Are recent trends in international law supporting child rights and promoting neoliberal economic reforms complementary or contradictory? To answer this question, we identify the component parts of child rights mobilization, recent global economic reforms, and child rights outcomes to theorize the particular relationships among them. Focusing on child survival and development rights in 99 poor and middle-income countries from 1983 to 2001, we find that countries' acquiescence to established international law concerning economic rights influences the successful implementation of most of these rights, while the ratification of child rights treaties does not show an effect during the period studied. National links to child rights nongovernmental organizations are also associated with improved child rights outcomes, as is being selected to receive a loan from the World Bank (for reducing child labor and increasing immunizations). We find weak support for the hypothesis that the implementation of loan conditionalities is more deleterious for rights that are costlier to implement. We also find that achieving the goal of neoliberal economic reforms - trade openness - results in less successful implementation of most child rights outcomes considered. Finally, in a related analysis, we find that the ratification of child rights treaties, as well as the adoption and implementation of structural adjustment agreements, enhances the presence of child-related organizations within countries.
Child rights represent a key site for learning more about the interaction of human rights and global economic discourses. In recent decades, an emerging worldwide consensus about the importance of child rights has coincided with the spread of neoliberal economic policies. To what extent do these twin forces work together, and to what extent do they operate in opposition to one another? In this analysis, we draw on theories of the global system to suggest ways to integrate analyses of human rights and economics.
On the one hand, there are some clear commonalities between recent human rights and economic trends. Both human rights and economic neoliberalism aspire to universality (see, e.g., Soysal 1994; compare Landgren 2005) and celebrate the autonomous individual (Boyle & Carbone 2006; Boyle 2002; Frank & Meyer 2002; Meyer & Jepperson 2000). International governmental and international nongovernmental organizations "IGO" and INGOs) are the global carriers of both these discourses (see Boli 8c Thomas 1997, 1999). Human rights and neoliberalism have both been critiqued as imperialistic (Anghie 2004; Rajagopal 2003), but both claim to be in the best interests of the poor and oppressed. As these similarities suggest, human rights and neoliberalism are symmetrical processes. Together, the two regimes create world contexts within which human rights violations and free markets become the business of the whole world rather than just particular nations. On the other hand, these two separate but intertwined discourses can place contradictory requirements on nation-states. To understand these potential contradictions, it is useful to trace the recent evolution of child rights and neoliberal economic policies.
Several transformations in thinking have placed children at the center of recent human rights discourse. First, personhood and the human rights of persons, in contrast to collective interests, became central to the world human rights regime (see, e.g., Boyle 2002; Berkovitch 1999; Ramirez 2002; Ramirez & Meyer 1998). For example, labeling female genital cutting as a rights violation required a weakening of the collective power of first nations and then families (Boyle 2002). Individualism made it possible to think of children as individual agents rather than simply as members of families or the future of a nation-state.1 These transformations also allowed the idea that individuals had a right to education to gain precedence over the idea that education was necessary to contribute to overall national development (Chabbott 1999). …