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Madeleine Akrich
Yannick Barthe
Fabian Muniesa
et al.

Transparency as a political device

Andrew Barry

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1In his 1896 essay on ‘The Secret and the Secret Society’, Georg Simmel noted the progressive openness of the state or, as he expressed it, “publicity’s invasion of the affairs of state”. This invasion had occurred to “such an extent that, by now, governments officially publish facts without whose secrecy, prior to the nineteenth century, no regime seemed possible” (Simmel, 1950: 336). Today, the question of the openness of the state has been framed in a particular way; for many the idea and practice of transparency has become critical for efforts to promote good governance. Transparency is a term, according to Christopher Hood, that has attained quasi-religious significance in debate over governance and institutional design. “ Since the 1980s the word has appeared in the litanies of countless institutional-reform documents and mission statements… it is the pervasive jargon of business governance as well as that of governments and international bodies, and has been used almost to saturation point in all of those domains over the past decade ” (Hood, 2006: 3). Hood traces the demand for openness in government back to the work of Spinoza, Rousseau and Bentham. Bentham, in particular, draw an opposition between transparency and secrecy and “ secrecy, being an instrument of conspiracy, ought never to be the system of regular government” (quoted in Hood, 2006: 9).

  • 1 On the history of the idea of transparency in global financial institutions see Best (2005).

2If the recent enthusiasm for transparency is simply the latest stage in a long evolutionary process, of ‘publicity’s invasion’, then what is new? Certainly, there is the prevalence of the term’s usage. Hood does not seek to explain why transparency (rather than openness) has become a preferred term, but he does make an important observation: although the term has become pervasive it has also been promoted by specific institutions, particularly those associated with economic governance. He mentions, in particular, the key role of the GATT, WTO, and the EU.1 Transparency is thought to be a critical element of a form of transnational government that seeks to operate indirectly by delegating practices of monitoring and auditing to non-governmental and international organizations, commercial auditors and companies (Barry, 200; Miller & Rose, 2008).

  • 2 Transparency is something that needs to be actively promoted. According to a study from the Harvar (...)

3Yet transparency is much more than a concept. It points to a set of processes and instruments, as well as to the necessity of particular kinds of relations between the producers of information and the audience for whom information is intended (Grossman, Luque & Muniesa, 2008). Transparency is understood to be not just a matter of making information public, but a matter of molding institutions into forms that are able to perform transparency (Power, 1997, 2007; Strathern, 2000).2 Additionally transparency creates the kind of persons and institutions that are in a position to monitor, use, and assess the credibility of any information that is published. The operation of transparency, thus, is expected to have a series of effects, not just on the production of information, but on the identities, conduct and relations between persons and organizations. It is, in short, a device intended to “articulate actions: [to] act or [to] make others act” (Muniesa, Millo & Callon, 2007: 2, see also Caliskan & Callon, 2010: 9).

4One feature of transparency is that it is applicable not just to the activities of governments but also to the operations of business. The principle of transparency is expected to be applied to the activities of organizations in general, not states in particular. Moreover, according to its supporters, the progressive extension of the application of the principle should not be a threat to commerce, nor does it necessarily entail a restriction on commercial activity, or ‘the invasion’ of publicity into the world of business. On the contrary, the implementation of transparency is said to provide the basis on which the information necessary for the proper function of free markets would become readily available. In this way, the practice of transparency has acquired a series of functions and multiple meanings (Grossman, Luque & Muniesa, 2008). First, in so far as it is directed towards the activities of governments, transparency is thought to foster public accountability for “effective accountability requires mechanisms for steady and reliable information and communication between decision-makers and stakeholders” (Held & Koenig-Archibugi, 2005: 3). Secondly, transparency is expected to allow investors to make rational judgments concerning the strength of both commercial and public organizations, without having to rely on insider knowledge. Thirdly, the operation of the principle of transparency appears to establish a distinction between a domain within which more or less free markets exist and a domain external to their operation (Callon, 1998). In effect, transparency is intended to establish a clear boundary between the legitimate domain of commerce and the market, on the one hand, and the illegitimate territory of corruption and state crime, on the other. Transparency is necessary if corruption is to be reduced, information is to flow more freely, organizations are to be held accountable, and free markets are to flourish. Simmel’s essay points, however, to two further key issues. One is indicated by his metaphor of invasion to describe the effect of openness on the state. In describing openness in these terms, Simmel’s essay complicates the terms of the opposition between transparency and secrecy, and tradition and innovation. For Simmel, it was not openness, but secrecy that was “mankind’s greatest achievement”. Increasing openness and increasing secrecy both demanded innovation, in opposition to a past in which neither concept had so much salience. Openness did not reduce secrecy, he argued, but intensified the demand for it. “Real secrecy”, Simmel argued, only began historically with the development of greater openness. Yet, in his view, secrecy was valuable, while openness was not: “In comparison with the childish stage in which every conception is expressed at once, and every undertaking is accessible to the eyes of all, the secret produces an immense enlargement of life: numerous contents of life cannot emerge in the presence of full publicity” (Simmel, 1950: 330). The development of practices of openness does not therefore reduce a given reservoir of secrets, which simply exists and could potentially be made public. Rather, the development of openness transforms the nature of what is kept secret, and what is valuable to keep secret and what is not. On the one hand, it serves to constitute a domain of ‘secrets’ that are yet to be made public, yet might be in the future. On the other hand, the development of practices of openness coincides with the development of practices of secrecy. Indeed, this is not surprising. For when so much is out in the open, what is not acquires a new and arguably greater value (Strathern, 2000: 310). Conversely, the growing prevalence of secrecy heightens the importance of openness. Transparency magnifies reality and channels attention towards objects that may subsequently come into public view (Taussig, 1999: 56).

