The human side of poverty aside, 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. What’s more, relying on the gross domestic product (GDP) as a ranking factor doesn’t account for all of a country’s wealth. Even if we find a unifying metric, how do we account for exchange rates?
The International Monetary Fund, World Bank, and Central Intelligence Agency all rank countries by their per-capita GDPs (Gross Domestic Products). Given the variables at play, however, these lists are all slightly different from one another. Ranking by GDP also means we’re just ranking by production of a country versus its income.
For the purposes of this ranking, we’re going to focus on Gross National Income (GNI). We’re also going to take things one step further by referring to the United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports. This ranks countries not only by their GNI, but also by the life expectancy at birth, expected years of schooling, mean years of schooling, and their own human development index (HDI) value.
With all of this in mind, here are the world’s 10 poorest countries, in descending order:
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 2018 UN Human Development Report estimates a gross national income (GNI) per capita of $1,093 and a life expectancy of 58.9. According to the World Bank’s most recent estimate in 2014, over 46% of Mozambicans live below the poverty line. While it’s anticipated that citizens will complete 9.7 years of schooling, the mean years of schooling completed is just 3.5.
Concern previously worked in Mozambique between 1984 and 2017, and returned to the country in 2019 following the landfall of two major cyclones in the country (including Cyclone Idai). This emergency response has now moved into an early-recovery phase, as we equip subsistence farmers with seeds and other agricultural inputs to help them replace crops destroyed by flooding.
Africa’s oldest republic, Liberia suffered from a series of civil wars between 1989 and 2003. While peace has now outlasted war, GNI per capita is a mere $667 with a life expectancy of 63. Liberia was also hit hard by the West African Ebola epidemic of 2014-16, which infected 10,675 Liberians and killed 4,809. The outbreak has had a lasting impact on the livelihoods of survivors; the World Bank’s most recent survey of the country in 2016 estimated nearly 51% of the population living below the poverty line. While education is expected to last 10 years, most Liberians only complete 4.7 years of schooling.
The needs are enormous, and Concern has been active in Liberia for 23 years working to offset the effects of poverty. This includes helping with clean water initiatives to support the 42.5% of Liberians without access to protected wells, nutritional programs to offset the 35.5% of children who are stunted, and initiatives against malaria and gender-based violence.
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 in 1960) has a GNI per capita of $1,953 and a life expectancy of 58.5. Ongoing war and conflict mean that the mean years of schooling in the country is just 2.3 (compared to an expected 7.7 years of schooling). The World Bank’s most recent data from 2009 reveal that over 41% of the population lives below the poverty line.
7. BURKINA FASO
Bordered by both Mali (#8) and Niger (#1), Burkina Faso is another former French colony that has suffered conflict and coups following its independence in 1960. Drought has also plagued the country, resulting in a mean 1.5 years of schooling compared to the expected 8.5 years. Burkina Faso’s GNI per capita is $1,650, with a life expectancy of 60.8. The World Bank’s 2014 data indicate just over 40% of the population living in poverty.
6. SIERRA LEONE
A UN peacekeeping mission helped to quell Sierra Leone’s 11-year civil war in 2002. While the country’s economy has grown in peacetime, it was one of the two countries hit hardest by the 2014-16 Ebola epidemic alongside Liberia (#9). The World Bank’s most recent data predates this epidemic, with 2011 estimates indicating nearly 53% of Sierra Leoneans living below the poverty line. The country has a life expectancy of 52.2 years, with a GNI per capita of $1,240 and a mean years of schooling at 3.5 (compared to the expected 9.8 years).
Concern first entered Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war, and we’ve been there for 23 years. While the Ebola outbreak has passed and the economy has rebounded in part due to the resumption of iron ore mining, 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 potential emergencies (such as the 2017 mudslide).
The Republic of Burundi has been in conflict consistently since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. Culminating in civil war in 1994, the conflict has left nearly 65% of the population living in extreme poverty (according to 2014 data from the World Bank). Its GNI per capita is a mere $702, with a life expectancy of 57.9 years. Most children only complete 3 years of schooling, against an expected education of 11.7 years.
We’ve worked in Burundi since 1997. Our current focus is programs around 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. With 740 deaths per 100,000 live births, the country is one of the most dangerous places in the world to have a child.
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 CNI is $1,750 and its average life expectancy is 53.2 years. Most children receive a mean of 2.3 years of schooling (compared to the expected 8 years).
Concern has worked in Chad for 12 years, and in the last 2 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 programmes to deliver life-saving assistance. Our work in the Sila region of eastern Chad focuses on building community resilience to counter potential disasters.
3. 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 4.9 years, respectively), life expectancy is just 57.3 years and GNI per capita is $963. Widespread displacement puts untold pressure on people’s ability to cope, with over 2 million South Sudanese refugees living abroad and another 1.74 million internally displaced.
2. CENTRAL AFRICAN REPUBLIC
Unsurprisingly, the world’s hungriest country is also one of the poorest. In the 2018 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 52.9 years. The country’s GNI per capita is $663, with a mean of 4.3 years of schooling completed against the expected 7.2 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 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 terrorist incursions, 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.
“Poor” is a tricky word. While we can rank countries by a number of economic and developmental factors, much in the way that we can rank the world’s hungriest countries, this is also just one way of looking at the wealth of these nations. For a story like this, it’s a kind of quickly-understood shorthand. And, as with most shorthand, it’s not entirely descriptive.
Our vision is of a world free from poverty, fear and oppression — a world where everyone is treated with dignity and respect. While poverty is a measurable fact of life, it does not ultimately define a person, a family, or a community. Human dignity is inherent in all of us and must be valued. 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 give them the tools and resources they need. They have our infinite respect, and that’s why all of our work starts with listening to communities.