Country ratings in 2015 Trafficking in Persons report.

On Monday, human rights advocates strongly criticized the State Department for upgrading Cuba and Malaysia in its 2015 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. The promotion, critics charge, was entirely unrelated to actual efforts by the Cuban and Malaysian governments to do anything about human trafficking. Instead, the Obama administration’s higher rankings reflect the current U.S. rapprochement with Cuba and the desire to finalize a trade agreement that includes Malaysia.

In some ways, this news is unremarkable. The annual release of the rankings is typically accompanied by accusations that political motivations shape the placement of countries into different tiers. Indeed, governments themselves often attribute their unfavorable grade to unsavory U.S. motives rather than their countries’ poor record on human trafficking.

Why would anyone care how the United States rates countries in an annual report? After all, it is mostly a symbolic exercise in public shaming. Tier 1 countries are adjudged to meet all the standards set out by the United States, tier 2 countries can be placed on a “watch list,” and tier 3 countries are those “whose governments do not fully comply with the minimum standards and are not making significant efforts to do so.” Theoretically, tier 3 countries could face sanctions, but those sanctions are typically waived, unless the United States is already sanctioning that country for other reasons.

Ranking and shaming

In a 2015 article in the American Journal of Political Science, Duke’s Judith Kelley and Harvard’s Beth Simmons nonetheless find demonstrable effects of the ranking system. Simply being included in the report as well as being placed on the watch list correlates with domestic criminalization of human trafficking (a key indicator used by the State Department) even after controlling for other factors that shape how governments act toward human trafficking.

Kelley and Simmons cannot definitively prove why governments apparently alter their behavior after the United States starts reporting on human trafficking. But their theory highlights the role of information, monitoring and ranking in exerting social pressure on governments. They argue that the report is a form of what Joseph Nye called soft power: the ability of the United States to influence behavior of others not by using its superior military or economic power but by setting standards, spreading information, and otherwise nudging countries to adopt its values and policies.

Kelley and Simmons point to the growing use of comparative numerical rankings in many areas of international politics, not just by the United States. The World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business Index, Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index are other examples of influential rankings. Governments appear to care a lot about how they fare on such numerical assessments, perhaps because these provide comparative information to their citizens or foreign investors. It is one thing to be judged negatively — but it is another to be ranked lower than a competitor.

Monitoring the monitor

Ranking entities on how they fight human trafficking or achieve another social goal may be based on some objective criteria and numerical data, but the final decisions are inherently subjective, with plenty of room for judgment. We really have no way to objectively assess whether Malaysia truly belongs in tier 2 or 3. But assigning numerical values gives the pretense of objective knowledge.

This means that those who rank have power. And those who have power must be held accountable.  Scrutinizing the annual TIP report is one way to do this.