What determines the world’s poorest countries isn’t as clear-cut as dollars and cents. 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. 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.
So for the purposes of this ranking, we’re going to focus on the 2022 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.
While poverty is a measurable fact of life, it does not ultimately define a country, a community, or 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.
Despite having many natural resources, Guinea’s infrastructure has kept 55% of its 13.4 million people living below the poverty line. Over the last decade, the country saw initially high growth in per capita GNI (gross national income), however this has faltered in recent years due to the pandemic. Its GNI for 2021 was recorded at $2,540. Despite economic losses, life expectancy at birth has risen steadily over the last two decades, now sitting at 62 years (in 2000, the age was 51).
Yemen’s latest crisis began in 2014. However, years of previous instability have left the country even more devastated by the current conflict. The World Food Program notes it was one of the poorest countries in the world prior to fighting that broke out in 2015. Currently, 80% of the population requires humanitarian aid. The latest data from the World Bank doesn’t account for these circumstances, however the country’s GNI in 2013 was already low at $3,520. The World Bank also estimates the current life expectancy at 66 years.
8. Burkina Faso
Bordered by both Mali (#6) and Niger (#3), Burkina Faso is a former French colony that has suffered increasing instability, conflict, and coups ever since gaining independence in 1960. In 2019, we wrote that “an increasingly tenuous humanitarian situation could threaten civilians (especially those living in the most vulnerable conditions) with further development losses.” Unfortunately, since then we’ve seen Burkina Faso’s humanitarian crisis escalate. Over 850,000 children are out of school, and the country’s life expectancy is just over 62 years. It’s also one of the world’s most water-stressed countries.
Mozambique is a country rich in natural resources and has made great strides towards becoming one of Africa’s fastest-growing economies. However, it is still recovering from a 16-year civil war that began in 1975 (when it gained independence from Portugal) and ended in 1992. In addition to the economic realities of the COVID-19 pandemic, it also suffered extreme loss during 2019’s Cyclone Idai. The World Bank estimates a (GNI) per capita of $1310 and a life expectancy of 61 years.
The fourth-largest country on the African continent, Mali’s capital of Timbuktu once flourished as a trading post. Today, however, the country (which, like Burkina Faso, gained independence from France in 1960) has a GNI per capita of $2,370 and a life expectancy of 60. Ongoing conflict has kept over 1.3 million children out of school.
Burundi has been in conflict consistently since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, culminating in a civil war in 1994. Following a significant drop in GNI in 2015, the country has begun to recover, however the number is still quite low at just $800. Life expectancy is 62 years old, and over 200,000 children are out of school (a 30% increase compared to pre-pandemic enrollment numbers).
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.
4. Central African Republic
The Central African Republic consistently ranks among the world’s hungriest countries (in recent years, it was ranked the hungriest country). In 2022, the country marked a decade of violence that has led to an overwhelming — and underreported — humanitarian crisis. The violence that broke out in 2012 escalated sharply in 2017, and caused even further suffering and instability following the December 2020 general elections. Much of this toll has gone unreported in American media.
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.
The connection between hunger and poverty is apparent here, with a life expectancy of just 54 years and 45% of the population facing food insecurity. It’s also one of the worst countries to be a mother, with a maternal mortality rate of 1,000 deaths for every 100,000 live births. 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.
When we first wrote this list in 2019, Niger ranked as the world’s poorest country. While it now sits at #3, that doesn’t mean the needs are any less dire. Over the years, the country’s situation has only worsened as the humanitarian context grows more dire due to insecurity, hunger, the climate crisis, and COVID-19. All of these elements make the cycle of poverty even more difficult to break for millions of Nigeriens living on less than $1.90 per day. Poverty in Niger has also increased over the course of the pandemic due to lockdowns and border closures.
Concern has worked in Niger for nearly 20 years, and helps communities face several daunting development challenges exacerbated by violence, migration, and population growth. It is also one of the countries most affected by climate change. 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.
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. 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 $1,540 and its average life expectancy is 55 years.
Concern has worked in Chad since 2007, and in the last five years we’ve stepped up our efforts in an already-precarious country following added aggravation that has left 42% of Chadians below the poverty line. 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.
1. 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 2021, the World Bank estimated that over 76% of South Sudanese are living in extreme poverty. Life expectancy is just 58 years. Widespread displacement puts undue pressure on people’s ability to cope, with over 2.3 million refugees living abroad and another 1.74 million internally displaced.
Concern’s response to South Sudan’s crisis began before the country gained its independence. In response to the growing needs, we provide both emergency and long-term development programming, with a special focus on maternal and child health and addressing South Sudan’s hunger crisis.