NGOs as child rights implementers in India: How NGO workers negotiate human rights responsibility in 'partnership' with a neoliberal and restrictive state

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis (monograph)

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Non-governmental organisations (NGOs) increasingly enter into “partnerships” with states to implement human rights, a phenomenon that has been studied both as a necessary inclusion of civil society in human rights practice, and as a slippery slope towards a neoliberal state retreat. What remains to be studied is how this partnership practice shapes the concepts of human rights and their duty bearers. What happens when the “covenant version” of rights – where the state is the duty bearer – meets this partnership practice? Through an ethnographic conceptual analysis inspired by Sally Merry’s “vernacularisation” theory and Sumi Madhok’s theory of “vernacular rights cultures,” this study analyses NGO-state partnerships in the paradoxically both rights-based and neoliberal, but also autocratising, Indian state. My case study is CHILDLINE, India’s national child helpline that is financed by the central government, managed by a foundation and implemented by small NGOs. I show how, in this context, a specific articulation of rights and duties was prevalent, namely one that emphasised “everyone’s” duty – society’s, the state’s, parents’, businesses’, NGOs’, communities’, “stakeholders’” – for realising children’s rights. It was an articulation that contained elements from both rights-based thinking, from neoliberal thinking, and from sevā, or “service”-based thinking. It was in curious contrast to what I call the hegemonic version of human rights duties, where children have a right by their state to be protected. I also found that in practice NGOs took upon themselves the role to fill “gaps” in the state’s lacking rights regime which, in their view, only existed “on paper.” I prompt us to think about these “gaps” between formal and everyday conceptualisations, and between law and practice, as not simply unfortunate or a parenthesis before we reach an ideal human rights state, but rather as an empirical reality of what rights are. Human rights are never fully implemented. Rather, implementation is a constant exercise between pressure on the state, action from the state, and filling gaps in the state’s implementation, and NGOs play a crucial role in rights implementation, a role they negotiate with a state they sometimes meet as an ally, sometimes as an antagonist, and sometimes as a reluctant bureaucracy. In other words, I show what happens when international human rights obligations that are based on on a vision of robust and unified statehood are imposed on fragmented, neoliberal and restrictive states where NGOs are key “partners”. I argue that the conceptual production and practice of human rights should not only be taken seriously when it comes from “hegemonic” or “vernacular” spaces, but also from these “semi-governmental” spaces in which rights and duties are practiced.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Department of History
  • Halldenius, Lena, Supervisor
  • Svensson, Ted, Assistant supervisor
  • Halme-Tuomisaari, Miia, Assistant supervisor
Award date2023 Dec 15
Place of PublicationLund
ISBN (Print)978-91-89415-95-9
ISBN (electronic) 978-91-89415-96-6
Publication statusPublished - 2023

Bibliographical note

Defence details
Date: 2023-12-15
Time: 13:15
Place: LUX Aula
External reviewer
Name: Sharma, Aradhana
Title: Associate Professor
Affiliation: Wesleyan University

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Social Sciences Interdisciplinary
  • Law and Society
  • Philosophy

Free keywords

  • child rights
  • India
  • NGOs
  • NGO-state partnerships
  • human rights
  • duty bearing
  • ethnography
  • conceptual analysis
  • implementation gap
  • neoliberalism
  • state


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