The Less Visible Paths of Economic Giving

At the same time as Pope Francis elegantly entreats all to view the world less through the distortions of economic markets–and without forgetting those who are all too often overlooked–we rightly grapple with ways of imagining global inequalities, working to view the world less in terms of economic markets of commercial exchange or banking centers.  For Francis asks us to find a way to map the debt the producers of greenhouse gases owe to developing countries, lest their weight fall on poorer countries, rather than industrialized countries bearing their cost, and as well as a way of correcting the usurious rates of lending money, by guarding against those “oppressive lending systems . . . which generate further poverty.”  The United Nations served as the  setting to stage a dramatically and radically revised ” Urbi et orbi” address by the first transatlantic pontiff, and one deeply conscious of that status.  Francis enjoined us to imagine a common good–chastened by the harms of seeing social needs only in terms of economics.  The moral injunction to consider the deepening economic imbalances of national debt recalls the difficulties of picturing a more equal and more ethical distribution of space, taking stock of the globalized world outside dominant patterns of economic exchange.

If oppressive systems of lending create states mired in relatively equally distributed poverty, and others increasingly less egalitarian–as JapanSouth Africa and the United States–poorer individuals or countries all too easily fall through the cracks and off the mental map that privileges dominant economies.  Indeed, so obsessed have we become with noting, accepting, and internalizing property lines that we seem trapped into forgotting the actual distribution of inequalities in our country.  The warping of economic conditions in the United States alone–a warping toxic for local politics, and compassion–are nicely illustrated in microcosm in a glorious if grotesque GIF Max Galko offered, via Metrocosm.  In its warping of a planimetric image of national space, it seeks to track the terribly troubling distortion of civic space by wickedly substituting residential values on land to reveal hypertrophied concentrations of capital in a few regions—mapping value onto land in ways that display the drastic diminution of housing stock in far more regions of the lower forty-eight that contract out of sight.


Metrocosm, based on data from US Census and Lincoln Institute of Land Policy


The bloated property values of urban and exurban areas are hardly signs of a healthily beating heart, but a Rabelasian image–if it weren’t also such a very accurate illustration of our current national political quagmire of using a map to create consensus when concentrations of wealth looks so different than the one which determines our representational government, and a clear social commentary and scathing socioeconomic critique.  For how can we create a clearer map of priorities, when the very levelness of a playing field is so distorted beyond recognition?  The cartographical contraction of so many areas that seem overlooked seems also a metaphor, as tNew York City, Miami, San Francisco, Seattle, Orange County and Chicago acquire hideously gargantuan proportions to seem countries of their own, as they assume their relative values of residential properties, leaving the majority of the country to disappear within the folds of their overvaluation and market-driven expansion, as if to show the difficulty with which market valuation maps onto our own space.  All this to raise questions of how a map of global economic relations might best begun to be traced, or how we might imagine the disruptive inequality on our perceptions of space–and, indeed, the inequalities that spatial orders increasingly come to reflect and perpetuate?

Does this image of a “beating” heart only map the absence of empathy in a map?

1.  For economic exchanges seem strikingly complicit in perpetuating inequalities, if only by diminishing those very inequities of economic productivity perpetuated in most maps fail to adequately attend or obscure.  One might hope, with geographer Andrew Linford, and Martin Lewis, the benefits of a map illuminating the inequities of global disparities in economic productivity–and try to use such a map to address how both regional and national disparities, often oddly dividing coastal areas from poorer interiors, might be overcome, and the ways that what pass as concerted attempts to do so often only shore them up. But such a map only confirms the sorts of distortions that most are only too aware already exist.

GDP Density

Geocurrents global  map of GDP Density (2011)

The illusion of equality is more often maintained by the belief that by mapping all aspects of the earth we are ensuring a sense of equality for all, or allowing no inequities to be hidden from view–as if the projects of world-mapping, and exposing to the public eye, is a means of responding to global needs–rather than obscuring these inequalities.

2.  Or can this even be captured in a map?  It bears noting that even if we have a totalistic map of global coverage, we tend to not come to terms with the depth of inequities and wealth, so obsessed we’ve become with what we can record as if it was a picture of the status quo.  In an age where outfits like Planet Labs or their friendly competitors at DigitalGlobe readily provide satellite-generated images that map the surface of the earth from space for their client base at an astounding resolution of two to three meters, what’s being mapped omits the truly important transactions, exchanges, money-laundering, and other financial transactions that underlie the ever more globalized economy.  Even as the platforms of Geo Big Data may appear comprehensive in detail, the undercurrents of these claims provokes questions about what they fail to communicate. Perhaps the very promise of totality for such claims of whole-Earth imagery–to be sure, at lower resolution for the state of Israel, by a ‘flock’ of “Dove” Satellites–only confirms that the real action lies elsewhere:  maybe in those shifting currents less readily subject to be seen, tracked or so readily surveyed, as much as on the edges of urban and rural life.  After all, if one accepts a uniform mathematical grid as a way of mapping, one omits any local knowledge of place, andy any notion of representation.

