The Politics of Status and Classification in Global Development

When international organizations classify countries as “Low Income Countries” or “Least Developed Countries,” they receive generous financial assistance and special treatment from the international community. While countries lose these benefits when they graduate from these categories, their graduation is viewed positively by the international community and often results in other social and material advantages. Faced with this tradeoff, some countries attempt to remain within developing categories, while others push to be seen as developed.

This dissertation explains why economic elites are so influenced by these classifications and why states therefore engage in behaviors aimed at changing their classifications. In so doing, it illustrates how countries balance their material interests with their desire for improved international status and traces how such status hierarchies emerge. Despite the assumed importance of status in the international relations literature, we have little understanding of the conditions under which it motivates state behavior or the variety of strategies that countries may use to obtain it. The dissertation speaks to both of these questions in a novel context by studying the status politics of developing countries.


Interviewing government officials in Kathmandu, July 2017

The first part of the dissertation explains why classifications so powerfully affect the way even elite economic actors perceive and treat these countries. I test my cognitive-strategic theory using cross-national data – exploiting arbitrary thresholds and shocks to data as sources of identification – and evidence from a lab experiment conducted on an elite sample. The second part of the project investigates the strategic responses of countries to seek or avoid certain classifications. I use cross-national data analysis and interviews with bureaucrats in Botswana and Nepal to illustrate how states balance their desire for status with their material interests.

In addition to extending the literature on status to a new domain, this project also joins a debate over the influence of international organizations in a world dominated by state actors. Many argue that international organizations simply reflect the preferences of the most powerful states and are not themselves independently powerful. This dissertation, however, shows that this view is too narrow: through classifications, bureaucrats within these organizations actually have great ability to influence the behavior of others in the international economy.

At a policy level, the project highlights how institutions like the World Bank and UN intentionally or unintentionally affect the opportunities and strategies available to developing countries. These lessons are particularly important for bureaucrats who are responsible for creating or maintaining classification systems as well as for economic elites who refer to these systems when making decisions.