The minuscule Caribbean currency has gone digital.
Eastern Caribbean countries have developed their own digital currencies in order to facilitate transactions and serve those without bank accounts.
The Eastern Caribbean Central Bank announced that its “DCash” cryptocurrency is the first of its kind to be adopted by any of the world’s currency unions, though some individual nations do have similar systems in place.
It became available in four island nations on Wednesday as part of a yearlong pilot program: St. Lucia, Grenada, Antigua and Barbuda, and St. Kitts and Nevis.
“It is a watershed moment in the history of monetary instruments,” Bitt CEO Brian Popelka said during an online press conference.
DCash was established in collaboration with the central bank of Barbados by Barbados-based fintech company Bitt. Unlike cryptocurrencies, it is issued by a central bank and has a fixed value linked to the current Eastern Caribbean dollar, which is commonly used in the country.
Users without bank accounts — but with a smartphone — can use the system by installing an app and making payments with a QR code.
Without bank accounts, individuals must visit a previously approved agent or nonbank financial institution, who would verify their details and then approve a “DCash” wallet.
That person would then visit a supermarket or other retailer and hand over physical cash to the cashier, which would be converted to digital currency and deposited in their wallet, Bitt spokesman Chris Burnett told The Associated Press.
Additionally, there are limitations on the amount of money that can be sent via DCash, there are currently no plans to incorporate credit cards, and the digital currency is not subject to interest.
Although many in the Eastern Caribbean applauded the historic change, some experts are worried that smaller countries’ digital currencies might end up being used as a conduit for illegal activities such as terrorist funding and money laundering, according to Eswar Prasad, a Cornell University trade policy professor.
“That skepticism is ebbing as more central banks join the fray and as central banks worldwide confront the inevitability of physical cash’s decline,” he said.
He noted that the Bahamas became the first country to adopt a national digital currency last year, and that the Marshall Islands is considering launching its own. For smaller nations, there is “a greater stake,” he explained, in part because many citizens remain unbanked.
“That is why I believe small countries are more militant in this regard, simply because they must,” Prasad clarified.
Officials reported that the digital currency would be available in Anguilla, Dominica, Montserrat, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines, which are all part of the Eastern Caribbean Central Bank’s eight island economies.
By 2025, the project aims to reduce the use of physical cash by 50%, according to Sharmyn Powell, chair of the bank’s fintech working group.
“It’s better, quicker, and less expensive,” Powell explained.
Governor of the Central Bank Timothy N.J. Antoine said that he envisions the digital currency being used by farmers, fishermen, small business owners, single mothers, and those without bank accounts.
“Payments remain unnecessarily sluggish and costly,” Antoine said of the new system. “We listened to you, and we responded.”
Antoine claimed that digital cash is more difficult to steal and that it is a safer method of making payments while avoiding contact during a pandemic.
At the moment, one Eastern Caribbean dollar is worth 37 US cents ($AUD 0.50). All Eastern Caribbean banknotes depict Queen Elizabeth II of England as the Commonwealth’s head of state.
The initiative comes more than two months after the European Central Bank, the Bank of Japan, the Bank of Canada, the Bank of England, the Swedish Riksbank, and the Swiss National Bank formed a working group to examine the possibility of issuing digital currencies.
Sweden’s central bank has already initiated a pilot program. Meanwhile, China launched a digital currency in April 2020 in four cities as part of a pilot program that has since grown to over two dozen.
However, Lee Rainers, a Duke University professor of fintech law and policy, said it is too early to tell if central bank digital currency is the future.
“I approach it skeptically because this technology has been around for over a decade but has yet to gain widespread acceptance as a medium of exchange,” he explained.