Poverty is as old as human civilization itself. For as long as human beings have lived in complex societies, there has always been a segment of the population that would be considered poor by the standards of the time. The same is true today. In fact, the world now has almost one billion people that live below the World Bank poverty line of U.S. $1.90 per day. Some are so poor that their very survival is at stake, because they lack access to the basic necessities of life, such as food, water, and shelter.
Poor people can be found in every country of the world, but there are some countries where poverty is especially acute. As you can see from our chart, all of the world’s poorest countries are located in the southern part of the world, especially Africa and Asia. The top ten poorest countries are all located in Africa. In fact, the top three poorest countries in the world, Burundi, the Central African Republic, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, are all located in the same region of the continent.
These countries are poor for a number of reasons. Many of them are poor because of political instability and bad governance. There is no country in the world in which governmental institutions are weak or non-existent that can count itself among the world’s richest, most prosperous societies. Another factor that comes into play is the lingering effects of European colonialism, which has made good governance very difficult, if not impossible, for the people in the world’s poorest countries to achieve.
A Badly Governed Country Is A Poor Country
Many if not most of the world’s poorest countries are countries in which governing institutions are weak, if they exist at all, and leaders that genuinely care about their people are scarce. The lack of effective governance leads to a chain reaction that affects all the facets of a country. Poor governance often means a lack of law and order. It could also mean that institutions that provide essential services, like healthcare and education, don’t work well or don’t function at all. Indeed, a poor country is one in which people become sick and die from preventable diseases, and where few have access to a good education so that they have better employment prospects.
Nearly all of the world’s poorest countries have been witness to brutal dictatorships, civil wars, and other forms of political instability. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, civil strife began as soon as the country achieved independence in 1960. In 1965, the country fell under the dictatorship of Mobutu Sese Seko, who would rule until a rebellion removed him from office in 1997. But alas, one dictator simply made way for another, as the leader of the anti-Mobutu rebellion, Laurent Kabila, took power, followed by his son, Joseph. The current president, Felix Tshisekedi, took office following questionable election results. At the same time, numerous insurgencies, many fuelled by inter-ethnic conflict, have taken place, and continue to take place to this day. In fact, all ten of the poorest countries in the world have had civil wars of one kind or another during their history.
Like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, many other countries on our list have had the misfortune of being ruled by despots and dictators, who enriched themselves rather than the lives of their people. For instance, Robert Mugabe, the long-time ruler of Zimbabwe, which is 28th on our list, plundered his once-rich country and amassed a fortune said to be up to one billion dollars.
The irony is that many of the badly-governed, poorest countries on Earth have the potential to be very rich countries, because they are teeming with resources. The Democratic Republic of the Congo, for example, is rich in mineral resources, and even has one eighth of global capacity for the production of hydroelectricity. Burundi, which is rated the poorest country in the world on our list, is also home to vast mineral deposits, including nickel and gold. But instead of being rich, countries like the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Burundi are poor, because they suffer from poor governance.
The Lasting Legacy Of European Colonialism Makes Countries Poor
Nearly all of the states on our list of the world’s poorest countries were once governed as European colonies, and the negative impacts of European colonialism linger to this day. Among the legacies of European colonialism are many borders drawn up by competing European colonial powers, without any regard for the wishes of the indigenous peoples of the territories that they were carving up. As a result, in many cases, different ethnic, religious, and linguistic groups that were never part of the same territorial entity were all of a sudden forced to live together in the same country, leading to conflict, and ultimately, ungovernable countries, or as some people like to call them, failed states. And as previously mentioned, countries that cannot be governed effectively often become poor countries.
One good example of people forced together by the hands of European colonizers can be found in the Sudan, now split into the republics of Sudan and South Sudan, the latter of which is the 7th poorest country in the world. This split was the end result of a long civil war between the mostly Arab, Muslim north, and the south, which is largely populated by followers of Christianity and traditional African religions. Long ago, the British drew up the borders of what became Sudan, without regard for the ethnic or religious differences of the local population. Decades later, after Sudan became independent, the Arab, Muslim-dominated government, based in Khartoum, attempted to impose Islam on the Christian, animist people of the south, who in turn, rose up in rebellion. The end result was a civil war that lasted for over two decades. The war finally ended when the government in Khartoum agreed to allow the south to secede pending a referendum. In 2011, The Republic of South Sudan proclaimed its independence.
Unfortunately, the Sudanese civil war is not the only conflict that resulted, at least in part, from former European colonial powers drawing borders where they were never meant to be. Similar conflicts have also taken place in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Niger, the Central African Republic, Chad, and Mali, all of which are on our list of the world’s poorest countries. Some of these conflicts are still raging today, and all of them involve warfare between different ethnic and religious groups forced into the same countries by the former European colonial powers.
Change Is Much Needed
The poorest countries of the world are poor primarily because they are not governed effectively. Indeed, some of the world’s poorest countries have become failed states ravaged by violent conflict, while others remain under the control of power-hungry dictators, who do not care how poor their people are so long as they can enrich themselves. But poor governance in poor countries is not entirely the fault of the people living in those countries. In many cases, the borders left behind by former European colonial powers have made it difficult, if not impossible, for the people of the world’s poorest countries to form and maintain effectively functioning states. Most of the world’s poorest countries are still young countries, however, which means that with time and the right leadership, they may learn to create effective, stable governments, and move past the legacy of European colonialism.