  • 3 On the notion of agencement see Deleuze (1988), Muniesa, Millo & Callon (2007), and Caliskan & Cal (...)

5Secondly, as Simmel observes, in a world of openness, it is not just openness but secrecy itself that has to be achieved. Secrecy may rely on the use of law, through technology (such as screens and firewalls), through economic control, through the deployment of cultural capital, the threat of violence, or the loss of patronage. It may depend on deliberate strategies of ignorance. After all, that which one does not know need not subsequently be made open (McGoey, 2007). Just as transparency is associated with certain agencements3 of persons and objects and devices (such as a free press, accounting procedures and disclosure requirements, public reports, debates and forums, etc.), promoted through the work of particular institutions, there also exist devices of secrecy. Simmel’s essay points us towards an interest in the history of such devices and the interconnections between the histories of openness and secrecy. Like deviance for Foucault, corruption, bribery, illegality and so on, are implicitly spoken about in practices of transparency, but often through their absence, or in the margins of texts (Foucault, 1979).

6It would be a mistake, therefore, to assume a clear division between what is open and what is or remains secret for other reasons. For if secrecy is an achievement, then there are also things that have neither been made open for public inspection, nor are kept secret, but are simply not known. These are things that could be made public but are not, and there are matters of which few are aware and yet are not secret either. There are also matters that are more or less public knowledge, but are nonetheless not publicized or made transparent. Taussig notes the existence of public secrets: that is secrets that many people know, but were not officially made public (Taussig, 1999: 57). Such public secrets may or may not be true of course, but their existence has consequences nonetheless (West & Sanders, 2003). Whereas the information produced to meet the requirements of transparency is traceable, and therefore is expected to render institutions accountable, the origins of public secrets, as well as specific rumours are indeterminate (Kwinter, 2001: 126). At the same time that public secrets and rumours are generated, transparency enables information to be made public.

7In this paper I focus on the importance of transparency to the politics and economy of the extractive industries in general, and the oil industry in particular. Why this particular focus? There are two reasons. First, it is in relation to the operations of the extractive industries that international and non-governmental organizations and academics have taken particular interest in the implementation of transparency. In so far as transparency is expected to give non-governmental organisations something of a political role, then this role is particularly apparent in the operation of the extractive industries. The oil industry is, along with the arms industry, thought to be peculiarly secretive in its operations, and linked, in unacknowledged ways, to the state. Secondly, the oil industry is not merely one example of the application of the principle of transparency; it is arguably in relation to the oil industry and oil revenues that the principle is thought to be of potentially the greatest benefit. The principle of transparency and its application to the oil industry could provide the key to the solution, as we shall see, to the problem of the ‘resource curse,’ which is said to blight both the economic performance and political stability of resource rich countries, fostering violence and corruption.

8The paper begins by focusing on the importance given to transparency by those economists concerned with the problem of the ‘resource curse’. In this context, transparency appears to function primarily as a ‘market device’ (Callon, Millo & Muniesa, 2007). It is expected to make possible certain forms of economic calculation, while reducing the likelihood of those non-market forms of economic calculation associated with corruption and violence. However, in the second part of the paper I argue that, in relation to the extractive industries, the project of transparency has been understood to be as much a practical experiment in social and political theory as in economics. The aim of those associated with the promotion of transparency is not just to address the lack of economic information, and to foster the development of a market economy, but also to address the lack of development of civil society. In effect, transparency operates along the borders between economic and political life (Mitchell, 1999; Barry, 2002). On the one hand, the implementation of transparency is expected to affect a form of politicization of the economy that is both measured and rational. On the other hand, transparency is intended to channel political disputes towards the specific question of economic calculation.

