Head, Heart and Hands – putting community-based economy into practice at Ajudada!

Everything has a price it seems, but do we know the true price of things

It’s time to rethink the value of things!


Ajudada programme and cork badge

The core of Ajudada, a 3-day international transition gathering in Portalegre, Portugal (not Porto Alegre in Brazil), was to imagine a new economic model based on the core values of community-based life, namely giving and sharing – the key ingredients of a prosperous society. Bringing economy back to its origin, as in the Greek word Eikos for house, economy thus meaning: managing our common home. A philosophy also shared by Brigit and Patrick Baronnet from La Maison Autonome, which I visited last year in France. The Portuguese word Ajudada, which comes from ajudar, to help, refers to an old common practice in many rural areas in Portugal, in which members of all ages join forces to help each other in the fields. The idea was to explore the potential of these forms of community building in modern times. Fortunately, the concept of community with giving & sharing is still alive in Portugal.

Ajudada was inspired by the concept of the gift economy, in which people give and receive and share resources and skills within a community. An economy, where people are not separate(d), as in the current market economy, where goods and services are exchanged for money, but where people are part of and connected to eco-systems and to others. The event was supported by well-known International promoters of the concept of gift economy, such as Charles Eisenstein, author of ‘Sacred Economics’, and Mark Boyle with ‘The Moneyless Man, but also by representatives of (inter)national organisations, such as  Schumacher College and the Transition Network, promoting meaningful transformation of their communities, as well as a range of local and regional authorities, working together to make Ajudada a platform capable of triggering positive action for the future.

Why in Portalegre?



Portalegre, some 200 km north-east of Lisbon in the nature park Serra de São Mamede, was chosen on purpose for this happening, instead of a big city such as Lisbon. This provincial town of around 20.000 inhabitants used to have a strong industry in textile, cork, tapestry, etc. However, the severe economic crisis hitting Portugal didn’t miss its effect here either. New ways of valuing the community was seen as an opportunity to start reversing the current isolation and despair this region is facing.

Ajudada sparked, in the early preparations, contributions from many local people, including local government and business. The main organisational work of the event has being done by the local community, backed up by a team of Portuguese and international supporters. As a participant and wearing the handmade cork badge, I noticed that people in cafés (the event was good for local business as well) were well informed about Ajudada. Furthermore, many local volunteers helped out during the 3-day event.

How was Ajudada different?

Ajudada definitely was not the classical conference, just among the in-crowd of the participants, cut off from the surrounding world! Participants and local people were involved and met, and many activities took place in the outdoor public space.The ‘gift ideas’ were put into practice along all lines of the event. It was organised almost without any money (apart from some basic materials), but with the help, ideas and gifts in kind from many people, the local city council, business, and also from participants. It was a free event. There was a free bus service made available from Lisbon to Portalegre. Everybody had a place to sleep, hosted by people from the local community, and we had plenty of excellent fresh and local food throughout these three days!

street of Portalegre

street in Portalegre

I stayed with about 20 other participants in a beautiful old hostel, owned by a young couple that was still preparing it for the official opening. We had the première! The hospitality of Portuguese was shown in the details. When we returned from a long and inspirational first day there was a cake waiting for us on the kitchen table, home-made by the family hosting us!


The event took place at many different locations, indoor and outdoor, in Portalegre, from schools, art centers, associations, municipality buildings, to a public canteen in a small shopping area. This gave the participants insights in the town and created synergy with the local community.

volunteer input

volunteer help schedule


Many volunteers were involved during the event, and also participants could help out. Behind the scenes a lot of work had been done to prepare everything. And although working with so many volunteers is never easy, things went very smoothly, even when last minute changes were needed. It was very relaxed. 

Juan explaining the 'nests'

Juan explaining the ‘nests’



The structure of the event was developed along three lines of our human capacities:

1.      Day 1 – Head: with mainly plenary sessions on thinking about gift economy and group work.

2.      Day 2 – Heart: with an enormous variety of workshops, discussions, film, art, etc.

3.      Day 3 Hands: a full day of outdoor creative activities for the new Ajudada community house.

Butterfly painting by Nicola

Butterfly painting by Nicola


This enormous variety in the programme not only provided for enriching input and exchange, it also guaranteed that there never was a dull moment!

animated fish bowl conversation

animated fish bowl conversation

Furthermore, the event was built on a whole range of methodologies and approaches commonly used in transition movement and open space. I liked for instance the ‘fish bowl’ conversation in the afternoon of the first day. This is a method where 5 chairs are placed in a circle in the middle of a group of participants. The person that wants to share or ask something, sits in the circle and 3 others can join to start the conversation. One chair is still empty. Someone else from the ‘audience’ can then join in the circle, but it means one person has to step out again. This rotating system creates a lively and enriching debate, allowing for many people to get involved in the conversations.

The whole event, with about 400 participants from over 10 different countries, was bilingual, Portuguese – English, and in all workshops there were people to translate and make sure everybody could follow. Particularly, our two main hosts, Filipa and Annelieke did a wonderful job constantly interpreting the plenary sessions. Nobody had to feel left out!

