All these extremely fragile and underdeveloped economies have either recently been through a civil war or are suffering from ongoing sectarian or ethnic conflicts.
The world has enough wealth and resources to ensure that the entire human race enjoys a basic standard of living. Yet people in countries like Burundi, the Central African Republic or the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the three poorest in the world—continue to live in desperate poverty.
How do we measure how poor or wealthy a given nation is compared to another? While GDP per capita is often considered the standard metric, by compensating for differences in living costs and rates of inflation the purchasing power parity (PPP) can better assess an individual’s buying power in a particular country.
Poverty, mathematician Eli Khamarov said, is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit. Dictatorial and corrupt governments can make what could be a very rich nation into a poor one. And so does a history of exploitative colonization, weak rule of law, war and social unrest, severe climate conditions or hostile, aggressive neighbors. It is often hard to pinpoint a single cause of long-term poverty, hence why economists often refer to “cycles” of poverty. For example, a country in debt will not be able to afford good schools, and a poorly educated workforce will be less capable of fixing problems and creating conditions that will attract foreign investment.
The worst social and economic consequences of the coronavirus pandemic, it is clear, will be particularly felt in underprivileged households worldwide. Global inequality, the IMF has warned in its June 2020' World Economic Outlook update, could significantly worsen: “The fraction of the world’s population living in extreme poverty—that is, on less than $1.90 a day—had fallen below 10 percent in recent years (from more than 35 percent in 1990). This progress is imperiled by the COVID-19 crisis, with more than 90 percent of emerging market and developing economies projected to register negative per capita income growth in 2020”. In countries with high shares of informal employment, the IMF adds, lockdowns have led to joblessness and abrupt income losses for many of those workers. Furthermore, widespread school closures will have disproportionately negative effects on earnings prospects for children in low-income nations.
That is particularly true for the world's 10 poorest. All of them are found in Africa, where per-capita purchasing power is on average $1,181. By contrast, in the top 10 richest nations this figure reaches over $90,000. Two of them are within the Sahel region, where persistent and widespread droughts cause food shortages and associated medical and social problems. Four of them are landlocked, putting them at a considerable disadvantage relative to those with access to maritime trade. The decline in commodity prices in recent years has torpedoed their better chances for progress. All have experienced political instability, disputed elections, and ethnic or religious strife. And while all these countries have so far recorded fewer cases of coronavirus than most nations around the world, the spread of the infection is picking up pace rapidly. A large number of cases and deaths, sadly, will go unreported.
Values are expressed in current international dollars, reflecting a single year's currency exchange rates and PPP adjustments. Data source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook Database, October 2019.
THE 10 POOREST COUNTRIESIN THE WORLD
10. Sierra Leone
Current International Dollars: 1,690 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Two are the facts that most people know about Sierra Leone: that it is extremely rich in diamonds, and yet very poor. The main culprit is the brutal civil war that—stemming from the desperate social and economic conditions of the population, the youngest in particular—erupted in 1991 and lasted until 2002. The trade of illicit gems—or “blood diamonds”, as they are often referred to—played a crucial role in perpetuating the conflict. At the same time, given the informal nature of the industry and the high degree of corruption at all levels, local communities had been historically excluded from any economic benefit.
Almost two decades after the end of the war, this nation of less than 8 million is still struggling. Its democratically-elected—although highly contested—governments have failed to meaningfully modernize the economy, which remains reliant on subsistence and small-scale agriculture providing support or employment to about 75% of the rapidly growing population. Poor infrastructure, lack of education and gender inequality contribute to the dire situation.
9. South Sudan
Current International Dollars: 1,602 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
South Sudan is the newest nation in the world. It was born on July 9, 2011, six years after the agreement that ended the conflict with Sudan, Africa's longest-running civil war. However, violence has continued to ravage this land-locked state of 11.2 million. Formed by the 10 southern-most territories of Sudan and home to around 60 indigenous ethnic groups, a new conflict broke out in 2013 when president Salva Kiir accused his former deputy, rebel leader Riek Machar, of staging a coup. As a result, it is estimated that as many 400,000 people were killed in clashes and nearly 4 million have been internally displaced or fled to neighboring countries.
South Sudan could be a very rich nation, but with oil accounting for almost all of its exports, falling commodity prices and rising security-related costs hammered the country's economy. Outside the oil sector, the majority of the population is employed in traditional agriculture, although violence often prevents farmers from planting or harvesting crops.
Still, people of South Sudan may finally have a shot at living more prosperous lives. After signing a ceasefire and a power-sharing agreement two years ago, last February government and opposition parties formed a unity cabinet led by president Kiir and Machar as first vice president. So far, they have been successful in reducing politically motivated conflicts. Inter-ethnic hostilities, however, have continued in some parts of the country, threatening the fragile agreement.