9Yet while talk about transparency is widespread, practices of transparency are localized and technical. As we shall see, the operation of transparency entails the development of literary devices (displays of revenue payments for example), the presence of witnesses, the cultivation of forms of ethical conduct through seminars, guidebooks and forums, as well as the existence of appropriate institutions (Latour & Weibel, 2005). At the same time, in relation to the extractive industries, transparency takes the form of a public experiment (Schaffer, 2005), in which the witnesses to the experiment are not just social scientists, but ‘civil society’, ‘stakeholders’, auditors, and the international community. In short, the development of transparency is expected to lead to the formation of a society and, in turn, this society will foster its progressive development in the future. At the same, particular public experiments in transparency are intended as exemplars which can be subsequently imitated elsewhere. A global society is formed through the replication and adaptation of a local model (Tarde, 2001 [1890]; Latour, 2005).

Resource curse

10In 2003 a team of economists from Columbia University visited the West African state of São Tomé e Príncipe (STP) in order to consider the impact of oil revenues on the economy.4 This visit, and the importance that was subsequently given to it, might seem surprising. After all, São Tomé, a small island state with approximately 160,000 inhabitants had yet, at this time, to receive any revenues from the production of oil. Indeed, while there was an expectation, following the exploration of offshore fields lying between STP and Nigeria, that oil production might begin as soon as 2012 or even 2010, by 2007 this expectation had faded.

11Yet, as Gisa Weszkalnys has argued, despite having no revenues from oil production, STP might be regarded, from one point of view, as an exemplary oil state. It has signed the Abjura declaration, together with Nigeria, which commits STP to transparency in relation to the countries’ Joint Development Zone. Advised by the Columbia University economists, the UNDP, the IMF and the World Bank, STP has already adopted a Petroleum Management Law and a National Oil Account in order to invest oil revenues for future revenues. Moreover, Weszkalnys argues that “anticipatory activities have not stopped on the level of the state, the law or institutional reform. What is especially needed… is the creation of civil society and good governance, including a ‘change in mentality’” (Weszkalnys, 2007: 3, see also Weszkalnys, 2008).

12While STP has yet to receive any oil revenues, the Columbia University project makes clear that it could, in certain respects, become a model to be replicated elsewhere. As well as the Petroleum Management Law, the project led “to the design and execution of a National Forum, through which to inform citizens about the country’s oil revenues and to solicit their views on how they might be spent. The project also precipitated “the formulation of a plan of action for sustainable economic development” and the publication of a substantial volume (published by Columbia University Press, co-authored by, amongst others, the Nobel Prize winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz, and Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Columbia University Earth Institute) which offered a theoretical and practical guide to other countries with substantial natural resource wealth. The book contained the Petroleum Management Law as a template for others to consider. However, central to the economists’ argument was the importance of openness. The problem that STP could avoid was clear enough:

“The central problem facing resource-rich countries may be easily stated: various individuals wish to divert as much of that endowment as possible for their own private benefit. Modern economic theory has analyzed the generic problem of inducing agents (here government officials) to act in the interests of those they are supposed to serve (the principals, here citizens more generally). Agency problems arise whenever information is imperfect, and hence there is a need to emphasize transparency, or improving the openness and availability of information in the attempt to control corruption.” (Humphreys, Sachs & Stiglitz, 2007: 26)

