Did you care about your grades in school? Maybe yes, maybe no. Perhaps you thought that your own personal learning and experience was more important than some arbitrary number some outside entity assigned you. Or perhaps you realized that regardless of how your grades were obtained, it mattered because others (parents, peers, universities) believed them to matter.
Recently a number of IR scholars have been pursuing a similar line of inquiry, but for states rather than schoolkids: do governments care about the grades that they get from outside observers? There are, after all, an extraordinary number of international actors that periodically rank countries all around the world on a wide range of criteria, from how free they are, to how easy it is to do business in them, to how happy they are, to the degree they can be considered a “failed state,” or even on how well they provide their citizens with iodine.
Do these rankings matter at all? Do governments change their behavior in response to receiving either good or bad grades? An excellent piece recently published in the Washington Post by Duke University political scientist Judith Kelley provides a quick literature review of the emerging consensus on what is being called “Scorecard Diplomacy.” I encourage anyone interested in this topic to read it in full, but the main bits are probably these:
Why should states, or anyone else, care about scorecards? 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. […] My recent book on the TIP report on human trafficking explains what I call the “cycle of scorecard diplomacy.” 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. […] Because countries are rated again and again, they have an incentive to improve their behavior in the hopes of boosting future grades. As a result, states pay more sustained attention to an issue than they would do if they were just shamed in an ad hoc way. Beth Simmons and I have shown that countries criminalize human trafficking more quickly when they are included in the report, get worse grades or see their grades drop. My work on TIP shows that this is not just because countries fear being sanctioned. 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.
In addition to the evidence that Kelley, Simmons, and others have found, my own work going through U.S. diplomatic cables confirms that government officials around the world really do care about the results of external benchmarking. For instance, in November 2009 the Tanzanian president told visiting American diplomats that following a poor outing in the World Bank’s Doing Business report that year, he had set up an inter-agency team to respond to the shortcomings in Tanzania’s business environment the report had called out.
Taking a step back, the bigger picture here is that International Relations as a discipline is increasingly cognizant of the fact that states are not the hyper-rational, soulless, emotionally-stunted creatures that many scholars depicted them as during the realist and rationalist heydays of the 1980s and 1990s. States are disembodied, corporate actors, yes, but they are ultimately comprised of individual human beings and often respond in typically human ways to circumstances. For instance, states can be shamed; states avoid actions that will cause them cognitive dissonance, even if they are in the state’s material interest. States “puzzle about problems” and learn from one another. In short, states are “social.” So maybe it’s actually not that surprising that they do care about their grades.