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‘Scorecard Diplomacy:’ Rating Nations on the Fight Against Human Trafficking

April 29, 2015

by Becky Richards

Across the globe, 21 million people are victimized by human trafficking, a form of modern slavery. Judith Kelley has devoted much of the past three years to studying the United States’ efforts to fight this persistent problem. She has focused her analysis on the impact of the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons (TIP) annual report.

Kelley, a political scientist and senior associate dean at Sanford, coined the term “scorecard diplomacy” to describe the way the State Department researches and uses the TIP report. Since 2001, the TIP report has ranked countries’ enforcement of laws against human trafficking. The report now includes 190 nations, and is the world’s most comprehensive record of governmental anti-human trafficking efforts, Kelley said.

“It’s pretty unprecedented the way the State Department is going about its diplomacy on human trafficking,” she said.

Burmese migrant workers at the Pae Pla Pier in Mahachai, Thailand, are hauling barrels of fish from trawlers to trucks. 

Photo: Burmese migrant workers at the Pae Pla Pier in Mahachai, Thailand, are hauling barrels of fish from trawlers to trucks.  Many are undocumented and vulnerable to traffickers.  Photo credit: Solidarity Center/Jeanne Hallacy, 2014.

The report’s originated in the Victims of Trafficking and Violence Protection Act, enacted in 2000, which created the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons within the State Department. Initially, the United States was omitted from its own international grading system, a decision reversed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after years of complaints from other countries.

book jacket“Going far beyond any other prior practice, not only by the United States but by any country around the world, ever, this report was to not only monitor, but also categorize – essentially rate – countries on their relative performance on anti-trafficking efforts. This exercise was intentionally designed to be very public,” Kelley said.

Each country is ranked according to its level of effectiveness in combatting human trafficking on a scale from one to three, one being the best, three being the worst. The system is intended to incite countries to act. The second level includes a “Watch List” subcategory for countries at risk of dropping to the lowest level in the following year.

“Instead of just your normal engagement with domestic officials on the ground, the U.S. is using this very overt public shaming, grading and monitoring of countries to get domestic officials to respond to the pressure that they’re trying to put on them,” she said.

Nations have used public shaming as a tactic in the past but not necessarily in this manner.

“Traditional shaming is very ad hoc. It happens one time. With ‘scorecard diplomacy’ there is the expectation that this grading and rating comes up every year. So not only can countries be shamed, but countries also have the opportunity to improve if they take certain actions,” she said.

The annual report motivates nations to continue addressing trafficking as a core issue.

“This type of diplomacy engenders a willingness to cooperate among national officials who want to avoid being shamed in the future. This repeated scoring is underlying the leverage the United States is gaining vis-à-vis other countries in this process,” Kelley said.

“By publishing this report, the U.S. has made certain demands: Countries should criminalize trafficking, enact domestic laws that make it illegal to sell people and enact appropriate sentences for that crime,” Kelley explained.

Predictably, public shaming tactics garner some negative feedback.

“It’s not a policy everybody is happy with,” Kelley said. “Some countries think the U.S. has no right doing this, or disagree with the way the recommendations are carried out or the content of the recommendations.”

With funding from the National Science Foundation and the Smith Richardson Foundation, Kelley analyzed more than 9,000 diplomatic cables, surveyed NGOs around the world and is now conducting case studies and interviews.

For the survey, she enlisted student researchers to compile a database of more than 1,000 NGOs working on human trafficking. Kelley then connected with the Polaris Project, which also was trying to create a database to facilitate inter-NGO communication and help trafficking victims return to their country of origin. Kelley offered them her database, and the data was published online as an interactive map.

“This database was able to facilitate increased cross-national cooperation in helping trafficking victims,” Kelley said.

Kelley’s research showed the TIP report has influenced whether countries have adopted domestic legislation to criminalize trafficking. Countries included in the report enacted legislation faster, as did countries given lower scores. A decrease in grade or being placed on the “Watch List” prompted countries to act more speedily in adopting laws.

“In some countries, under some conditions, it does matter,” she said.


“Politics by Number: Indicators as Social Pressure in International Relations.” Judith G. Kelley and Beth A Simmons. American Journal of Political Science 59 (1) 55-70. January 2015 DOI: 10.1111/ajps.12119