A snapshot of three heartwarming gift days

Day 1 – Head

Opening of Ajudada by Filipa and Annelieke

Opening of Ajudada by Filipa and Annelieke

The opening took place under the warm morning sun in the town square in front of the Arts Centre of Portalegre. The hosts, Annelieke and Filipa explained us how Ajudada had started in the local community with about 160 people present. People expected that projects would be presented to them, which was not the case. It was a whole new experience, not being used to taking initiatives themselves. The Ajudada organisers came to listen what people wanted and what ideas they had. This then resulted in a whole variety of small initiatives and new projects, from a local organic market with local producers, exchange of seeds, city gardens and spontaneous planting sunflowers in public spaces, to a project ‘Bioenergia’ with local business. This learning process helped to build confidence, to become more tolerant to differences, and to better trust institutions. This was also a process of dealing with fear and the unknown: “What if it doesn’t work, and how can we celebrate diversity?!” The important learning curve was that, despite the ‘lack’ of money, there are so many other types of resources available in the community. This gave people the courage to do something! The planning for this Ajudada event was not seen as a one-off thing, but as a continuous process at catalyst for ongoing change.

kids project presentation

kids project presentation

The first ‘brain’ day (see full programme ) consisted mainly of presentations from a variety of local and Portuguese projects, which had emerged from this process. Furthermore, there was a panel conversation on how a gift economy can contribute to a resilient society, with key actors in the transition and gift economy thinking, such as: Charles Eisenstein, author of Sacred Economy, Anselm Jappe, philosopher and essayist, Gary Alexander, author of eGaia, and Ana Margarida Esteves, scholar-activist in social movements.  

In the afternoon there also was a presentation of a project done with children. On stage they were asked what children have, that adults don’t. As could be expected, the answers were quite refreshing: “Adult are always worried about work. Children bring creativity and imagination. Children bring love and friendships to adults, that they so much need!” And later on the fish bowl conversation, in two (language) groups, took place at a secondary school – we even used their wonderful sports pitch.

conversations on a sports pitch

conversations on the sports pitch

Day 2 – Heart

This was the day with a huge variety of workshops and art presentations, to touch our hearts. It was very hard to choose and one can only do so much! I was lucky to have participated in two very interesting projects.

The Oasis game

Oasis game: Imagine ...

Oasis game: Imagine …

Yes, as Cycloasis I was immediately attracted to this workshop.Oasis is a game developed in Brazil and is used to mobilise communities to make their collective dreams, the oases, come true. It is a practical, creative and open source tool to effect social change through meaningful relationships in the community and connecting to the heart of people. The game has already been used in many cities in Brazil, but also in Lisbon, London, Barcelona, etc. and was presented by Andrea Marques.

This simple 7-step process over an 8 day period has shown to be very successful, also in deprived urban and rural areas. It is a collaborative, straightforward and playful approach focusing on discovering the talents of each person in the community and help the community realise its common dreams by connecting the talents, dreams and resources.

We did the game of discovering your talent in front of the group. We responded to following questions: what do you do/know well, what is your quality, your dream, your talent, a thing you would like to learn, and a remarkable moment in your life. So the focus is on what people are able to do, want to learn and wish to achieve. In other words, tapping into the talents of each person to build together a community they dream of. So, very much Cycloasis as well!

Museu da crise

workshop Museu da crise

workshop Museu da crise

The ‘crisis museum’ is a socially engaged international art project developed in 2011 by the Portuguese and Dutch artist, Daniel Paes Leão and Merel Willemsen. The idea started when visiting the Portuguese pavilion at the former World Exposition of 1998 in Lisbon, a building designed by the famous Portuguese architect Alvaro Siza Vieira. This beautiful building has long been empty since and decay has set in. The idea emerged to create a museum, a place where old things, not used anymore and obsolete are stored.  So,the idea is to put all crisis in it and make them belong to the past.

Portugal has already know more crisis in recent history and the two artists were interested to learn more about the domestic survival strategies and parallel economies very much present in contemporary Portuguese society and that always have helped people through crisis.

some ideas

some ideas

The idea emerged to interview Portuguese about these strategies and explores the viability of translating them into a larger, city-, nation- and worldwide scale by implementing them into the existing urban infrastructure, as a way to end the crisis once and for all. Right now the Museu da Crise does not have a physical location, being a conceptual place still very much present everywhere, as is the current crisis.

Day 3 – Hands

Change is all about putting ideas into action! On this splendid Sunday we all gathered under a 250 year old plane tree in the central park of the town to use …. our body! The Portalegre municipality had given a building to Ajudada (they received access this very weekend), so this project can continue its activities in its own multifunctional facility. This former shop had to be cleaned, renovated and decorated to host Ajudada and its people and future community activities and events. This was the chance for the participants to give something back for all the hospitality they had received from Portalegre!

We could use the multitude of our creativity and skills to make all kinds of things to decorate this newly acquired building. All sorts of recycled materials were available to us and several ‘workshop’ places were installed in this public park, where also local inhabitants strolled, played, watched us, enjoying this sunny day.

creativity at work

an Ajudada tree under construction

the new Ajudada building

the new Ajudada building

hands and talks and fun

hands, talks and fun

how to go about?

how to make the sofa stable?

a local sculptor making hands!

a local sculptor making hands!

knitting department

knitting department

There was something for everybody to let out all that creativity and spend a marvelous afternoon working, sharing, chatting, singing, eating, laughing, dancing, etc. etc. … together!  

Three cheers to Portalegre!

Three Cheers to Portalegre!

What a perfect way to celebrate and finish this wonderful event!

Further reading

An elaborate review on Ajudada written by Gary Alexander of Earth Connected

A publication on Ajudada by a Portuguese journalist in the Belgian Magazine MO (article only in Dutch!)

3 thoughts on “Head, Heart and Hands – putting community-based economy into practice at Ajudada!

  1. Pingback: As histórias sobre a AJUDADA continuam… | Palavras Soltas

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