13Although the idea of transparency is widespread, economic analyses of the so-called ‘resource curse’ (Auty, 1993) have provided it with an influential justification. In this argument, countries possessing a wealth of non-renewable natural resources (typically associated with the oil, gas and mining industries) experience a series of problems that frequently lead to lower rates of growth than those occurring in countries with smaller endowments of natural resources. First, the existence of such resources induces rent-seeking behaviour on the part of governments and elites. At best, this is likely to lead to a lack of investment and interest in other sectors of economic activity including, for example, agriculture and manufacturing, as well as public services such as health and education. It means, furthermore, that states are less reliant on taxation revenues and “when citizens are untaxed they sometimes have less information about state activities and, in turn, may demand less from nation states” (Humphreys, Sachs & Stiglitz, 2007: 11). Secondly, revenues from natural resource industries can lead to a rise in the real exchange rate, making other industries uncompetitive. Thirdly, the volatility of oil, gas and mineral prices make it very difficult for governments to plan over the long term, even if they had the interest or incentives to do so. Fourthly, rent-seeking opportunities frequently lead to widespread corruption and, in many cases, violent conflict, as different groups or foreign governments seek to gain control over revenues. Given these opportunities, the conduct of a coup d’état, for example, can be understood as a form of rational economic action. Indeed one of the Columbia authors identified no less than six distinct mechanisms leading to natural resource conflicts: the ‘greedy outsiders mechanism’, three variants of the ‘greedy rebels mechanism’, the ‘grievance mechanism’, the ‘feasibility mechanism’, and the ‘weak state mechanism’. “Economic tests of the effects of natural resources on conflict, including those presented here”, the author notes, “continue to suffer from severe problems of data, model specification, and in particular to a sensitivity to coefficient estimates to variations in model specification” (Humphreys, 2005: 533). As Michael Watts has argued, what is striking about such analyses, “is the total invisibility of the transnational oil companies (which typically work in joint ventures with the state) and the forms of capitalism that oil or enclave extraction engenders” (Watts, 2004: 53; see also Watts, 2005). It is also striking that whatever their underlying mechanism, the solution to such conflicts is greater international regulation of resource revenues and greater transparency (Swanson, Oldgard & Lunde, 2003; Le Billon, 2005: 24).

  • 5 On the idea of an ‘economic experiment’ see, in particular, Timothy Mitchell (2005: 297): “Like al (...)

14The Columbia University project’s analysis of STP established the oil economy of the island state as the site for an economic experiment.5 The project was not primarily an analysis of a specific example (STP), but a practical attempt to create the conditions within which the implications of a more general analysis (of the resource curse) could be tested in an appropriate location. In effect, STP was conceived of as something of an island laboratory for natural resource economics (Greenhough, 2006). In this context, the Columbia team had little to say about the colonial and post-colonial political history of São Tomé e Príncipe. History remained outside the frame of economic analysis (Callon, 1998). As Ricardo Soares de Oliveira notes, recent discussions of STP focus almost exclusively on oil, to the neglect of an analysis of other aspects of political and economic life in the country. Commenting on a coup d’État by army officers in July 2003, he notes that “most analysts gave exclusive coverage to the perceived linkage with the oil contracts (a view aided by the coup spokesman’s constant references to oil and social justice) and all but forgot the country’s coup-prone past and the older grievances of São-Tomean society” (Soares de Oliveira, 2007: 239; Weszkalnys, 2009). The strength of the Columbia approach did not derive from its attention to the specificity of STP and its history, but rather from its effort to transform the São-Tomean economy into a particular example of a more general problem (the resource curse). The economists were less concerned with solving any specific conflict than with the problem of how to test a set of devices that might address resource conflicts wherever they occurred.


15São Tomé is not an isolated case, however. It is one of 23 countries signed up to the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), originally launched by British Prime Minister, Tony Blair, at the World Summit on sustainable development in Johannesburg in 2002. The initiative promoted transparency as central to the solution of the economic and political problems associated with the development of the oil, gas and mining industries in developing countries. Technically, EITI operates according to a principle of double disclosure: governments are expected to disclose what payments they receive from the extractive industries, and the extractive industries disclose what they pay to governments. These payments can be made through a variety of means. For example, The EITI reports for Azerbaijan (one of the few countries to have submitted a full report) break down payments into the following categories: monetary inflow as government’s entitlement in foreign companies’ production stream; payments in kind (of both crude oil and gas) expressed in barrels of oil and cubic metres of gas; bonuses; transportation tariffs; acreage fees; royalties; profit taxes; other taxes, as well as taxes paid by local Azeri companies (Moore Stephens, 2007). In practice, the payments made under each of these separate headings are aggregated. This means that nothing is recorded regarding payments to specific companies unless there is agreement from both the government and the companies concerned. Moreover, there is no indication as to whether payments in kind (of oil and gas) by companies to the Azerbaijan government had resulted in any delivery of actual oil and gas. Published figures do not reveal whether the Azerbaijan government had sold oil and gas back to the companies prior to delivery, resulting in an increased cash revenue payment. Moreover, if this were the case, the price paid by the oil companies to the government is not recorded.

  • 6 One response to this limitation is to gather more information and associate EITI with a wider rang (...)
  • 7 In order to counter the accusation that the transparency initiative is a vehicle of (neo-liberal) (...)

