What is in a Percentage?: Calculation as the Poetic Translation of Human Rights
Increasingly, the efficacy of human rights, international norms, and commercial standards is deposited in numbers as measures of social and financial value. Taking the form of indicators, goals, and targets, these numbers are active participants in the everyday practices through which the law is constituted around the world. This paper examines the normative ability of percentages as numeric devices that transform measures of value across legal domains. The paper draws on two examples: a) the generation of indicators by NGOs promoting the Human Right to Water, and b) the technical work of regulators attempting to regulate water prices to follow the 3% affordability target that the United Nations advocates for. I argue that the process of translating human rights into numbers bestows rights with an afterlife that expands their reach into new domains. I also suggest that such process of translation is poetic and that exploring numbers and their role in lawmaking from a poetic point of view reveals the rich social lives that numbers lead. Attending more carefully to these numbers also shows the political possibilities that translation processes across genres of communication afford a philosophy of human rights preoccupied not only with their violation, but also with their implementation.