Annual grades are changing how countries consider human trafficking policies

Government officials might take a lesson from their schooldays as a way to enact change around the world, according to an approach known as “Scorecard Diplomacy.”

Research by Judith Kelley, a Senior Fellow at the Kenan Institute for Ethics, shows that governments may act like boastful parents placing a report card on the fridge to highlight good grades issued by the U.S. State Department in the area of human trafficking. Conversely, low scores from America’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report can cause embarrassment, forcing some countries to reconsider their efforts in combating forced labor and sexual exploitation. The work provides an important look at aspects of policy and human rights, two programmatic areas of research at the Kenan Institute for Ethics.

“Every single country reacts every single year,” said Kelley, who serves as Senior Associate Dean at the Sanford School of Public Policy and Terry Sanford Professor of Public Policy and Political Science. “Nobody just lets this go by.”

Of particular note in 2017’s report is the downgrade of China to the lowest tier – Tier 3 – which is reserved for countries that aren’t showing signs or effort or progress. China is now lumped with the likes of Syria, Iran and North Korea.

“Dropping China pushes back against criticism from last year’s report that the U.S. was too lenient on them,” Kelley explained. “But you can also read into it that the administration clearly wants to take a strong stand on China to highlight a number of issues and maybe get China to act on issues related to North Korea.”

To understand the political impact of the human trafficking report, Kelley spent six years creating a global survey of NGOs, and examining case studies, diplomatic cables, media stories, interviews, and other documents. Her findings led her to realize that countries rated poorly by the State Department often fear sanctions by the U.S. or an impact on tourism.

“What countries are really concerned about is their image and reputation,” Kelley said. “They don’t like being stigmatized in this way and grouped with others they consider poor peers.”

In 2009, for example, Kelley notes that Israel worked to focus on human trafficking after being tiered with countries like Afghanistan, Jordan and Botswana.

The international relations implications led Kelley to publish this spring the book “Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading State to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior” and added to the idea in a recent op-ed in the Washington Post explaining why the annual human trafficking report matters.

The aftermath of the annual report is part of a larger discussion around human rights, Kelley said, as human trafficking worsens around the world, especially in places like Libya and in Africa. According to estimates from the International Labour Organization (ILO), almost 21 million people are victims of forced labor, a number which has grown considerably since the ILO’s 2005 estimate of 12.3 million.

“The influence of the report has come a long way as we demand more evidence and data-based information,” Kelley said. “There’s great overlap from a policy perspective combining human rights with global governance.”

Read more about Kelley’s research on the Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog and in her book, Scorecard Diplomacy.