New Internationalist

On the people’s account

Issue 392

A group of New Internationalist campaigners brainstorms a rainbow of options to make the business of banking more open, fair and relevant.

Ask questions:

Have you been down to your bank recently and asked the manager where your money goes once you hand it over the counter? You can read about one such encounter in Australia on page 18. Recent reports about the British high street banks allege that:

HSBC and Barclays have been funding aluminium plants in the pristine wilderness of Patagonia and controversial mega-dams in China and India respectively;

• Lloyds TSB have funded the Angolan Government for arms purchases; and

• NatWest together with HSBC, Barclays and Lloyds TSB have helped fund Asia Pulp and Paper, which has cleared over 280,000 hectares of Indonesian rainforest in the last 10 years.

Elsewhere, the Bank of New Zealand and Westpac have jointly won New Zealand’s prestigious Roger Award for the Worst Transnational Corporations in 2006 for ‘tax avoidance, profiteering, bullying of the Government and banking authorities, blatant attempts to lure Kiwis into debt and treatment of their workers’. Many of these practices also apply to the ANZ and ASB banking group operations in New Zealand, said the judges. In Canada, both the Royal Bank and the Bank of Nova Scotia have been accused of money laundering in the Caribbean.

So what is your bank funding – oil pipelines, nuclear energy, genetically modified agriculture, weapons of war? Imagine what would happen if thousands of customers went and asked about their bank’s investment policy. If you ask and don’t like the answers, then here are some ways to get more up-close-and-personal with your money…

Participate in decisions:

Banks usually have shareholders who get dividends, but rarely have enough shares to influence decision-making. Credit unions and co-ops offer much greater participation in the future direction of business, from membership through to opportunities to make decisions as a Director. Or, better still, start from scratch. Australia’s Bendigo Bank group supports communities wanting to own and operate their own bank in a way that both rewards local shareholders and ploughs profits back into building local enterprises and social infrastructure. www.bendigobank.com.au

Understand the policies:

Banks usually have unclear and ineffective lending policies. Some are breaking that mould. Triodos – which opened in The Netherlands in 1980 and now has branches in Britain and Belgium – has zero tolerance for companies that produce or distribute nuclear energy or environmentally hazardous chemicals. Companies in which fur products, gambling, pornography or tobacco provide more than five per cent of revenue, are strictly excluded from their investment list, as are those that follow unethical business processes, engage in animal testing or deal with genetically engineered products. www.triodos.com

The Co-operative Bank, based in Britain, markets itself as an ethical operator and performs a leadership role by supporting campaigns with NGOs – most recently ‘Combating Climate Change’ in partnership with Friends of the Earth. Read more at www.co-operativebank.co.uk

Reject products that discriminate against the poor:

Those who owe the most on credit cards are the least able to repay. Yet they are required to make repayments at interest far above the rates paid by those with sufficient security to take out a personal loan. Caps are needed on credit to keep interest rates in single digits. There are credit cards with single-digit interest rates – when you find one that suits you, don’t forget to tell your present credit card provider why you want to change.

Take control:

Suggesting to someone who’s in debt to cut up their credit card is pretty useless – it means that they won’t spend more on credit but they’ll still be saddled with (often large) debts. Those who wish to reduce the interest rates on their loans can obtain advice from community organizations that advocate for debtors (such as citizens’ advice bureaux or consumer credit legal services – the best ones can help to structure loan consolidations). Card debtors can also consider rotating their credit card debt through companies that offer new customers interest-free periods of between six and nine months – when the free period is over, move onto the next. You can read about the many ways to beat financial institutions at their own game at the Money Saving Expert website (www.moneysavingexpert.com) – although it’s British-based, many of its ideas can be applied around the world.

Act locally – shake convention:

For those wanting a more collective response, there is a brave new world of alternative banking that believes wealth is about more than just money. As a group, you might not get a 30-per-cent return on your investment, but you’ll be building community spirit and infrastructure.

Solari Investment Circles are local clubs that invest in their neighbours and neighbourhoods. In addition to pooling resources and developing local projects, these groups can also bring individual debtors into contact with neighbours who have money to invest and allow them to structure loans at less than commercial rates in a way that benefits both. Read more at www.solari.com

Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS). Groups of people (predominantly small business people) pool their talents and get rewarded for the services that they provide to other group members through a currency that can be traded for other services. The easy-to-follow LETS website – www.lets-linkup.com – contains details of 1,500 groups operating in 39 countries.

Think globally – rev up the resources:

The following organizations can keep you in contact with what banks are up to around the globe:

BankTrack – an international network of civil society organizations and individuals with a secretariat based in the Netherlands – has a revealing collection of research, publications and pictures about unethical projects that the banking sector supports, in addition to straightforward explanations of what banks do. tel: +31 30 233 4343; email: coord@banktrack.org; web: www.banktrack.org

Campaign Against Foreign Control of Aotearoa (CAFCA) – New Zealand-based international network of activists who lobby, campaign and network to expose and oppose all aspects of the galloping takeover of New Zealand/Aotearoa by transnational corporations. Their annual Roger Award – throwing the spotlight on the worst transnational practices in New Zealand – was this year won by banks. Read the illuminating report accompanying the award. web: http://canterbury.cyberplace.org.nz/community/CAFCA PO Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand; email: cafca@chch.planet.org.nz

Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives – an independent research organization concerned with issues of social and economic justice that reports on current macro and micro bank issues. tel: +1 613 563 1341; email: ccpa@policyalternatives.ca; web: www.policyalternatives.ca

Inner City Press/Community on the Move (ICP) – a non-profit community organization based in the Bronx, New York City, which reports and organizes around such issues as banking accountability, community reinvesting and fair access to credit. email: info@innercitypress.org; web: www.innercitypress.org

Netwerk Vlaanderen – promotes an environmentally and socially responsible approach to money. It is running the campaign ‘My Money. Clear Conscience?’ to encourage banks not to support human rights abusers. tel: +32 2 201 0770; email: info@netwerk-vlaanderen.be; web: www.netwerkvlaanderen.be/en/

Tax Justice Network – a non-aligned international coalition of researchers and activists with a shared concern about the harmful impacts of tax avoidance and tax havens facilitated internationally by banks. email: info@taxjustice.net; web: www.taxjustice.net

The NI campaigners brainstorm group consisted of: Oli Renton, James Clark, Paul Butland and James Robertson with Chris Richards.

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