Current International Dollars: 1,413 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Africa’s oldest republic has also ranked amongst the poorest nations for the longest time. While the country has enjoyed peace and stability since the ending of the civil war in 2003, its governments failed to adequately address serious systemic problems and structural challenges. To add to the difficulties, this country of just 4.9 million struggled to recover from the decline in commodity prices and the major Ebola epidemic that hit West Africa in 2014.
Yet, Liberians are still holding hope that George Weah—at one time named the world's best footballer—can change things around. Elected as president in 2017 with a program that focused on job creation, economic diversification and investment in critical infrastructure projects, his electoral promises were undermined by the decline in mining exports and rising inflation accompanied by the depreciation of the Liberian dollar. The country—along with Sierra Leone, Niger and two dozen others worldwide—is also on a list of nations on the frontline of impending Covid-19-driven food crises compiled by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the World Food Programme (WFP). A vicious cycle of declining production, increasing food prices and reduced farming labor opportunities—the document states—could trigger the worst hunger crisis in generations.
Current International Dollars: 1,303 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
The former Portuguese colony has plenty of arable land and water, and ample energy and mineral resources. Mozambique is also strategically located, as four of the six countries it borders are landlocked and depend on it as a conduit to global trade, and over the past 10 years has often posted average GDP growth rates of more than 5%. Yet, it remains among the top 10 poorest countries in the world, with large sectors of the population continuing to live well below the poverty line. While a 15-year long civil war ended in 1992, severe climate conditions, corruption and political instability never went away. To make things worse, attacks carried out by Islamic insurgent groups in the northern part of the country since 2017 have recently escalated, bringing the total toll to more than 1,000 people killed and another 200,000 displaced. The violence has not stopped French company Total S.A. from securing $15.8 billion in funding for its liquified natural gas project in the region—the biggest foreign direct investment in Africa to date and, hopefully, the start of a new beginning.
Current International Dollars: 1,240 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
One of Africa’s smallest nations, in recent years Malawi has made strides in improving economic growth and implementing crucial structural reforms. Its per capita GDP, which went from about $975 in 2010 to over $1,200 last year, is now projected to surpass $1,500 by 2023. This improved outlook has been overseen by a stable and democratic government that has received considerable financial support from both the IMF and the World Bank. Nevertheless, poverty is still widespread, and the nation’s economy— largely dependent upon rain-fed crops—remains vulnerable to weather-related shocks. As a result, while living standards in urban areas are broadly improving, food insecurity in rural areas is extremely high.
Malawi is a generally peaceful country that has had stable governments since gaining independence from Britain in 1964. However, disputed poll results are far from being an anomaly. Last February, the country's constitutional court annulled former president Peter Mutharika's poll win in May 2019's general elections citing vote tampering. Theologian and politician Lazarus Chakwera, who was sworn in in his place in June, declared that he wants to provide leadership "that makes everybody prosper". The rapid surge in Covid-19 infections recorded recently could put that plan on hold.
Current International Dollars: 1,105 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
With 80% of its this landlocked territory covered by the Sahara desert and a rapidly growing population largely dependent upon small-scale agriculture, Niger is under threat from desertification and climate change. Food insecurity is high, as are disease and mortality rates, and the army’s recurrent clashes with jihadist group and Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate Boko Haram have displaced thousands of people. One of the main drivers of the economy—the extraction of valuable natural resources such as gold and uranium—has also suffered from volatility and low commodity prices.
Nevertheless, the largest nation in West Africa seems to have finally entered a new political and economic transition phase. Wracked by military coups since its independence from France in 1960, in 2011 Niger declared veteran opposition leader Mahamadou Issoufou winner of the presidential polls. Since then, the adoption of a new investment code, improved access to credit and somewhat faster access to water have contributed to a sharp increase in foreign direct investment. Yet, while the country has so far reported a relatively low number of cases, the pandemic has exacerbated pre-existing economic vulnerabilities, prompting the government to review down its growth projections for the year from 6.9% to 1%.
Current International Dollars: 1,059 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
This small East African nation of just 3.5 million is one world’s least developed. With about 65% of its people living in rural areas and 80% of them relying on subsistence agriculture for their livelihoods, Eritrea was ranked 47th among 47 nations in the Sub-Saharan Africa region in the 2020 Index of Economic Freedom of the Heritage Foundation.