16The demands of the EITI are, therefore, very specific. They record one set of transactions in the circulation of natural resource revenues according to international accounting standards. They do not say anything either about the expenditure of such revenues by government or about NGOs funded directly or indirectly by the extractive industries. Nor do they record payments (in cash or in kind) along the oil production value chain such as payments to local subcontractors. Furthermore, while auditors provide an account of any discrepancy between the figures provided by governments and companies, this does not necessarily imply that all the figures are accurate or complete. If the aim is to reduce imperfections in the availability of information, then the reduction achieved is real but also quite modest. As a representation of the natural resource economy of a nation-state, the reports provided by the EITI process are limited.6 Given this observation, a number of countries might stand out as exemplary in their transparency, or in the level of their aspirations to greater transparency in the future. One is Mongolia, which has produced a particularly clear way of presenting information. Another is Timor-Leste, which has enthusiastically embraced the idea of revenue management as well as transparency. A third is Nigeria, which is intending to publish information on a wider range of payments, beyond those demanded by the initiative. The extension of the principle of transparency occurs both by enacting a general model and meeting the demands of validation, and also through the imitation and modification of exemplary cases.7 As we might also say in Tardean terms, invention, a process of political and economic invention in this case, occurs along a pathway of imitative modification (Tarde, 2001 [1890]).

17The narrowness and specificity of the Transparency Initiative suggests a number of responses. One is suggested by Harry West and Todd Sanders’ introduction to their collection of ethnographic essays on Transparency and Conspiracy. For West and Sanders, “in the globe’s constituent localities, key words such as transparency, conveying notions of trust, openness and fairness, must dance endlessly across the same terrain as vernacular key words expressing suspicion, hiddenness, and treachery” (West and Sanders 2003: 12). Certainly in Azerbaijan it is easy enough to hear stories of oil revenues actually spent by the government (on purchasing an expensive house in London rather building a hospital in Baku for example), or of corruption in government or the state oil company, SOCAR (‘a state within a state’). ‘Public secrets’, which may or may not be true, are common enough, and unsurprisingly so. Ethnographic studies of post-socialist societies have provided rich accounts of the multiple forms of corruption, networking and favours in post-Soviet economic life (Ledeneva, 1998; Humphrey; 2003). Historical and sociological studies of the Caucasus, in particular, have documented the failure during the Soviet era of national governments to exercise control over local elites in Georgia and Azerbaijan (Suny, 1994). Georgi Derluguian argues that following their appointment during the Soviet period, Heyder Aliev and Eduard Shevardnadze “realized that their primary aim had to be to placate Moscow while consolidating their local power base by appointing local clients” (Derlugian, 2005: 201; cf. Hibou, 2004).

18West and Sanders’ essay focuses on the opposition and relation between transparency and suspicion (or openness and conspiracy). This is, however, only part of the story of transparency. Their essay focuses on the production and circulation of rumour and suspicion, demonstrating in their words “how tenous, even illusive, trust is… in the midst of the turbulent transformations defining post-socialist societies” (West & Sanders, 2003: 11). While this may be true in general, what is striking about the Transparency Initiative is not that its operation necessarily conceals anything, but that it is not expected to reveal much. It does not necessarily hide the truth, but leaves a huge amount unsaid. It allows a vast space of discretion: the realm of what one chooses not to know, does not investigate, or deliberately overlooks. On one occasion before travelling to the Caucasus, I met with some officials working for the Department for International Development. As I left the building one of them offered me a word of wisdom: ‘you have to avoid listening to rumour’. His statement is one working definition of how to exercise discretion, a necessary feature of transparency.

  • 8 The Oil Fund is the fund set up to receive revenue payments. A substantial fraction of payments ma (...)
  • 9 Interview, Baku, June 2004.
  • 10 See: (accessed June 2010).

19But if transparency is rendered so specific in its focus, it is, therefore, also achievable. One senior Azeri official noted that the Azeribaijan government found little difficulty in signing up to the Transparency Initiative because the Oil Fund8 was already transparent: “as far as the oil fund is concerned I won’t say that we’ve had substantial changes because you cannot be more transparent than you are… [S]ince the adoption of the fund in 2001, in accordance with the instruction of the President [Aliev] we adopted this model”9. Although according to the technical definition of the EITI the Oil Fund was arguably not yet transparent at the time he made this claim, nonetheless the claim was plausible enough. Since then, Azerbaijan, in conjunction with BP and other companies, has taken a leading role in the Transparency Initiative, producing nine statements of its accounts; few other countries have managed to produce more than one or two. It was the first country to be validated – and therefore publicly recognized – as transparent by the time of the biannual EITI conference at Dohar in February 2009. According to a different assessment, the corruption perception index produced by Transparency International, Azerbaijan is joint 150th.10 It is quite possible that Azerbaijan, when its performance is assessed in different ways, can both lead the development of practices of transparency and yet, at the same time, fail to be transparent.

