Cheap international payments with Esperanto

by Philip Brewer on 6 December 2007 5 comments
Photo: Philip Brewer

For as long as there has been international trade, there has been a need to make international payments. To show up in person with gold or silver coins risked both your life and your wealth. Centuries ago--at least as far back as the early days of the silk road--this problem was solved with informal financial networks--networks that still serve the same functions today.

One array of such networks, with its roots in the Middle East, is called "hawala." If you wish to send some money to someone in another country, you can visit your local hawaladar and give him the sum in local currency. The local hawaladar contacts (by phone, fax, or email) another hawaladar who then delivers an equivalent sum to the recipient in his or her local currency. The hawaladars settle transactions between themselves in many different ways--netting out transactions going in the opposite direction, financing trade, and so on.

Hawala transactions are quite cheap--much cheaper than international transactions using banks, especially for small sums.

After the attacks of 9/11, there was considerable suspicion that hawala networks were used to finance terrorism. The resulting scrutiny failed to find much evidence of that (although considerable evidence that the networks were used to evade currency controls and to launder money).

The hawala system depends on trust rooted in personal, family, ethnic, and cultural ties between individual brokers and their customers. Because of that, they can operate even where legal systems are poorly developed or unstable.

Hawala systems operate today. But, because the basis of trust in the system springs from ethnic and cultural ties, they are less accessible to people who do not have the same cultural background. As it happens, though, there's a very similar system that depends not on ethnic ties, but rather on linguistic ones--the language of Esperanto.

Early on after the creation of Esperanto, there were various efforts to create a means for international payments--because one of the first things people want to do once they can communicate with one another is to trade with one another.

The big international Esperanto organization, the UEA (Universala Esperanto Asocio), automatically creates an account for each member. By sending money to their local or national Esperanto association, members can add money to their account. They can then transfer money to any other Esperantist in the world, simply by sending instructions (by letter or electronically) to the central office of the UEA. The account is maintained in euros, but payments can be made in any currency.

Your local or national Esperanto organization may charge a fee (or take a percentage) when you put the money into your account, but once it's there, payments between members are free.

The system is primarily used to buy books and magazines in Esperanto, to pay membership fees to Esperanto organizations, and to pay the costs of attending various Esperanto conferences, classes, and other events. But the system can be used to make payments for any purpose. You simply need to be a member of the UEA and be able to read and write Esperanto well enough to give the instructions and read the statements. (You can learn that much Esperanto in an hour.)

Details on personal accounts at UEA (in Esperanto)

Esperanto organizations in English-speaking countries

Great Britian:
New Zealand:
Canada (in English):
Canada (in French):

Learning Esperanto

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5 discussions

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Guest's picture

Unless I'm missing something, this seems like it'd be of extremely limited utility, since both sender and receiver need to be paying members of the organization. I use PayPal for international transactions. Pli facila.

Guest's picture

Ooh... I love learnu!

Philip Brewer's picture

Yes, it's really only useful within the community of Esperantists, although it could be stretched to serve beyond that, much as Hawala can be stretched to serve beyond its primary ethnic and cultural community.

There are plenty of solutions that work, each with its own limits. You mention Paypal, which makes you have an account as well, although just having an account is free. Western Union can send money almost anywhere very quickly and doesn't require an account (although it's not cheap--send money two or three times and you'd have payed for a membership in UEA). I just think the Esperanto solution is interesting, because of its parallel with Hawala.

Guest's picture

I can't receive money in my country with Paypal :P

There are lots of programmers in the Esperanto community...
They should make a more international Paypal alternative!

Guest's picture

this is very interesting to know the things that have some past history just like cheap international payments the people who are in touch with such work they can start training as ccna are available for technical persons.