by Jeffrey Inaba and C-Lab
Structure of Capitals
All relations of exchange, giving or otherwise, are mediated by a structure of capital, where capital is defined as a particular quantity’s capacity to render effects outside of itself.
‘Particular quantity’ can demarcate anything – a person’s muscle-power, the crop-capacity of a field, a tool’s capacity to reduce exertion, etc. Having no inherent value in itself, capital is a value system, or more precisely, a system of value systems, which cycles through periodic phases of accumulation and expenditure; the former translating outside forces into abstraction, the latter reversing this process in an external application of the reserve. This translation of capital is the predominant vehicle of power across social, political and cultural boundaries. In order to reconcile and equate the values of its ubiquitous participants, capital requires a technique of abstraction and differentiation to track its mutations.
The abstract, numerical form of financial (or ‘economic’) capital requires little translation to transact quickly and flexibly, and despite its relative newness is perhaps the most immediately recognizable form of capital. As a result, finance dominates any discussion of social dynamics – to the extent of veiling and marginalizing capital’s more nuanced forms.
In fact, within the framework of capital, various facets can be identified, each with its own degree of uniqueness and its own distribution and communicative overlap with the others. Of these, it is useful to make a general distinction between the quantitative and qualitative forms, adopting sociologist Pierre Bourdieu's framework of ‘economic’ and ‘symbolic’ capitals.1 Alone in the former category is the aforementioned financial capital. Among the latter group, one finds human capital, political capital, social capital, and cultural capital.2 Human capital is a measure of the value of an individual's faculties and capacity for labor and productivity. Political capital describes the value of an individual's influence in a larger social field, placing emphasis on the persuasive power of qualities like prestige, influence and public image. Social capital evaluates the synergetic advantages of collaboration, agreement, shared resources in interpersonal or group relations. Finally, cultural capital – a more general concept itself comprised of multiple variations – establishes the value of the individual relative to institutional formalizations of authenticity and credibility.
These various forms of symbolic capital are not linked by a universal exchange rate. However, as capital, lacking any value without implementation or translation outside of themselves, it is impossible to evaluate any one without consideration of its equivalences with and distinctions from the other(s). Essentially, no form of capital can exist in isolation, nor can it work its influence without conflict and consequence. The ultimate finitude of material resources can bring about a competitive prioritization of the individual over the social. In this case, capitalist value systems become a mechanism for accumulating and defending localized concentrations of power, against and at the expense of others.This logic problematizes acts of giving, which often become obscured or confused by moving against financial capital’s prevailing values of ever-increasing concentrations of quantifiable assets.
Considered only within the framework of traditional valuations of capital, giving can only be patronizing and oppressive, reducible to pure optimizations, or a serious error in judgment on the part of the giver. There are, however, forces of capital that work against the discrepancies inherent to traditional capital's desire to create imbalance – namely that of Aid Capital.
The primary asset of Aid Capital – what will move it forward in its proliferation – is increasing capacity for communication that allows expressions of need to reach those capable of response. Each time this occurs, it is matched by further mobilization of good will and inspiration. Aid Capital, in this way, invites all other capital to abandon the exclusive economies of scarcity and enter an intentional, participatory and affirming economy of plenitude.
Flows of Aid Capital
Channels of aid have distinct strengths and weaknesses. Each channel can improve, becoming more efficient while remaining fully accountable, becoming more precise while remaining inclusive, or becoming more flexible but not becoming rash. Each could collect larger amounts to give but remain resilient to the forces of corruption, as well as demonstrate timely results while remaining patient. Altogether, the problems of aid channels represent a field of competing/cooperating entities and their attempts to translate intentions into desired outcomes.
Further, the mutability of the gift itself, a condition particular to Aid Capital, is only marginally under the control of the gift's global agents, guards, conveyors, transformers and actors. A gift of foreign aid undergoes a series of phase shifts en route from donor to recipient, rendering any prescriptive or restrictive process ineffective. The end result will always be something of an unknown. Even in the most seemingly simple situation of immediate need, any gift is fundamentally projective – with the ultimately desired effect abstracted from the materiality of its object.
For example, consider a scenario in which individuals give a small sum of money to help build a school in a developing country. The money is collected by one of these individuals or a chosen organization and then transferred to a bank in the target country. Here its value will be phase-shifted into raw materials and conveyed further as payment for the temporary labor of construction. This represents a shift from Currency A, to Currency B, to discreet raw materials and labor (with a residual transfer of Currency B to the providing business and the temporary workers). An architect, engineer and workers then cohere these materials and labor into the form of a building. This building further provides the capacity for jobs for some teachers, possibly attracts further funding for books and school fees, and ultimately, an education for children.
