All these extremely fragile and underdeveloped economies have either recently been through a civil war or are suffering from ongoing sectarian or ethnic conflicts. 

Author: Luca Ventura

Peruvian children climb a hill in Puente Piedra shantytown to gain cellphone reception to continue their schooling amid the COVID-19 pandemic.


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.


8. Liberia

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.


7. Mozambique

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.


6. Malawi

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.


5. Niger

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%.


4. Eritrea

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.


1. Burundi

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.

Rank

Country

GDP-PPP ($)

1 Burundi 727
2 Central African Republic  823
3 Democratic Republic of the Congo 849
4 Eritrea 1,060
5 Niger 1,106
6 Malawi 1,240
7 Mozambique 1,303
8 Liberia 1,414
9 South Sudan 1,602
10 Sierra Leon 1,690
11 Madagascar 1,699
12 Togo 1,826
13 Haiti 1,878
14 Guinea-Bissau 2,019
15 Burkina Faso 2,077
16 Afghanistan 2,095
17 Kiribati 2,138
18 Yemen 2,280
19 Solomon Islands 2,303
20 Guinea 2,441
21 Rwanda 2,452
22 Mali 2,471
23 Chad 2,480
24 Ethiopia 2,511
25 Uganda 2,631
26 Zimbabwe 2,702
27 The Gambia 2,746
28 Comoros 2,799
29 Vanuata 2,957
30 Nepal 3,318
31 Sao Tomè and Prìncipe 3,387
32 Tanzania 3,402
33 Benin 3,446
34 Micronesia 3,562
35 Tajikistan 3,589
36 Lesotho 3,614
37 Senegal 3,853
38 Marshall Islands 3,868
39 Kenya 3,875
40 Cameroon 3,955
41 Papua New Guinea 3,983
42 Kyrgyz Republic 4,056
43 Sudan 4,072
44 Zambia 4,148
45 Tuvalu 4,277
46 Còte d'Ivoire 4,457
47 Cambodia 4,664
48 Mauritania 4,881
49 Bangladesh 5,028
50 Timor-Leste 5,254
51 Nicaragua 5,290
52 Honduras 5,395
53 Djibouti 5,568
54 Pakistan 5,872
55 Nigeria 6,054
56 Samoa 6,152
57 Tonga 6,486
58 Myanmar 6,707
59 Angola 6,752
60 Ghana 6,956
61 Republic of Congo 7,174
62 Moldova 7,703
63 Cabo Verde 7,729
64 Vietnam 8,066
65 Lao P.D.R. 8,110
66 Bolivia 8,172
67 El Salvador 8,313
68 India 8,378
69 Belize 8,664
70 Guatemala 8,705
71 Nauru 8,999
72 Uzbekistan 9,000
73 Guyana 9,094
74 Morocco 9,235
75 Libya 9,358
76 Philippines 9,471
77 Jordan 9,649
78 Jamaica 9,692
79 Ukraine 9,774
80 Bhutan 9,876
81 Armenia 10,866
82 Eswatini 11,160
83 Namibia 11,266
84 Ecuador 11,742
85 Dominica 12,008
86 Fiji 12,147
87 Georgia 12,227
88 Kosovo 12,322
89 St. Vincent and the Grenadines 12,454
90 Tunisia 12,661
91 Paraguay 13,584
92 South Africa 13,754
93 Sri Lanka 13,897
94 Albania 13,991
95 Indonesia 13,998
96 Egypt 14,023
97 Bosnia and Herzegovina 14,220
98 Mongolia 14,309
99 St. Lucia 14,492
100 Peru 14,719
101 Lebanon 15,049
102 Suriname 15,532
103 Colombia 15,541
104 Algeria 15,696
105 Palau 16,234
106 Brazil 16,462
107 North Macedonia 16,486
108 Grenada 16,717
109 Iran 17,662
110 Iraq 18,025
111 Costa Rica 18,037
112 Botswana 18,558
113 Serbia 18,564
114 Azerbaijan 18,616
115 Barbados 18,921
116 Gabon 19,057
117 Dominican Republic 19,411
118 China 19,504
119 Argentina 20,055
120 Montenegro 20,084
121 Thailand 20,365
122 Turkmenistan 20,411
123 Belarus 20,644
124 Mexico 20,868
125 Equatorial Guinea 21,300
126 Maldives 23,312
127 Uruguay 23,581
128 Bulgaria 24,595
129 Mauritius 24,996
130 Chile 26,317
131 Panama 26,822
132 Croatia 27,729
133 Romania 27,887
134 Turkey 28,264
135 Kazakhstan 28,849
136 Antigua and Barbuda 29,346
137 Russia 29,642
138 Greece 30,252
139 St. Kitts and Nevis 30,578
140 Latvia 31,402
141 Seychelles 31,693
142 Trinidad and Tobago 32,881
143 Malaysia 33,333
144 The Bahamas 33,665
145 Portugal 33,665
145 Poland 33,665
147 Hungary 34,046
148 Estonia 35,852
149 Slovak Republic 36,640
150 Lithuania 36,701
151 Slovenia 38,462
152 Czech Republic 38,834
153 Israel 39,121
154 Puerto Rico 40,067
155 Aruba 39,121
156 Italy 40,470
157 New Zealand 40,943
158 Cyprus 41,407
159 Spain 41,592
160 South Korea 44,704
161 Japan 45,546
162 United Kingdom 46,828
163 France 47,223
164 Oman 47,366
165 Malta 47,405
166 Finland 47,975
167 Belgium 49,529
168 Canada 48,246
169 Bahrain 49,529
170 Australia 50,725
171 Austria 50,931
172 Germany 53,558
173 Denmark 53,882
174 Sweden 54,628
175 Taiwan Province of China 55,078
176 Saudi Arabia 55,704
177 Iceland 56,066
178 Netherlands 58,341
179 San Marino 61,575
180 Hong Kong SAR 64,928
181 United States 65,112
182 Switzerland 66,196
183 Kuwait 66,387
184 United Arab Emirates 69,435
185 Norway 76,684
186 Brunei Darussalam 80,384
187 Ireland 83,399
188 Singapore 103,181
189 Luxembourg 108,951
190 Macao SAR 114,363
191 Qatar 132,886

Source: International Monetary Fund, World Economic Outlook October 2019.