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The Solomon Islands is one of several Commonwealth countries due to graduate from Least Developed Country status in 2021

Transitioning from least developed country status: are countries better off?

10 August 2018
Blog by Howard Haughton, Quantitative Analyst - Economic, Youth & Sustainable Development Directorate

The Least Developed Countries (LDCs) are an internationally defined group of highly vulnerable and structurally constrained economies with extreme levels of poverty. Since the category was created in 1971, on the basis of selected vulnerability indicators, only five countries have graduated and the number of LDCs has doubled.  One would intuitively have thought that graduation from LDC status would be something that all LDCs would want to achieve since it seems to suggest that transitioning countries are likely to benefit from increased economic growth, improved human development and reduced susceptibility to natural disasters and trade shocks. 

However, when countries graduate they lose international support measures (ISMs) provided by the international community. There is no established institutional mechanism for the phasing out of LDC country-specific benefits. As a result, entities such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund may not always be able to support a country’s smooth transition process.

Currently, 14 out of 53 members of the Commonwealth are classified as LDCs and the number is likely to reduce as Bangladesh, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu transition from LDC status by 2021. The three criteria used to assess LDC transition are: Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Gross National Income per capita (GNI).  Many of the forthcoming LDC graduates will transition based only on their GNI.  This GNI level is normally set at US $ 1,230 but if the GNI reaches twice this level at US $ 2,460 a country can graduate. 

So what’s the issue?  A recent Commonwealth – Trade Hot Topic publication confirms that most countries graduate only on the basis of their GNI, some of which have not attained significant improvements in human development (HAI) and even more of which fall below the graduation threshold for economic development due to persistent vulnerabilities (EVI).  This latter aspect raises the question as to whether transitioning countries will, actually, be better off after they graduate.

Given the loss of ISMs and the persistent economic vulnerabilities of many LDCs, it is no surprise that some countries are actually seeking to delay graduation, Kiribati and Tuvalu being two such Commonwealth countries despite easily surpassing twice the GNI threshold for graduation. 

How is it possible that a country can achieve economic growth but not have appreciable improvements in resilience to economic vulnerability?  Based on a statistical analysis discussed in the Trade Hot Topic paper, a regression model, based on all forty-seven LDCs, was produced.  The model revealed that there was no statistically significant relationship between economic vulnerability and gross national income per capita.  The analysis was repeated just for Commonwealth countries and similar results were obtained. 

Most importantly, analysis revealed that there was a positive relationship between GNI and EVI. In other words, increases in wealth (using GNI as a proxy) is likely to result in an increase in economic vulnerability.  This latter result is counterintuitive since one would expect more wealth to result in less economic vulnerability.

So what’s the take away?

The statistical results do not necessarily imply that improving the factors affecting economic vulnerability cannot result in improvements to economic prosperity.  It does suggest, however, that either insufficient efforts have gone into effecting such improvements or that there are natural limits to the extent to which such improvements can be effected.

One thing is clear, the multilateral lending agencies should revisit the removal of measures supporting climate change or other vulnerabilities for LDCs on graduation, since the empirical evidence suggests that countries could fall back into LDC status or stagnate and be unable to achieve sustainable development. Whilst transitioning from LDC status should be desirable, it should not be an end in itself. Rather than to transition and remain extremely vulnerable, countries should be resistant to such change or continue to receive more targeted support until vulnerabilities are reduced to more acceptable levels.

What are your thoughts?

Contact me at h.haughton@commonwealth.int to share your perspective.

This blog is the first of a 2-part blog series on LDC graduation.

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