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Transparency Short-Circuited: Laughter and Numbers in Costa Rican Water Politics



Between 2006 and 2009, a group of Costa Rican NGOs, a Spanish aid agency, and local residents were entangled in the pursuit of transparency as a means to allocate funding for their “human right to water” project initiatives. Designed as a series of pedagogical activities to “build” local knowledge about water management, the aid agency conditioned their funding to the honest and correct implementation of the project as revealed by a system of indicators. Against orthodoxy, project leaders were put in charge of designing and implementing the auditing system, an arrangement that short-circuited the foundational separation between observers and observed that is customary in transparency-creation projects and gave the whole initiative an experimental quality. This article examines the building of that indicator system, my informants’ own fascination with producing “speaking numbers,” and the punctuated but constitutive role that laughter played in the process. I suggest that numeric indicators and laughter make the audit speak about intensity and emphasis rather than about the exclusive and discrete categories on which transparency is usually predicated. Here, the audit allowed political actors to rework the potential of water governance technologies, rather than limiting them to their explicit possibilities, in order to constitute what project participants imagine as an integral form of political agency. I argue that paying attention to the in-between process of creating the audit, before its final results are disclosed, highlights the self-referential, short-circuited, and productive uses of transparency as a political device.