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From our archives: Bartering for Betterment

Barter for Better Fiji celebrates its one year anniversary today. The group has 193,300 members and is still hosting trades. In December 2020 we profiled Marlene Dutta as part of our 2020 People of the Year series. We’re publishing a lightly edited version of that article in full again today.

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Marlene Dutta is the brains, and the heart, behind Barter for Better Fiji. She is also our Pacific Community Champion for 2020. 

Early this year (2020), as borders closed in response to the pandemic and Fiji’s tourism industry came to an abrupt halt, Marlene Dutta started asking herself, “what do you do when there is no more cash?” At the same time, she said she felt she was becoming a “horrible person.” 

“I was just angry all the time. Everywhere I went, I felt no one was taking coronavirus seriously, there was little to no social distancing wherever you went…and I knew something had to give, something had to change.”

Dutta turned to social media, and specifically ‘kindness pandemic’ pages which offered positive messages and stories in response to COVID-19.

Meanwhile, looking for solutions to what was clearly an impending economic crisis, Dutta started to study barter—both the historical experience of barter around the globe as a response to crisis—and how it might be modernised.

She thought it could be an easy sell for Fijians. “People here understand barter, they claim it as part of their tradition, so there is that ownership of the concept. It is something we have continually done in smaller spaces and smaller circles. So for those reasons I felt it might be something worthwhile. I had no idea it would mushroom out to what it became but I just felt like it hit a few spots that people would resonate with.”

More than six months after it launched on April 21, the Barter for Better Fiji Facebook page had over 190,000 members and by a conservative estimate, more than 30,000 successful trades. Traders range from government ministers to subsistence farmers and the page has spawned a range of more localised pages, and micro and small enterprises. 

Before launching, Dutta tested her idea with a trusted group of friends, two of whom quickly came on to help, particularly as she started as a casual Facebook user, unaware of the many features and functions the platform provides.

“I remember having a conversation and I was told, just start and you will learn. If you wait until everything is in order you will never start it, so just do it and you will learn along the way, you’ll teach yourself. That was the plan, but having 2000 member in two days meant there was a huge, steep learning curve. Luckily people were encouraging right from the first go, and a lot of them were giving me pointers, telling me what I should do to moderate and how I could do it better, and that’s how I learnt…but the taking it slow and learning to train myself, that went out of the window very fast,” she said with a big laugh.

The page grew to close to 20,000 members in seven days and that is when another two friends came on board to help. Dutta drafted some moderation guidelines which they discussed, and which were underpinned by principles of kindness.

“The majority of people liked the space, they actually liked having a space where swearing wasn’t allowed, where you couldn’t run anyone down, where you couldn’t name and shame, and just kept comments positive, you couldn’t make fun of people, and it was refreshing for a lot of people, especially for our women and our older members, you could see that coming along strongly.”

The team also had to learn about and respond to local laws such as biosecurity regulations and restrictions on the trade of Walesi (TV set top boxes), as well as comply with Facebook’s global conditions of use relating to the age of users and trade in animals.

“For our farming communities and other people, that’s what they have, whether its chickens or ducks or pigs or goats or cows. Facebook has a blanket statement that you can’t trade or sell live animals and that is to protect the endangered [species]. You understand the reasoning, but it didn’t quite fit for us. So that was really really hard.”

Dutta said positive messaging—especially if posts had to be removed—has been very important. The moderators try to provide other options or contacts if they have to remove a post that falls foul of local laws or Facebook conditions. 

Barter for Better Fiji encourages debate if it is respectful. Fiji’s social media spaces can be poisonous; a place where a small number of people display hateful, vicious behaviour. Dutta said dealing with the online trolls has been mentally and emotionally draining, but “we knew that we had to be on top of it.” 

“It was incredible, we could see the patterns, who gets attacked and then how to respond to that. So by far, Indo-Fijian females got the most attacks, by everybody, if any of them put up something that was deemed  ‘unworthy’, boy they got slammed , followed by Indo-Fijian males, followed by Fijian women. And then Fijian men just let each other do whatever each other wanted. So in that order, we could see it. So we had to ensure that we were taking note of what was happening and how to best speak to that. 

“And I keep reminding the other admin people, this is a just a cross section of society because whatever is happening there, will happen here. And that’s just a fact of life, so all we can do is encourage [kindness], and it has reduced, it really has.

“That’s why we keep going back to one statement. At this time when you have nothing, when other people have nothing, the one thing everyone has to give is kindness. It doesn’t cost anybody anything and it just lifts everybody’s spirit and other people run with that, they take it off the page.”

The biggest lesson

On May 27, the United Nations Development Programme in the Pacific announced  Barter for Better for Fiji as one of the successful initiatives in its Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge. Individuals, organisations, community groups, private sector companies and associations, research and academic institutions had been invited to pitch their ideas and innovations in response to COVID-19, with the opportunity to receive US$10,000 to support and scale their ideas.

For Barter for Better Fiji, it was an opportunity to work with local communications company, Greenhouse Studio, to build a website. Dutta said they were excited by the possibilities a website could provide in terms of back-engine management and analytics, to offer options for people who were not on (and had no intention of joining) Facebook,  as well as the possibility of making trading more inclusive, for example, for blind users. 

