An Introduction to Poverty in the Poorest Countries in the World
Poverty affects children, families and countries across the globe. But some countries are hit harder — and the ones hit hardest are often also overwhelmed by a variety of problems, including war, conflict, climate change, disease, drought and hunger.
These influencing and compounding factors often prevent families from escaping poverty for decades. It is only by understanding what drives countries deeper into poverty that the global community can help provide the ideas and resources to break that cycle.
The criteria for determining the world’s poorest countries aren't simply about looking at how many families qualify as “low income.” It is also about finding measures for quality of life, including access to medical care and housing.
The fight against poverty begins by understanding the cultures and communities where poverty has taken root. That’s why Compassion’s work with indigenous churches who deeply understand both the causes of poverty and the solutions in their respective communities.
A Special Note About Children in Poverty
In most of the world’s poorest countries, the poorest children living there are extremely vulnerable. Children in poverty are at high risk of exploitation, child labor and abuse.
The effects of poverty on children are high stakes. They are long-reaching and can affect a child’s entire future. When children are released from poverty, they can live a life full of the things that poverty attempts to take — food, livelihood, joy and even their lives.
The world’s poorest countries are home to hundreds of millions of children in desperate need. The World Bank defines global poverty as the number of people living on less than $1.90 per day. According to UNICEF, 385 million of the world’s children live below this poverty line.1
Families and children living in extreme poverty in the world’s low- and middle-income countries lack access to clean water, health care, social services, educational opportunities and social capital. They are vulnerable, powerless and fear for their futures. An estimated 14,000 children under age 5 die every day, and more than half die from preventable or treatable causes.2 This translates into the unnecessary loss of more than 5 million young lives a year, half of whom die in their first month of life.
For kids living in poverty around the world, a health condition that would be a nuisance to a child in the United States can be deadly to a child in poverty.
How the COVID-19 Pandemic Has Impacted the World’s Poorest Countries
The World Bank estimates that the COVID-19 pandemic and its effect on economic growth will cause over 1.4% of the world’s population (88 million to 115 million) to fall into extreme poverty.3 This is the first increase in the global poverty rate in more than 20 years,3 and highlights the connectivity and relationship between poverty and health.
How Does Poverty Differ in the World's Poorest Countries?
Poverty looks different in every region of the world and for each family. For some in rural poverty, it looks like families struggling to find food and water after drought and famine destroy crops and water sources. In urban areas, it can look like crowded living conditions that are breeding grounds for diseases.
Below, we explore poverty in Asia, Latin America and Africa, breaking down contributing factors and highlighting the poorest countries in each region.
The Poorest Countries in Asia
Asia is the largest and most populous continent on Earth and is notable for its fast-growing economy. However, in Asia over 40% of 766 million people live on less than $1.90 a day, making it the second poorest continent after Africa.4
Asia is a place of extreme poverty as well as top business ventures. There are wide gaps between the wealthiest countries in this region and the poorest ones.
Some of the key drivers of poverty in Asia include:
- Food insecurity.
- Education inequality.
- Lack of access to health care.
- Natural disasters.
The economies of East Asia and the Pacific have begun to bounce back after the severe economic shock caused by COVID-19, but the recovery has been uneven. Poverty in the region stopped declining for the first time in 20 years. The World Bank said as many as 38 million more people could fall below the poverty line, including 33 million who would have escaped poverty if the COVID-19 pandemic hadn’t happened.5 The poorest countries in Southeast Asia are:6
- North Korea.
- Papua New Guinea.
- The Philippines.
The Poorest Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean
While poverty rates in Latin America and the Caribbean have declined over the past decade, the rate of decrease has slowed. Protests and political upheavals have drawn attention to problems plaguing South America. Some of those problems, having been left unaddressed, have caused higher rates of poverty in Latin and South America.
Several factors considered to be major causes of poverty in the region include:
- Unequal distribution of wealth.
- Political turmoil.
- Inadequate education.
- Colonialism and racism.
Latin America is the region hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Poverty reached levels that hadn't been seen in over a decade, with 22 million people falling into poverty during the pandemic. In all, about one-third of Latin America’s roughly 600 million residents live in poverty.7 Despite the major impact of COVID-19, the economic outlook for Latin America and the Caribbean is expected to quickly improve.
The poorest countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are:6
- El Salvador.
The Poorest Countries in Africa
While the percentage of people living in extreme poverty has fallen substantially in Africa —from 54% in 1990 to 41% in 2015 — high population growth means that during that same period the number of individuals in poverty has actually increased from 278 million to 413 million. More than 80% of people living in extreme poverty in Africa live in rural areas and earn what little money they have primarily from farming. Conflict-affected states have notably higher poverty rates.8
Poverty reduction in Africa is hindered by:
- Lack of education.
- Poor health care.
- War and crises.
- Climatic conditions.
Africa has not been unscathed by the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of people living in extreme poverty in Africa is projected to jump by approximately 8% to nearly 520 million Africans.9 The poorest countries in Africa are:6
- Central African Republic.
- Democratic Republic of the Congo.
- South Sudan.
Making a Difference for the World's Poorest Children
Compassion International works with children living in 10 of the world’s least developed* and poorest countries, including the Philippines, Indonesia, Haiti, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala, Bolivia, El Salvador, Ecuador and Togo. These nations and others, including Ethiopia, Sierra Leone and Yemen have some of the worst conditions and the hardest circumstances for poor children to live in and survive.
For the children living in the countries where we work life is not easy. They live in vulnerable circumstances. We bring hope to the children we serve through our holistic, long-term child development model, education and medical assistance programs, survival and youth development interventions and disaster relief efforts.
Each child registered at a Compassion-assisted child development center is able to access the very things that have kept their home country mired in poverty, including:
- Access to education for all children, regardless of gender or economics.
- Nutritional support, including meals, snacks and food supplies as needed.
- Protection in times of climate or political crises.
- Vocational training for both older children and parents.
The thousands of local churches we partner with in low- and middle-income countries throughout the world help meet the basic needs for clothing, shelter, nutrition, water and sanitation. They address health care needs by providing medical visits, vaccinations, and critical care assistance, and they offer educational support to allow students to attend or stay in school.
In the world's poorest countries, opportunities to break the generational cycle of poverty are hard to come by. When you sponsor a child, you are helping a family do just that. Your sponsorship will change how child poverty affects a family, a community and a nation.