Satellite Dove

There must be more that resists such ready capture–from the rampant inequalities of wealth that organize our cities to the disparities of wealth around the world.  What other underground streams of electronic or financial transfers can we trace?  These streams constitute the new mare nostrum, the non-territorial terrain on which both worldly power and economic activities are waged, and run across the boundaries of either a settled or defined geopolitical space.  But the space of climate change is one that is best rendered as transcending a map of territorial bounds or geopolitical space that is rooted in the antiquated notion of “countries,” which not only seem increasingly removed from our planet’s fate–

Screen Shot 2015-07-13 at 8.21.05 PM

–but from it’s actual experience.

3.  The map “Money Trails” traces the actual paths of the disbursement of funds by the UN, World Bank, and 11 industrialized nations to reveal the distortion of global ties transcending geopolitical space.  So much seems revealed in the major unmapped pathways that structure our increasingly disturbingly decentered globe–which infographic artist Haisam Hussein used to map the distribution “foreign aid” in the pastel hues and curving bars reminiscent of the London Tube Map that the engineer Harry Beck so cleverly devised on the model of a simple circuit board–but which suggest a decentered lack of familiarity, and raise the stakes on processing how foreign aid is allocated, as much as to explain the circulation of funds with an air of transparency.


Lapham’s Quarterly

Hussein’s uncanny infographic tacitly calls attention to the status of Aid as an artifact of the Western World (to which Beck so clearly belonged), even if the destinations of most of the billions tend to arrive at destinations whose open circles peripheral to or far outside the west, from Afghanistan, Myanmar, Vietnam, Brazil, Kenya or the West Bank–as well as India and Ethiopia.  Beck’s design had once simplified the confusion that Londoners faced in confronting underground routes by simplifying the Tub to a circuit’s dense pathways in ways riders quickly came to disentangle:


What does it mean for huge sums of foreign aid to travel as they do, through such sanctioned if somehow secret hidden pathways of economic exchange?  Can one begin to disentangle their distribution by different agencies and governments, and the parallels sources of foreign aid dispatched to those needy, or to enter into a logic of their distribution?  Can one ever expect the distribution of Foreign Aid to run along such clearly defined pathways?

4.  In an age where the vast majority of financial transactions occur online and data centers channel chains of information with increasing speed, the paths of financial transactions are rarely transparently mapped.  Although we accept multiple ways of mapping and surveilling the world, but mapping the global exchange of money and financial assistance are less clearly established–if only because the mobility of money presents far less easy or a static image and is less about clear relations between place than often undisclosed channels of exchange.  If we know the GDP of different countries, national debt, global debt, or even map government debt as a percentage of GDP–we can rank countries’ relative consciousness of balance of payments, or the ability with which debt is able to be sustained, while those deepest crimson threaten to drop from view or implode:


Such a static distribution of debt offers a basis not to consider the distribution of productivity; it describes the ability of countries to carry debt even if carrying this load provides the basis to perpetuate their global roles.

The basis for understanding the circulation of money around the globe raise questions of the continued relevance of connectivity, distribution, and indeed the privileged point of orientation to the circulation of power.  For a map that privileges clear boundary lines of jurisdiction serves to regard each nation as an autonomous economic actor, but in an era of the paperless transaction of funds, the map that continues to privilege territoriality seems not only out of date, but increasingly irrelevant to describing the process of globalization.

One might also see the development of aid as a holding pattern or mode for tacitly creating consensus and uniting an increasingly uneven playing field of the economic state of play.  If empires were once seen as controlling the sea and mapping control of navigational spaces, the notion of the “Freedom of Seas” or Mare Liberum that Grotius proposed as the basis for mercantilism in the early seventeenth century have long ceased to be the basis or the illustration of imperial mandates:  whereas the concept of the Freedom of the Seas was in ways an extension of ancient Romans’ control over the Mediterranean, the ocean is no longer the screen to project projects of dominion than are the pathways of aid whose currents more aptly flow from centers of geopolitical power–and can only be mapped in far more fractured, and indeed postmodern, globalist terms, where economic aid is tied to the opening of markets as well as political ties–and might be far more challenging to map.  The sea is no longer the primary surface of economic exchange, and the relatively recent migration of monetary exchanges onto virtual space poses unique challenges to trace.