However their success made them a target.  “One of Fiji’s prolific trollers started attacking us online, [asking] why we got the grant, how we got the grant and so in his head we failed on many different criteria, the first one being we were not an organisation, we were not formal, we were just an ad hoc group of people with a Facebook page so how could we have gotten this grant? And it started off with just that and then it spiralled into so many other things. Why do we need $10K USD when you can build a website for $300 now and all of this.”

While the Barter for Better Fiji moderators dealt with what they say were increasingly personal attacks on their gender, ethnicity and sexuality,  it was the lack of response from the UNDP office in Suva says Dutta, that was really disheartening.

Barter for Better Fiji asked UNDP to publicly clarify its position as the attacks escalated online, but said in response it received a one-line email, “is it possible for you to register?”

“For us, what he [their troller] was doing was irrelevant. It was how they were responding that just really left a bad taste in our mouth,” Dutta  said. “Zero, zero, zero responses to us.”

Eventually Barter for Better Fiji withdrew from the UNDP fund.

“We wrote to UN, stated the reasons why; lack of care, lack of response, all of these types of things, two weeks later they responded to say we accept your withdrawal. That was it. Just one line. That was it, case closed.” 

In response to a request for comment on the matter, UNDP told Islands Business: “Barter for Better was selected by UNDP as one of the winners of the COVID-19 Pacific Response: Sustainable Livelihoods Challenge in May. We realised there was an issue in finalising the process, and while we were engaged in seeking a solution to this, Barter for Better Fiji decided to withdraw from the Challenge. We appreciate and acknowledge the great work that BBF is doing to support communities and households [to] cope with the impacts of the COVID-19 crisis. We thank them for their participation, and wish them well in their endeavours.” 

“It has probably been our biggest lesson,” Dutta said. 

Many other organisations have wanted to partner with Barter for Better Fiji, both locally and overseas, and the UNDP experience has made the group’s due diligence process even more rigorous. Dutta intends to poll members on potential future models, although posts testing the waters in this discussion show a strong preference from members to keep things as they are.

“We could still move to a website, it would make management of it a lot simpler because you wouldn’t need this heavy monitoring, but of course the downsides are too high. We’d lose the sense of community…you’d lose the talanoa, you’d lose all the people who are trading one thing but write 300 or 400 words around the trade, which people like. 

“The other thing we’ve heard is that they come to our group for that mental health check, a feel good factor, and so being efficient in a really clinical way, we’d lose that and for me that is just as important as trading.”

Bartering into the future

Dutta says moderators are seeing a change in the types of trades as Fiji’s borders, and its tourism industry, remain closed.

“What we’ve really noticed is that it has really come down to serve its purpose now, where you can see the desperation in the trades, you can see people are actively looking around their house for something they can try and give to get something. Another thing is that it has given people a bit more confidence as well in terms of listing what they want specifically. Before they were happy to accept whatever came across but now the needs are specific, so it’s ‘we need three tinned fish  or two packets of milk or this size diapers.’”

Localised barter pages have also proliferated, while others have morphed into buy and sell pages. A number of pages have been established in other Pacific islands including Vanuatu, PNG and Samoa, often by the Fiji diaspora in those communities. 

Dutta says an unexpected, but heart-warming development has been the way traders have turned their talents into small and micro businesses. 

“A lot of people have actually started businesses after initially bartering. And it’s part of the confidence I think. So the bakers, the piemakers and the donut makers, because they were so popular on it, and it gave them the confidence to know, ‘hey, actually my product is good, maybe I can start selling,’” she said.

“We’ve also got these really good electricians and plumbers and stuff who operated on their own, all of a sudden their customer base has  just exploded and if they are good and they get good reviews, people request them…they become paying clients.”

Dutta still sees room for improvement. She would like to see more use of vernacular languages—iTaukei and Hindi—to educate, advocate and teach on the page. She is still keen to explore other ways the platform can be more inclusive. 

“I keep telling people we are still in infancy stage, we’re only seven months out. So I am still info gathering to see how we can refine and improve.”

And what has she learnt about herself?  

“Patience” she says, before I even finish asking that question. 

“There are certain times where I’ve had to teach myself no, don’t respond yet. Go, come back, look at it in half an hour, an hour, when you’re in a different frame of mind or something, then respond or find the right words. 

“It’s been the patience and intentional use of words, what words lift up and what words cut down, and using the words that lift up. And focussing on the issue rather than the people behind the issue. Those simple things, that’s not just for me that’s for all of us.”

Dutta has been backed by a close-knit team from the start—Veena Singh,  Tavai Bale, Lisa Savu , Talei Tora and Liku Raduva—and she is quick to acknowledge her fellow volunteers. But it is ultimately her vision,  one she has sustained through personal attacks and the mental and emotional exhaustion that has wrought, despite disappointment in partners, and in the face of endless unpaid hours moderating the page. Barter for Better Fiji has created unexpected benefits beyond meeting a need to trade in the face of job losses including the building of new relationships, the birth of new micro businesses, and a master class in how to manage online communities in Fiji. But perhaps most important of these benefits is the power of kindness and generosity at the hardest of times. 

It is for all these reasons that Marlene Dutta is our Pacific Community champion of 2020.     

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