Economic Policy and Human Rights by Radhika Balakrishnan and Diane Elson apparently declares an intention to compare and contrast fiscal and monetary policy, public expenditure consequences, taxation, trade policy and pension reform in Mexico and the United States of America. The choice of countries is justified on several levels: they are of comparable size, differ in level of development, contrast in governmental approaches and, crucially, are both signatories of NAFTA, the North American Free Trade Agreement which, itself, suggests a commonality in certain policy areas. At the outset, the authors declare that the neoliberal economic assumptions that have dominated policy choice for thirty years have not worked, ostensibly because their main result has been the current crisis.
The authors thus attempt to illustrate this claim by examining a range of social, employment and economic indicators to assess the impact of the current paradigm on particular groups within both Mexico and the United States. But Balakrishnan and Elson also declare the intention of doing much more than this, in claiming that the framework they adopt could become transferable to other places and contexts. Their choice of framework appears to achieve exactly what they intend, and it does so quite spectacularly. And it is a position that could have benefited my own work a couple of decades ago, if only it had then existed.
My own research on education’s role in Philippine development found that increased use of market forces and privatisation in an education system already heavily reliant on the private sector produced distortions that undermined some of education’s potential and desired objectives. After the debt decade of the 1980s, increased reliance on market forces in Philippine education placed most high quality educational experience beyond the reach of anyone but the economic elite. And yet, declared policy stated that the promotion greater equality was one of the education system’s explicit goals. In the future, work intending to identify such contradiction will benefit from employing the universal reference point of the transferable framework identified in Balakrishnan and Elson’s superb study.
The authors begin with a short discussion of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights. Importantly, the rather general goals that this advises have been rendered more specific by subsequent declarations. And, by signing up to these, governments – presumably – declare their desire to see the declared goals achieved, both at home and abroad. Such general aims have thus become more specifically objectified via the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the Covenant on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women. Thus policy objectives, if not timetables for their achievement, in the areas of race, gender, employment and several other areas can be specifically identified as having been espoused by governments because they have willingly signed up to these treaties, even though that might have been prompted more by political expediency than commitment.
Using these objectives as a framework for evaluation, the book’s individual papers conduct a near-forensic examination of a range of Mexico’s and the USA’s recent economic and social policies in the specified areas in order to examine whether the agreed objectives have been furthered or hindered. Almost without exception, neoliberal policy conformity is shown to undermine these agreed objectives and often to impact differently from their declared intent on specific and identifiable target groups within the population. This evidence makes a strong case for greater and more active accountability of government action and thus also questions declared commitment to previously agreed – and politically convenient – principles. In more than one area, there is strong evidence to suggest that policies are mere populist window-dressing in that their stated objectives are in line with identified and desired goals whilst their implementation can only undermine their own stated intent.
Economic Policy and Human Rights thus provides much more than an examination of particular policy prescription in Mexico and the United States. Indeed it may even present an evaluative framework that could be applied by progressive analysts to any state or region that has adopted the objectives of these quite specific treaties. As such it will surely provide an important and enduring contribution to any debate on social and economic policy.