The tendency for caring human service professionals and officials to define the people they are trying to help exclusively in terms of their problems without recognizing or enlisting their vast talents and capacities.
  2. The lack of rigorous studies needed to make a compelling case.
  3. The absence (until very recently) of user-friendly software that would facilitate transactions.
  4. The lack of a secure funding base for the infrastructure needed to enable TimeBanks to generate co-production on a sustained scale.
  5. And, of course, the tendency to fall back on thinking in monetary terms as a default response.

Co-production and time banking may be seen as risky by public service managers – what would you say to them to assuage their fears?

I would ask:

  • Do you have an alternative strategy for addressing growing need with declining resources?
  • Do you have a strategy that can offset the growing disparity in well-being and opportunity?
  • Do you have a strategy that can create a constituency committed to social justice?

I would welcome public service managers as colleagues equally committed to finding answers to shared questions.

Do you have any evidence that time-banking has helped to reduce social exclusion and integrate disadvantaged people back into society and the labour market?

TimeBanking has consistently bridged divides of age, gender, national origin, ethnicity, language. In Oakland, it reduced violence between African Americans and Hispanics; in the Youth Court, members of rival gangs sit on the same jury and if a youth doing community service explains to a gang why he is in gang territory, he is left alone unharmed; in New York, the Visiting Nurse Service has brought together thousands of TimeBank members from different ethnic backgrounds. There is no doubt that TimeBanking communicates a message of respect, reciprocity and equality that reduces social exclusion. It also provides the soft skills, the recorded track record, the networks, and the informal support needed to create pathways into market employment.

What do you think is needed most to make people more healthy and to fight obesity in both the US and the UK? Does co-production have any answers?

Losing weight is hard, particularly when eating the foods that cause weight gain gives pleasure. We need to make a healthy lifestyle fun and we need to make it something we are trying to do for others because we will often make an effort to improve the health and well-being of others while ignoring or failing to make an effort to do the same for ourselves. Cooking contests, joint exercise programs, ‘potlucks’ (gatherings where each person brings a dish of food) with healthy food are used by some TimeBank programs. TimeBanking can be used to conduct classes in healthy life styles if combined with outreach projects. TimeBanking supplies the kind of informal support and acceptance needed to change life styles that are destructive. We have seen the power of such relationships in ‘twelve step’ programs. TimeBanking provides a similar mutuality and acceptance.

In the UK the non-profit organisation User Voice gives prisoners self-esteem and a sense of personal responsibility through prison councils. This not only improves rehabilitation of the prisoners but the prisons also need fewer staff to look after prisoners, creating a win-win for both. Do similar models exist in the US?

We in the United States have a lot to learn from the UK in terms of prisons. I saw that in Scotland where TimeBanking was in use in a maximum security prison. It was awesome. I don't know of corresponding efforts within prisons - except for prison newspapers. My own work has been helping to establish the National Homecomers Academy for persons coming out of prison. They want to define themselves as students on a journey of learning and service; they have created their own Mind Body Spirit curriculum and use Time Credits to log in hours of community service. Specific projects include complete make-overs of substandard housing and providing safe passage for youths going to school and crossing gang territories.

Changing demographics and continued budget pressures mean that we have to think of new ways of dealing with elderly people. What is your vision of the ageing society?

I am now 77; at 44, I had a heart attack that destroyed 60% of my heart. That was when I began developing TimeBanking. It is my belief that those who are aging represent one of the greatest sources of citizen capacity, wisdom and energy that we have ever had. Lifelong learning is critical. We need new institutions and new vehicles whereby we can prepare for the last third or quarter of our lives just as we went to school to prepare for the middle third. And we need to retro-fit all human service and public institutions to tap the renewable energy of community and the untapped energy of those who have aged out of the market's work force. Above all, we need to find purpose. TimeBanking has supplied that for me - in a literally life-giving way - so that now the latest eco-cardiograms reveal my heart is 85% healed.

It is often said that Time Banks are a good idea but very difficult to organise and to design so that they reach their target group. In particular, how do we prevent Time Banks from being based around a community of individuals with the same skills – preventing it from becoming an exchange of jam makers or babysitters?

An obvious answer: link the two TimeBanks; then they can exchange jam for babysitting! But more seriously, TimeBanks are organized around two kinds of community: community of place and community of mission. Many are hybrids. They tap two kinds of energy: a desire to avoid social isolation and generate connectedness; and a desire to advance social justice and address intolerable disparities.

What I see re-emerging is the ability to dream, to believe that one can make a difference that one can set in motion forces that can transform. TimeBanking helps to rekindle that belief - and that is more important than hours logged or even, good deeds done.

Governance International
is grateful to Dr. Edgar S. Cahn for this interview.

Further Resources

Click here to find out more about co-production.

Click here to learn more about timebanking.

Click here to discover how timebanking has been used in Sandwell to improve the health and well-being of 'time rich and cash poor' individuals.

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