Assembling civil society

20The primary issue for the Oil Fund, however, was not how to produce an account of the payments received from oil companies, which was easy enough, but how to produce the right kind of witnesses who might accept these claims as true: “this is why we started to negotiate with all the stakeholders, oil companies, NGOs, DFID, because they are the focal point of the solution”. This problem was also central to the preoccupations of EITI and its NGO supporters, including the Open Society Institute:

“Accountability, transparency, and public oversight require the creation of checks and balances and a separation of powers among an array of institutions established to oversee the overflow of oil and natural gas revenues. They also demand input from civil society and the creation of a powerful sense of public ownership of the revenues... the chances for success of these funds would be improved by strengthening parliamentary oversight, improving budgetary transparency, and establishing independent citizens’ advisory councils to raise public awareness about and conduct monitoring of the countries’ oil and gas revenues” (Caspian Revenue Watch, 2003: 6, my emphases).

21Viewed in this way, what was central to the Transparency Initiative was not the production of information, but the collection of persons who would be able to have input into, monitor and exercise oversight over the transparency process. It implied the creation of a triangular relationship between government, the oil companies (both of whom produced information) and NGOs who exercised oversight over what information was produced. One Azeri NGO informant expressed the problem in terms of the need to create a space within which public discussion was possible: “there should be a forum, a process, that maybe [there] should be a movement… I would like to establish these mechanisms for the internal securing of information, experience, sharing and exchange”11. The problem in Azerbaijan was that NGOs did not necessarily behave in this way. Some took radical oppositional positions, rejecting the existence of oil industry developments that were already in process. Others, conversely, were associated or funded more or less directly by the government. Others were cautious about what they said in public. Some sought to uncover, through their own journalistic investigations, the true story of the ways villagers had been defrauded by the government, for example by changing land ownership records. Such investigations went far beyond the demands of the Transparency Initiative. The difficulty that those supporting the initiative confronted was how to foster an appropriate form of critical engagement with the problem of how to measure and manage oil revenues, rather than to engage in a wider confrontation with the government. In effect, ‘civil society’ had to emerge in a form through which it could perform the role expected of it. In Azerbaijan, few Western observers believed that there was a credible alternative to the Government of Heyder Aliev. This belief was held despite reports from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Election Observation Missions that elections in Azerbaijan failed to meet OSCE standards for democratic elections.12 In Georgia, by contrast, accounts of electoral fraud in 2003 had played a critical role in the Rose Revolution which led to the fall of the Shevardnadze government (Mitchell, 2009: 58-62). Unlike in Azerbaijan, Western observers considered Georgian civil society to be already sufficiently developed for a change of government to be possible. In this context, the political device of transparency could be applied not just to the operations of the oil economy, but to the mechanics of elections.13

  • 14 On the basis of these criteria, Azerbaijan was judged to have met the requirements for validation. (...)

22The behaviour, freedom and capacity of civil society are considered critical to the success of the Transparency Initiative. In 2006 it was agreed that countries that had signed up to EITI would, in general, need to be ‘validated’ by 2010. To this end, what was termed ‘a validation grid’ was agreed upon, against which countries would be assessed. This grid set out eighteen validation criteria including, for example: #2 ‘has the government committed to work with civil society and companies on implementation’; #5 ‘has the government established a multi-stakeholder group to oversee EITI implementation’; #6 ‘is civil society engaged with this process’, #8 ‘did the government remove any obstacles to EITI implementation’, #13 ‘has the government ensured that government reports are based on audited accounts to international standards’ (EITI, 2006). Each of these grid indicators was expanded on further so that, for example, “civil society groups involved in EITI should be operationally, and in policy terms, independent of government or the private sector” (ibid.: 14). The ‘validation grid’ additionally addressed the need for “outreach by the multi-stakeholder group to wider civil society groups… including coalitions (e.g. a local Publish What You Pay Coalition)”, “informing them of the government’s commitment to implement EITI, and the central role of companies and civil society”. On the basis of these criteria, the validation process for Azerbaijan took place in the autumn and winter of 2008.14