If, however, the educational agenda became detached from the financial value of gift along the way, passing from hand to hand, organization to agency to government to NGO, the gift might turn into anything, something even counter to the giver’s agenda of education. Perhaps a building may be built, but not a school. In order for Aid Capital to flow back to the giver and accrue to the receiver, some element of the donor’s original intent needs to remain intact throughout the transformative procedure. As well, the particular aspects of the recipient’s need must help shape a donor’s original intent. Third, the aid must remain agile enough to adapt to emergent circumstances.
Alternatively, a similar scenario, a housing project, shows how lack of clear communication of need and maintenance of intent might be of some benefit, but not the one expected. In this instance, a multilateral bank wishes to build new housing units as part of a development aid initiative that includes upgrading available habitation. Donor countries' contributions to the bank, plus capital earned in the market, are applied to the project. The bank's capital becomes currency, utilized to purchase raw materials and labor in the project country. The material purchases resonate as business for local suppliers and employment opportunities arise due to the labor required. Materials are assembled and transformed into cohesive units, ready to be occupied.
And yet, these units never become actual homes. Improvements in shelter can provide stability for families, be a long-term market asset and provide sanitation infrastructure, which can positively impact health. In this example, however, the designated occupants instead remove all valuable fixtures such as piping from the new housing units and sell them. Rapidly, and not through a real-estate transaction, the gift is converted back to currency. The currency is then used to buy food, medicine and other basic provisions, all of which have the potential to provide a tangible and short-term stability, and in the case of medicine, may have a lasting impact on health.
A third scenario: an organization provides food aid to a country that is in the midst of turmoil. The government is not stable and is perpetuating a disruption of normative activities and operations such that the citizens no longer have access to the basic necessities for survival. Under these chaotic conditions, food and water are provided intact by a humanitarian organization and shipped directly to the afflicted country. The supplies must initially pass through the hands of those in power. The hegemonic group then transforms the relief into currency by selling it to the initial intended recipients instead of distributing it as free aid. The currency is then used to purchase weapons to ensure the ruling group retains further power.
This instance seems to support measures like tied aid, suggesting that it is perhaps better to restrict a gift as a preventative measure against its misuse. However, such a ‘pure’ gift's impotence, or lack of resilience, is both a clearly quantifiable loss in terms of expense and a less quantifiable loss in terms of opportunity and reach. Aid Capital has the potential to be generated at each site of transformation. Materials or supplies purchased in a donor country and transported internationally can be exponentially more costly than if acquired locally. More importantly however, is that by the time materials are actually purchased, decisions have already been made that may limit the project's flexibility, and thus its – and the gift's – ability to capitalize on unforeseen possibilities.
Of course, none of this is a guarantee, which is precisely why at each stage of a gift's phase change, translation or transformation is crucial to its overall definition. Ideally, in order to maximize the generation of Aid Capital, there must be some sort of trained supervision present at such a transaction, holding joint allegiance both to the giver and the recipient. This someone or something must contain the expertise, authority and cultural know-how to witness and supervise the exchange in order to maximize the flow of Aid Capital's complex surpluses toward the recipient, toward the giver and laterally toward the others involved along the way. At the moment of each shift, the gift has renewed potential, even at the termination of a simple transfer of a ‘unit’ to a recipient. Will they like it? Or want it? Do they hate it? The question arises: is something still a gift if it is not wanted, or is despised?
As aid agencies must dutifully pursue their agenda of helping and giving, the role of design disciplines is to articulate the desire to help (expressed as varying policies) and the help itself (much more constant – such as housing or infrastructure) simultaneously. Even though planners and architects may be influenced by trends and theory from other disciplines, they also function as concrete translators combining the values of their field with the contemporary desires of social and economic policy. Frequently collaborating as consultants, they are charged with strategizing and marshalling the process of giving through its initial phase of materialization by a client, namely the donor, aid or development organization, or a donor government. In this situation, they are given the task of providing projects with a useful design and capability for further expansion. They must further design replicable procedures, should one prove successful.
This text is excerpted from: Inaba, Jeffrey and Katharine Meagher. World of Giving. Baden: Switzerland: Lars Müller Publishers, 2010. For more information and to purchase the title, click here.