Alternative currencies are the future: why it matters for development

When I began to teach in 2012, I decided to start my course with an analysis of how money affects social order. What my students found particularly fascinating was the then-nascent world of cryptocurrencies, which I described at length as a crucial feature in the future of money.

Some colleagues criticised my approach. They accused me of indirectly encouraging students to invest in what they saw as a shady, crime-ridden financial underworld. But I was simply exposing young minds to a fast-evolving, complex phenomenon that in my view would have a major impact on power distribution in the global economy.

Behind most cryptocurrencies is a simple technology known as “blockchain”, a system residing in multiple computers that allows for peer-to-peer financial ledger recording of all transactions occurring in a network.

This results in a transparent open-access registry of monetary flows which makes the intermediation of banking authorities unnecessary. Thus it challenges the conventional belief that money can only work through central planning.

As I explain in my book, Wellbeing Economy: Success in a World Without Growth, money systems are undergoing an unprecedented transition from centralised authority to decentralised networks.

Conventional money is managed by states and banks, with users on the receiving end of monetary policy decisions. By contrast, most alternative currencies are peer-to-peer. That means they are managed by users themselves and do not require intermediaries. Some of them have global outreach thanks to digital technology, while others are locally based.

Take BitCoin, the most popular peer-to-peer currency in the world, with a market capitalisation above 40 billion US dollars. A person buying the equivalent of $1 in BitCoin in 2009 would now possess roughly $25 million. One BitCoin is currently equivalent in value to two ounces of gold. Other rising stars include Ethereum, Litecoin and Ripple.

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