What determines the world’s poorest countries isn’t as clear-cut as dollars and cents.
Thinking beyond “poor”
“Poverty” defines an economic situation in a specific moment in time, and is so multi-dimensional as a concept that any ranking is going to be incomplete and not fully representative. While poverty is a measurable fact of life, it does not ultimately define a country, a community, or (especially) an individual. The fight against poverty — if it is to be won — rests in the hands of the people we work with. Our job is to help them find the tools and resources they need.
What’s more, categorizing the poorest countries in the world isn’t as simple as ranking total wealth. Data are often hard to come by in some of the most vulnerable countries, and relying on the gross domestic product (GDP) as a ranking factor doesn’t account for all of a country’s wealth. In fact, we’re only ranking by what a country produces versus what it earns.
So for the purposes of this ranking, we’re going to focus on the 2019 United Nations Human Development Report. This takes into account:
- Gross National Income (GNI)
- Life expectancy at birth
- Expected and mean years of schooling
- The UN Human Development Index (HDI) value
It’s never a complete picture, but it gives us a more intersectional look at how we may approach ranking countries around poverty.
Mozambique is a country rich in natural resources and has made great strides towards becoming one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. However, the country is still recovering from a 16-year civil war that began when it gained independence from Portugal in 1975 and ended in 1992. The 2019 UN Human Development Report estimates a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $1,154 and a life expectancy of 60.2 years. Despite the devastation of Cyclone Idai in 2019, these numbers have gone up between 2018 and 2019, however there is still more work to be done.
9. Sierra Leone
Sierra Leone jumps from spot number 6 in 2018 to spot number 9 in the UN’s 2019 HDI. Life expectancy has gone up from 52.2 years to 54.3, and the GNI has risen from $1,240 to $1,381 per person. As the country continues to grow following the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak (and an 11-year civil war that ended in 2002), the outlook is still challenging. One area of focus for us is the country’s environmental challenges, which are directly linked to a number of past and potential disasters (such as the 2017 mudslide).
8. Burkina Faso
Bordered by both Mali (#6) and Niger (#1), Burkina Faso is a former French colony that has suffered increasing instability, conflict, and coups ever since gaining independence in 1960. Drought has also plagued the country, resulting in a mean 1.6 years of schooling compared to the expected 8.9 years. The country’s GNI per capita is $1,705, with a life expectancy of just over 61 years. An increasingly tenuous humanitarian situation, however, could threaten civilians (especially those living in the most vulnerable conditions) with further development losses.
Like much of the Horn of Africa, Eritrea has not avoided the economic and personal losses resulting from ongoing droughts and the 2020 locust crisis. The Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that the country faces one major drought every 3-5 years, which threatens the country’s agricultural communities (approximately 73% of all Eritreans). Nearly 12% of the country’s population has also been uprooted due to social and political instability and violence, creating one of the world’s largest current refugee crises.
The fourth-largest country on the African continent, Mali’s capital of Timbuktu once flourished as a trading post. Today, however, the country (which gained independence from France 60 years ago in 1960) has a GNI per capita of $1,965 and a life expectancy of 58.9. Ongoing war and conflict mean that the mean years of schooling in the country is just 2.4 (compared to an expected 7.6 years of schooling).
The Republic of Burundi has been in conflict consistently since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, culminating in a 1994 civil war. Unlike many other countries on this list, its GNI per capita has dropped in 2019 compared to 2018 — from $702 to $660 (although life expectancy has gone up by nearly 5 years). Most children only complete 3 years of schooling, against an expected education of 11 years. With 740 deaths per 100,000 live births, the country is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have a child.
Concern has worked in Burundi since 1997, with a current focus on health, nutrition, and livelihoods. Concern’s community-based health and nutrition work has been successful here, especially with improving the nutrition and overall health of those excluded from the national health system. Additionally, we place a high priority on maternal and child health in Burundi.
4. South Sudan
The Republic of South Sudan gained independence in July 2011, but has experienced a long history of conflict, displacement, and deepening humanitarian needs. As of 2016, the World Bank estimates over 82% of the South Sudanese population are living in extreme poverty. While mean years of schooling are comparable to expected years (4.8 and 5 years, respectively), life expectancy is just 57 years old, and GNI per capita is $1,455. Widespread displacement puts undue pressure on people’s ability to cope, with over 2.3 million South Sudanese refugees living abroad and another 1.74 million internally displaced.
Despite a $4 billion pipeline that links the country’s oil fields to coastline terminals, Chad is one of the world’s poorest countries thanks to poor infrastructure and conflict (most notably from the militant group Boko Haram). Ongoing conflict and the effects of climate change mean that nearly 48% of Chadians live in a state of economic vulnerability (per World Bank data from 2011). The country’s per capita income is $1,716 and its average life expectancy is 54 years. Most children receive just over two years of schooling (compared to the expected 7.5 years).
Concern has worked in Chad for 12 years, and in the last 3 years we’ve stepped up our efforts in an already-precarious country following added aggravation that has left 4.7 million people in need of humanitarian assistance. We are responding to the humanitarian needs of displaced populations in the Lake Chad area, implementing health and nutrition programs to deliver life-saving assistance. Our work in the Sila region of eastern Chad focuses on building community resilience to counter potential disasters.
2. Central African Republic
Unsurprisingly, the world’s hungriest country is also one of the poorest. In the 2019 Global Hunger Index (GHI), the Central African Republic was the only country with hunger levels classified as “extremely alarming.” The connection between hunger and poverty is apparent here: 2008 estimates from the World Bank suggest 62% of Central Africans are living at or below the poverty line, with the UN indicating a life expectancy of just 52.8 years. The country’s GNI per capita is $777, with a mean of 4.3 years of schooling completed against the expected 7.6 years.
Since early 2013, ethnic and sectarian fighting in CAR has developed from a silent emergency into a complex humanitarian crisis. Conflict has severely affected the livelihoods and living conditions of over half of the 4.6 million population. It’s also forced over half a million citizens to flee to neighboring countries, and has increased the number of Central Africans in need by 13% since March 2018. The country also has one of the world’s highest rates of child mortality.
In mid-2014, Concern began livelihoods, food security, water, and sanitation programs in Bangui and Ombella M’Poko prefectures to help those whose lives have been disrupted by violence.
A combination of a GNI per capita of $906, life expectancy of 60.4 years, and a mean 2 years of schooling (against an expected 5.4) lead to Niger once again topping the UN’s human development report as the world’s poorest country. World Bank data from 2014 estimate 44.5% of the country’s population of 21.5 million living in extreme poverty.
Concern has worked in Niger for 16 years, helping communities face several daunting development challenges, which are exacerbated by violence, migration, climate change, and excessive population growth. Poverty manifests in Niger through high levels of food insecurity, illnesses including endemic malaria, and poor access to services including water and sanitation. Crises around agriculture have compounded into hunger and nutrition issues and have affected much of the Nigerien population in the last 20 years, jeopardizing the lives of millions of people. This has led to three major crises in the last 10 years.
We launched our Integrated Resilience program in 2012 with 12 villages and 1,000 families. In 2014, we expanded to 17 more villages and now work with over 2,600 families to increase access to quality health care services and education, improve food security and nutrition, foster gender equality, and enhance livelihood systems and environmental protection — some of the main causes of global poverty.