The State Department just released its human trafficking report

Here’s why it matters

(iStock/Lily illustration)

Adapted from a story by Judith Kelley for The Washington Post.

The State Department has released its annual Trafficking in Persons report on human trafficking. The big headline was that China was downgraded to Tier 3, the lowest ranking, suggesting that the Trump administration had decided to rebuke China by grouping it with the likes of Syria, Iran and North Korea.

The report grades countries on how well or poorly they are doing in combating human trafficking. This approach — which I call “Scorecard Diplomacy” — has become increasingly important in international relations. Countries often really care about their scores. Here’s how it works.

A scorecard is a way of rating or ranking how countries or other actors perform in a given policy area. These scorecards are not one-off rankings; they recur, usually yearly.

More and more scorecards have been appearing, covering more and more topics. The U.S. government has scorecards for areas as varied as aid, religious freedom, narcotics control, child labor and international property rights protection.

First of all, they are easier to understand and digest than complicated policy reports. Instead of emphasizing detailed data, they sort countries into categories (e.g., countries that are succeeding vs. countries that are failing), or rank them with some score, showing which countries are at the top and at the bottom.

These categories and rankings are framed to pressure the countries being ranked. For example, if your country is at the bottom of a well-respected scorecard for “Ease of Doing Business,” you might find that international businesses start to avoid investing in your economy.

The TIP report doesn’t just rank countries. Producing the report involves U.S. diplomats on the ground engaging with governments year-round and orchestrating indirect pressure by media and civil society.

The stigma of the scorecard makes states change their behavior. Countries that criminalize trafficking also work harder on related efforts to fight the problem. In many countries, the TIP report has led states to set up new institutions, to train judges and police, to improve shelters, and to increase trafficking prosecutions and convictions. Thus scorecards can prompt real changes.

This proliferation of scorecards has brought more and more critiques. Sometimes the scorecards are based on questionable data, or questionable ways of organizing the data.

The TIP report has been criticized for inconsistency, shifting goal posts and U.S. arrogance. Duke University conducted a global survey of nearly 500 anti-trafficking organizations, more than 60 said they think the United States is an important actor in the countries where they work, with more than a quarter saying that the United States is the most important actor. Amazingly, only two organizations had a negative view. And people working for international organizations have told me that they appreciate the report enormously.

It’s hard for international organizations to criticize states frankly over sensitive problems, since they rely on those governments for funding, support and cooperation. At their best, scorecards can hold governments accountable and help spread solutions. That’s why it’s important to understand exactly how they can do this and when they succeed or fail.

Judith Kelley is the Kevin D. Gorter professor of public policy and political science and a senior associate dean at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Her book Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence their Reputation and Behavior is recently out from Cambridge University Press.