23Three observations follow from this. First, the validation process makes clear that the Transparency Initiative is expected to be performative. It is intended to foster the creation of the kind of civil society or public sphere imagined by Western social and political theorists such as David Held and Mary Kaldor (e.g. Held & Koenig-Archibugi, 2005). Writing on the Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict over Nagorno Karabakh, Kaldor argued that civil society and transparency provided the solution to the problem of conflict resolution: “[international organizations] could strengthen civil society to a much greater degree in the peace process so as to stimulate public discussion and mobilize greater public support” (Kaldor, 2007: 179). A similar logic is embodied in EITI. It is a device intended to foster the formation of a civil society prepared to engage in public discussion. According to a high-level panel set up to advise BP on the development of Caspian oil, BP’s transparency could have an “important and positive impact” on the “free exchange of ideas” in Georgia and Azerbaijan (CDAP 2003: 13). Kaldor and Held’s notion of transparency derives not from natural resource economics but both from relations with civil society organisations in Eastern Europe in the 1970s and 80s and the theoretical resources of post-Frankfurt school critical theory (Habermas, 1990).

  • 15 Interview, Oslo, October 2008.

24Secondly, although it is concerned with a wide set of issues (civil society engagement, the existence of government ‘obstacles’ and so forth), the validation process addresses these issues in a particular way. Validation was conducted by auditors whose names were chosen by the Azerbaijan government from a list drawn up by the EITI secretariat and board, which did not include any Azeri nationals.15 In this way, the validation process would not be contaminated by too much knowledge of local complexities, prejudices or conflicts of interest. In Azerbaijan I carried out research in conjunction with an anthropologist, Farideh Heyat, who already had conducted her own ethnographic fieldwork in Azerbaijan (Heyat, 2002), as well as a number of interviews with NGOs interested in the development of the oil industry. In these circumstances, I immediately gathered the excess of detail which is typical of field work. Once, after a long interview with one of the leaders of an NGO that had carried out community investment work for BP, Farideh criticized me for not asking more probing and critical questions about the personal connections between the NGO and the Aliev government that we had discussed before. For the anthropologist, what was external and hidden (the ‘realm of suspicion’ to use West and Sanders’ term) was of greater interest than what was in the open and merely presented to us. What was performed for our benefit pointed to the existence of social relations beneath (Strathern, 2000).

25Thirdly, if the validation process has a quasi-Habermasian logic, seeking to forge a space within which rational debate concerning matters of public interest can occur, the existence of that space is confirmed in a particular, technical way. In conducting the validation process quickly and without substantial local knowledge, validation will leave much unknown, and therefore unreportable. In any case, it was unlikely that Azerbaijan would fail its validation since – as it was the first example – it needed to pass as a good example of transparency for the Transparency Initiative to replicate itself elsewhere. However, Azerbaijan should not be a very good example of transparency, as that would allow any country to demonstrate that they are transparent: ‘even’, as one official put it to me, ‘Equitorial Guinea’. In this way, the development of transparency in Azerbaijan could be understood as something of a technical and political invention, which could subsequently be imitated in other enclaves of oil production (cf. Ferguson, 2005).

26Seen in this context, the audited accounts produced by the Transparency Initiative are arguably less important than the political assembly that needs to exist for these figures to be examined. The logic of the Transparency Initiative, for many of those associated with it, is that this political assembly or civil society forum will progressively learn to ask the right questions, gradually demanding more information about other matters beyond the narrow remit of EITI itself (concerning, for example, production sharing agreements, concessions, taxation, bonuses and so on). The technicality of the issues that civil society needs to be concerned with are important, partly because they are technicalities and civil society, if it is to properly function as such, needs to concern itself with technicalities (Schulz, 2005). There is an echo here of an argument put forward by Tarde in L’Opinion et la Foule. In this book, Tarde looks forward to the day when the public would read and digest social statistics rather than indulge in the highly contagious imitative and affective forms of behaviour characteristic of street demonstrations (Tarde, 2006 [1901]). The Transparency Initiative embodies this political logic. It is expected to provide a technical solution to the management of affect, a preventative cure to the contagious forms of imitative behaviour that Tarde saw in the late 19th century urban crowd (Salmon, 2005). Transparency, in effect, is a device intended to foster the formation of a rational civil society and a rational government, albeit in embryonic form. Conflict resolution between government and civil society is expected to occur not by opening up a potentially uncontrollable space of disagreement, resulting in the kinds of violent clashes between police and demonstrators that have occurred on the streets of Baku, but by focusing protagonists on the problem of how to generate and verify particular matters of fact (Shapin and Schaffer, 1985). Discussion of wider issues should begin, in this view, through the detailed examination of particulars and the adoption of general procedures.


27Talk of the importance of transparency has certainly become pervasive, not least in relation to discussions of the extractive industries. Yet it would be a mistake to equate transparency, as Christopher Hood suggests, with an all-encompassing regime of surveillance (Hood, 2006: 8-9). Indeed what is striking about the enactment of transparency, at least in the extractive industries, is that it appears to reveal fairly little.