The less visible pathways and more visible tentacles by which foreign aid is dispensed may not only lend coherence to our national markets, despite the dramatic inequalities that continue to exist across the inhabited world–the expansion of aid may indeed make it ethically and conscionably possible to live in its huge differences of well-being and lifestyles that we wouldn’t be able to otherwise ignore.  An astounding $530 billion was informally sent, through unofficial channels, by immigrants, in 2012, according to the World Bank, in ways that might represent the economy of a sizable nation–and a huge uptick over the $132 billion sent in 2011.  The pathways of finance suggest a new model of global circulation of giving and receiving that offers something like an underlayer of the global economy.

Migrant money graphic.jpg

As of 2006, the money sent home from industrialized countries in the form of individual remittances was for the most part (outside of Africa) significantly larger than the official development assistance and foreign aid worldwide, according to the World Bank, whose donor countries commit to sustainable development or poverty reduction in ways that provide a plan for dealing with economic disparities.


But the dramatic expansion of foreign aid far more often travels along official currents, supported by a logic that demands some excavation of internationalist motivations that transcend mere economic need.

5.  While the notion of Christian charity was long linked to the local public use of personal wealth, as upper-class Roman elites gave money as they wanted to civic causes in much of Europe and North Africa, the flows of philanthropy that have been increasingly institutionalized have become ever more difficult to trace and complex to map as foreign aid has tried to reduce growing income disparities worldwide.  Giving is institutionalized by governments–and by United Nations organizations with the World Bank and their non-profit NGO allies, but mapping flows of philanthropy are far from the sorts of local giving of the past.  Increasingly mediated by non-national entities, the flow of funds in an era of global cash flows and transfers is increasingly dematerialized or immaterial, even when growing to the inconceivable amount of $160 Billion.

Perhaps rendering them concretely provokes more surprise than recognition as the courses of capital are remapped on a geographical projection.  And when Haisam Hussein chose to map trails of foreign aid against the famous transit map of a city once the financial center of world markets, as if to map the spatial contraction of the global economy to several principal routes of financial disbursement, the map suggests not only the mobility of money, but the degree to which the major economies like the United states and Japan, as well as Norway, Sweden, England, Germany, France, Australia and Canada pump money into a global system of credit that sustain global markets, helped primarily by the World Bank, and basically bankrolled by eleven nations, including Japan, Canada, the US, Britain, Sweden, Australia, Russia and South Korea–who exclude the “other area,” left grey on the map, of the People’s Republic of China.

Money Trails and UN

Lapham’s Quarterly

The money flows are modernistically represented as if to show the progressive possibilities of aid in streamlined terms, the distribution is at the same time  in no way equal and strikingly disproportionate and the larger flows of aid dissonantly disruptive of the modernistic design–the pathways of economic aid are clearly and lopsidedly dominated by the nations of the northern hemisphere.  Despite the modernism of the routes, the disproportionate paths on which aid travels disrupts the symmetry of its so sleek tube lines, as distortedly large baby blue rivers dominate the map as they flow from Japan beside yellow-gold currents from the United States, reminding one of the deeply engrained national inequalities that underpin much “giving” today–and dazzling us with an array of colors and flows that leads us almost to forget the global presence of the PRC, or the grey persistence of global poverty.

But the selective nature of support seems particularly striking–with, as of 2013, the UK tied to Pakistan, Ethiopia and Bangladesh, the US to Kenya, Gaza and the West Bank, and Afghanistan, Australia to its neighbors Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands, Norway to Brazil, and France to Myanmar and Morocco.  The routes for disbursing foreign aid are hardly a process of global circulation, but provide something like a strategy for promoting the possible circulation of global funds.


Lapham’s Quarterly

The circulation of “aid” is in part a sort of shadow-map that helps shore up and support the  US military’s presence.  The spread of what seems an extended carte blanche to settle the US military in bases abroad has grown steadily since World War II, and has currently grown to spread to over 800 foreign bases in 160 other countries and territories outside the United States–excluding Afghanistan and Iraq, sustained at a cost of over $156 Billion annually.  The current constellation of what Chalmers Johnson called “base world”–a parallel imaging of military extraterritoriality–of which the Pentagon lists not only 174 US “base sites” in Germany, 113 in Japan, and 83 in South Korea, but hundreds more in around 80 countries, including Bahrain, Bulgaria, Colombia, Kenya, and Qatar:  if those countries colored bright red are hosting actual basis, those in purple are hosting US troops, and those in dark blue are countries where the US government is currently negotiating the presence of troops, and the rare spots of a lighter shade of blue mark those with “no evident” US military presence–limited to Mongolia, Tibet, Burma, North Korea and Iran, and the northern and central Africa nations of Libya, Somalia, the Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Sudan.  (But one never knows.)


