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Ep. 41 What WikiLeaks Reveals About Human Trafficking

Across the globe more than 20 million people are victimized by human trafficking, the modern form of slavery. Judith Kelley has been digging in to the WikiLeaks documents to see whether ranking countries on how well they are tackling human trafficking issues is having an impact on their efforts. Kelley is the Kevin D. Gorter Professor of Public Policy  at the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. Her new book is Scorecard Diplomacy: Grading States to Influence Their Reputation and Behavior (Cambridge University Press, April 2017.)

Interview Highlights:

Kelly Brownell: As part of your exploration of this topic, you’ve analyzed a large amount of data from diplomatic cables from around the world and even looked into WikiLeaks material. What are you looking for when you’re looking at these things?

Judith Kelley: What I’m interested in as a political scientist is trying to understand what really motivates states to try to make reforms in areas where they don’t have an incentive to focus their resources or their time for various reasons. You might say, “Why wouldn’t countries want to improve this problem?” It turns out that after sort of the outright mafia, government officials are themselves in something like 57 countries in the last human trafficking report were listed as complicit in human trafficking.

There are a lot of countries in which people are taking cuts and it’s not so easy to promote these kinds of reform.

The whole notion here is to try and find out how we can motivate reforms of kinds that countries are not going to undertake by themselves. And as a political scientist, I am interested in finding out what pushes those buttons. Is it sanctioning those countries or threatening to sanction them? Is it giving them assistance? Is it trying to as you say shame them? Or is it a different type of approach?

I would say this approach is different from shaming in several important respects. It’s different from shaming because whereas shaming ad-hoc singles out somebody and says you’ve done bad. This approach praises the ones doing well, incentivizes the ones doing well to keep on doing well and allows you to compare yourself with others which has a different type of stigmatizing effect than just being singled out. And then it has the engagement and assistance and everything along with it.

What I’m looking for in the cables is trying to understand whether the theory I have about how this is working is evidenced in the interactions that are revealed in the cables. It’s difficult to know when we are studying any kind of policy that’s not sort of randomly distributed across countries to know whether a country is really changing their policies because of this report or is it other pressures on them that are leading them to change or not change. I am looking for evidence that it is driven by concern for these grades, looking for evidence that the United States embassy is really involved in providing practical and real input into the policies on the ground so I can actually trace the footprint of the policy on the outcomes.

Kelly Brownell: Can you give some specific examples of things you found in the WikiLeaks information?

Judith Kelley: From a policy perspective, it was very interesting to say how the interactions revealed that countries were motivated directly by getting a better grade. This was revealed in the cables by the fact that they would say things like “If we get this done by March 20, will it make it into the report?” That’s smoking gun evidence that they were really doing this because of the report. Those kinds of things were very interesting.

The level of interaction that was revealed in the reports was [also] very interesting to me. We tend to think of U.S. involvement in other countries as something that is very visible and strong-arming, but in some cables it was shown that the U.S. embassy was having input into how a government might organize its internal agency that might deal with this or even who they might put in charge of that—a kind of level of intrusion we’re not really aware of but that shows the influence that this kind policy can have.

From a psychological perspective, there are some comments that I found really precious. One in particular, when the ambassador was briefing the top official in Albania who was dealing with this policy and told him that Albania was going to be dropping to the watch-list, the cable says “His face went pale when told.” And I like that because you can fake a lot of things but you can’ fake your face going pale, right? That really revealed the shock that it was to this guy.

But there are also other things that show how countries are really comparing themselves. So when an official from Venezuela was interacting [that countries’] ambassador, protesting “We’re not as bad as Cuba on this issue.” Or Egypt saying, “After all, Egypt is not Thailand!” They really are taking offense to being “lumped together” with countries they don’t want to be lumped together with, and I found that really fascinating.

Kelly Brownell: It sounds like you believe the scorecard approach has been effective with respect to human trafficking?

Judith Kelley: I think the scorecard diplomacy approach has been good bang for its buck, meaning that it’s not cost us the same as the U.S. military, it’s also not rendering us the same impact, but when you think about the subtlety of the method, the relatively inexpensive approach, what we are accomplishing is worth it, it’s worth the effort.

It’s had success proportional to what’s been invested, that’s worthwhile. I don’t think it will work in all issue areas. I don’t think it’s going to get North Korea to give up nuclear weapons. I think that it should be thought of as part of our toolkit for how we approach issues.


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