  • 16 Research for this paper was supported in part by the award of a grant from the ESRC (‘Social and H (...)

28If we focus, however, not on what the implementation of transparency is expected to reveal but on what it is expected to do or perform, then this observation becomes less of a paradox (Callon, 2007). First, it is important to recognize that the implementation of transparency in the extractive industries takes an experimental form. As an experiment, transparency is intended both to transform the world within which it is conducted, and to persuade others that the results that are produced through this experiment are both true and valuable. In its lack of transparency, as we have seen, Azerbaijan has provided a particularly suitably location for the experimental application of transparency in practice. At the same time, oil turns out to be not just another industry whose operations can and should become transparent; for it is the lack of transparency of the oil economy that is thought by some economists to be at the root of the economic problems of many oil-producing states. Secondly, transparency implies not just the publication of specific information; it also implies the formation of a society that is in a position to recognize and assess the value of – and if necessary to modify – the information that is made public. The operation of transparency is addressed to local witnesses, yet these witnesses are expected to be properly assembled, and their presence validated. There is thus a circular relation between the constitution of political assemblies and accounts of the oil economy – one brings the other into being. Transparency is not just intended to make information public, but to form a public which is interested in being informed.16



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1 On the history of the idea of transparency in global financial institutions see Best (2005).

2 Transparency is something that needs to be actively promoted. According to a study from the Harvard ‘Transparency Policy Project’, “a generation of economists has shown that markets and deliberative processes do not automatically produce all the information people need to make informed choices concerning goods and services” (Fung, Graham & Weil, 2007: 6).

3 On the notion of agencement see Deleuze (1988), Muniesa, Millo & Callon (2007), and Caliskan & Callon (2010). On the history of devices for making things public see Latour & Weibel (2005).

4 See: (accessed June 2010).

5 On the idea of an ‘economic experiment’ see, in particular, Timothy Mitchell (2005: 297): “Like all sciences, economics faces the task of persuading people that what it says is true. To strengthen its arguments it must sometimes try and put them to the test. But compared to laboratory sciences, it faces a particular difficulty in establishing empirical evidence. The socio-technical world that economics describes cannot be rendered testable. For this reason, compared to many other sciences, economics attaches less importance to having clear tests and seems to pride itself in not needing them”.

6 One response to this limitation is to gather more information and associate EITI with a wider range of interventions. This is the approach, termed ‘EITI++’ proposed by the World Bank. “[This] will provide governments with a slate of options including technical assistance and capacity building for improving the management of resource-related wealth for the benefit of the poor. Through technical assistance, EITI++ aims to improve the quality of contracts for countries, monitoring operations and the collection of taxes and royalties. It will also improve economic decisions on resource extraction, managing price volatility, and investing revenues effectively for national development” (World Bank, press release 2008/269/AFR, Washington D.C., April 12th 2008).

7 In order to counter the accusation that the transparency initiative is a vehicle of (neo-liberal) colonialism there is now some consideration of whether countries such as Norway, Canada and Australia might be expected to become transparent.

8 The Oil Fund is the fund set up to receive revenue payments. A substantial fraction of payments made by oil companies to the Azerbaijan government takes the form of tax, which is not recorded.

9 Interview, Baku, June 2004.

10 See: (accessed June 2010).

11 Interview, Baku, June 2004.

12 See: (accessed June 2010).

13 Interviews and field notes, Tbilisi, March 2004.

14 On the basis of these criteria, Azerbaijan was judged to have met the requirements for validation. However, the auditors noted that the government had not fully established a regular multi-stakeholder group (#5): “In taking a view regarding Azerbaijan’s compliance with this indicator, we have considered the wording of this IAT very carefully and considered the historical context of the EITI process in Azerbaijan. We believe that whilst Azerbaijan’s previous institutional structure for EITI implementation enabled the achievement of the EITI’s key objective, namely the regular publication of EITI reports without unexplained discrepancies, the formation of a permanent MSG will enable stronger multi stake holder engagement in overseeing the strategic development of the EITI in Azerbaijan” (Coffey, 2009: A1-1).

15 Interview, Oslo, October 2008.

16 Research for this paper was supported in part by the award of a grant from the ESRC (‘Social and Human Rights Impact Assessment and the Governance of Technology’). I am very grateful to Farideh Heyat for her collaboration and assistance with fieldwork in Azerbaijan. My thanks also to Molly Altenburg and Gisa Weszkalnys for their comments, insight and suggestions.


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