International Organizations


The Politics of Tiered Membership in Intergovernmental Organizations: Institutional Design between Horizontal Differentiation and Vertical Stratification

Supervisors: Prof. Lora Anne Viola, Ph.D. (Freie Universität Berlin), Prof. Jonas Tallberg (Stockholm University)

Status: Defended in March 2019 at the Department of Political and Social Sciences, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany

Abstract: In my dissertation, I investigate systems of tiered membership in intergovernmental organizations (IGOs) and analyze why IGOs vertically stratify their membership systems across different categories.

The dissertation re-conceptualizes state membership in IGOs based on a participatory approach. Starting from the dominant legal tradition in IO research, which understands membership in terms of accession and participation exclusively in terms of the exercise of the right to vote, it develops a new definition of state membership based on institutional access to, agency capacity in, and continuity of belonging to an IGO community of states. With this participatory approach to IO membership, it is possible to distinguish different forms of institutional affiliation that a state-IO relationship can take and compare membership in these different categories across all IGOs.

Through a content-analysis of the legal documents of 189 intergovernmental organizations, I construct a conceptual typology of membership designs based on two dimensions, horizontal differentiation and vertical stratification. Distinguishing between participatory rights that states may be granted in different membership statuses along the dimension of vertical stratification, I identity four distinct tiers of membership that IOs use to vertically structure their membership and which together form a hierarchy. Using this newly developed typology for coding state membership, I compile a dataset on Status in Intergovernmental Organizations (STIGO) and one on Tiered Membership in Intergovernmental Organizations (TIMIGO) covering 189 and 179 organizations, respectively.

The datasets reveal that the number of states participating in IGOs’ main decision-making body without being full members has grown steadily ever since the first state has been admitted to a secondary membership category in 1930. In 2017, about 14 percent of the entire IGO membership were non-full members participating without a right to vote in IGO policy-making. The analysis shows that particularistic IGOs use vertical stratification to manage state-IGO relations in their environment. The comparison further shows that IGOs are reluctant to establish systems of tiered membership if this grants new states participatory rights in the decision-making process, restrictive in how many and which states they allow access as non-full members, and cautious when they undergo institutional reform of the membership design. The composition and identity of the core membership plays a critical role in the restructuring of the membership system and in admission decisions of new member states.

In sum, I argue that IO research has so far largely overlooked membership systems as a distinct institutional design feature of intergovernmental organizations and the complexity of the institutional design choices IGOs can make. The dominant legal tradition in IO research has practically erased an emerging empirical middle ground of states that have access to IGO policy-making process, though they are in most cases no voting members. Analyzing the development of systems of tiered membership can thus help to get a fuller empirical picture of state associations with IGOs and to lay out a theoretical foundation for explaining the membership structure as an intentional design choice by IGOs.