Neoliberalism, transnational education norms, and education spending in the developing world, 1983–2004

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In some ways, the spread of education policies around the world closely follows the pattern predicted by world polity theory, which stresses the embeddedness of nation-states in a wider world culture (Meyer et al. 1997). World polity theory contends that ideas and structures spread throughout many countries in short time periods despite the vast differences across those countries. From the world polity perspective, countries adopt education policies because this marks them as legitimate participants in global society; more pragmatically, it can also increase the amount of funding they receive from international sources (see Barrett & Tsui 1999). Transnational legal processes can be seen as an expression of global society, and they shape state change. Over the past century, the state's obligation to provide free education became taken for granted, as global civil society promoted the obligation and international law mandated it (Meyer 1980). Today, 90 percent of the countries in the world have laws making primary education compulsory (Benavot & Resnick 2006). In other ways, the issue of education funding reveals some gaps in world polity theory's explanations. Although institutionalized, the idea of free education was subject to powerful challenges from international financial institutions (IFIs) in the 1980s and 1990s. Neither its maintenance nor its implementation was assured. In its current form, world polity theory has little to say about the process through which institutionalized ideas are maintained or the impact of disagreements on the perpetuation of institutionalized ideas. According to world polity theorists, key players in global civil society are transnational organizations, including international governmental organizations (IGOs) and international nongovernmental organizations (INGOs) (Meyer et al. 1997). These organizations have special legitimacy to set policy standards because they are seen as acting in the interest of others rather than in their own self-interests (Boli & Thomas 1999). INGOs, in particular, work with grassroots activists to translate the principles of international law into a local vernacular (compare Merry 2006) and use networks to share advocacy strategies (compare Smith 1995). This does not mean, however, that all of these organizations advance the same ideas. This raises the question of the role different organizations play in the development and implementation of particular perspectives.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationTransnational Legal Ordering and State Change
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages27
ISBN (Electronic)9781139206662
ISBN (Print)9781107026117
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009


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