While one might rightly wonder why the army, navy, and marines are based so widely over an “empire of bases,” the cost to the government is no doubt not only expressed in the cost of running the bases that are outposts of Americana where one would think oneself to be geographically removed.

A closer look at those sites of centers of active duty of US soldiers–not including the recent theaters of war of Afghanistan and Iraq–shows a diaspora of bases across the globe that the Department of Defense sustains, allowing the US to have a greater presence worldwide than any actual nation, empire, or people, in seems the underside of globalization, as well as the fantasy of a paranoid extra-national archipelago of active duty that may respond to a vision of global danger:

Active Duty Map

Is foreign economic “aid” somehow a tacitly understood bribe to continue to tolerate such an expansive military presence, or to negotiate with nations for the possibility of securing a future base, or some other sort of economic open-ness?  Is it an excuse to overcome resistance to perpetuating ongoing military presences, or a new way of strategically and cynically waging a global war of chess?

Hosting US Bases

The image of active duty soldiers settled in bases across what might be called Eurasia reveals an often unmapped constellation of sites of settlement, far different from the cities that usually appear on a political atlas or any map.

Active Duty in EurASIA

6.  The World Bank does not primarily speak, despite what its name might assure us, for the world, and may charge usurious fees, but a counter-geography suggest the limits of the pathways Hussein so cleverly mapped from a first-world perspective.

For an unspoken and often ignored “other map” of economic aid, as well as, perhaps, of the “soft money” that allows military and economic expansion, flows not from the World Bank or United States, of course, but from China–all too absent from our own eyes, much as the very same region of the world is so conspicuously absent from maps of Facebook “friending” and “likes” in ways that makes one smirk with superiority at the eerily blacked-out region of a world otherwise illuminated by “friendships” and photo exchange.  The same area not so oddly omitted from the map of global foreign aid, since it is not our aid or the sort of aid sought to be mapped, is actually of course not nearly so passive, or lacking networks of giving.  Although Facebook’s ““Friendship Map” tracks networking, as much as it registers an increasingly vibrant emotional pulse of the digital culture of linking that grips much the globe, leaves a blank space of seep blue or empty lacuna in tracing over 1.5 billion friendships–half of its users have successfully “friended” over 200 other users.  The largest hole of social network gapes over China–though one still can’t really expunge its territory from a map–although the map only reflects individual and collective investment in social media.


Global visualisation of every connection between two people on Facebook

Perhaps the map is far more distorting than admit it to be.

In the more real world of global finances, funding provides an image of governmentally that reigns in the massive economic disequilibria around the world at at time of dramatically curtailed prosperity.  China’s foreign aid reveals distinctly different paths of money to North Korea, Srl Lanka, Sub-Saharan Africa–including Ethiopia and Sierra Leone–and Ecuador; aid is proffered with quite different degrees of riskiness, in ways that suggest the large number of risky bets that China seems to be making in “foreign investment”–described here as something unlike and distinct from “aid” or charitable giving, but as something of a gambit of clearly strategic scope of investing in future markets or potential future sources of food:

China's investment and riskiness of its investing

New York Times

Yet the degree of cumulative investment deserves attention as an alternate visualization of globalization that is not scary, but nonetheless can’t help but be salutary at least in illustrating global imbalances as a counterpoint:
China's Investment, 2005-13:NYT

One can further profitably compare this to the aggregate numbers of Chinese exports and imports go, to see its economy’s global reach, and ask why the range of its “giving” or aid is ommited from the above map–in ways that suggests the degrees of strings attached to it.  The size of exports suggests a complementary set of ties to areas in Europe, the United States, Japan, and South Korea, as well as Australia and South Africa, where a smaller degree of aid arrives–no doubt with invisible strings of its own implicitly attached.

Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015Value of Chinese Imports and Exports Worldwide 2015New York Times

These somewhat silent and far less evident paths of “giving” and GDP, as well as export values, seek to map a more dynamic image of the current state-of-play of globalization as a sort of state of flux, even if its economic ecosystem is all too often obscured, but also a screen for introspection of the proportions of globalization and its sins.  After all, whoever gives themselves the mantle of global authority most convincingly seems to get to draw the map. Or to decide that it might be time to reconsider the current map of giving, and foreign aid.


Filed under Foreign Aid, globalization, infographics, mapping economic inequalities

2 responses to “The Less Visible Paths of Economic Giving



    The Holy Father meets Big Data and Big Cartography? This is really a hugely important and, so to say, graphic post. It belongs on FrontLine. BTW the regular comment function doesn’t seem to be working for me.

    Sent from Surface

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