In 1962, Ethiopia’s annexation of the country sparked a 30-year conflict for independence that ended in 1991 when Eritrean rebels defeated government forces. The repressive regime of Isaias Afewerki, who is the leader of the sole political party and has governed since the country was formally established in 1993, has instituted a rigidly militarized society where defense spending drains resources for sorely needed public infrastructure. In the meantime, while all land is considered state-owned and property rights are nearly nonexistent, the main drivers of the economy—mining and agriculture—are highly vulnerable to commodity price fluctuations and climatic hazards. Hardly the conditions for economic prosperity.
3. Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)
Current International Dollars: 791 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1960, the Congo has suffered decades of rapacious dictatorship, political instability and constant violence. Now the country is ready to turn a page: on 24 January 2019, Félix Antoine Tshisekedi Tshilombo—the son of legendary opposition leader Etienne Tshisekedi—was elected as the new president.
He has his work cut out for him. His controversial predecessor Joseph Kabila—who had governed since succeeding his assassinated father in 2001—is credited for bringing an end to what is commonly referred to as the “Great African War,” a conflict that claimed up to 6 million lives, either as a direct result of fighting or because of disease and malnutrition. However, he did little to improve the lives of people who survived the war: over 60% of the country’s 89 million population still live on less than two dollars a day. With 80 million hectares of arable land, over a thousand minerals and valuable metals under its surface and a citizen median age of just 17, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the World Bank says—has the potential to become one of the richest African nations and a driver of growth for the entire continent. Political instability, endemic corruption and now the coronavirus pandemic continue to frustrate that potential.
2. Central African Republic (CAR)
Current International Dollars: 822 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
Rich in gold, oil, uranium and diamonds, the Central African Republic is a very wealthy country inhabited by very poor people. However, after claiming the title of the poorest in the world for the best part of the decade, this nation of just 4.9 million is showing some signs of progress.
For the first time since its independence from France in 1960, in 2016 the Central African Republic has democratically elected a president: former mathematics professor and prime minister Faustin Archange Touadéra, who campaigned as a peacemaker who could bridge the divide between the Muslim minority and the Christian majority. While his successful election has been seen as an important step towards national reconstruction, with about 75% of the population living below the poverty line and large swaths of the country still controlled by anti-government rebels and militia groups the path to recovery is still very long.
Growth, however, has somewhat already picked up, driven by the timber industry and a revival of both agricultural and mining sectors. The economy is also benefitting from the partially resumed sale of diamonds, which were found to be funding inter-religious armed groups and placed under international embargo in 2013. Yet, the government has struggled to restore sales and has seen only a fraction of the revenues it once did.
Current International Dollars: 727 | Click To View GDP & Economic Data
The small landlocked country of Burundi, scarred by Hutu-Tutsi ethnic conflict and civil war, has the rather unenviable distinction of topping the world's poverty ranking. With about 90% of its nearly 12 million citizens relying on subsistence agriculture (and the overwhelming majority of them living on $1.25 a day or less) food scarcity is a major concern: the level of food insecurity, in fact, is almost twice as high as the average for sub-Saharan African countries. Furthermore, the World Bank notes, access to water and sanitation remains very low, and less than 5% of the population has electricity.
How have things come to this, despite the civil war formally ending 15 years ago? Lack of infrastructure, endemic corruption, security concerns: the ingredients leading to extreme poverty are often the usual suspects. Pierre Nkurunziza, the charismatic former Hutu rebel turned president in 2005, had initially managed to unite the country behind him and to start rebuilding the economy. In 2015, however, the announcement that he would run for a third term—which according to the opposition was in violation of the constitution—reignited old disputes. A failed coup attempt followed, hundreds of people died in clashes and tens of thousands were displaced internally or abroad.
Just 55, Nkurunziza died last June after suffering a cardiac arrest. Evariste Ndayishimiye, an ex-general who was handpicked by Nkurunziza to succeed him at the end of his mandate, was sworn in ten days later. Will he bring change or just more of the same?
Gross domestic product (GDP) based on purchasing-power-parity (PPP) per capita.
Values are expressed in current international dollars, to the nearest whole dollar, reflecting a single year's currency exchange rates and PPP adjustments.
|2||Central African Republic||823|
|3||Democratic Republic of the Congo||849|
|31||Sao Tomè and Prìncipe||3,387|
|41||Papua New Guinea||3,983|
|61||Republic of Congo||7,174|
|89||St. Vincent and the Grenadines||12,454|
|97||Bosnia and Herzegovina||14,220|
|136||Antigua and Barbuda||29,346|
|139||St. Kitts and Nevis||30,578|
|142||Trinidad and Tobago||32,881|
|175||Taiwan Province of China||55,078|
|180||Hong Kong SAR||64,928|
|184||United Arab Emirates||69,435|
Source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook October 2019.