Make your work easier and more efficient installing the rrojasdatabank  toolbar ( you can customize it ) in your browser. 
Counter visits from more than 160  countries and 1400 universities (details)

The political economy of development
This academic site promotes excellence in teaching and researching economics and development, and the advancing of describing, understanding, explaining and theorizing.
About us- Castellano- Français - Dedication
Home- Themes- Reports- Statistics/Search- Lecture notes/News- People's Century- Puro Chile- Mapuche

World indicators on the environmentWorld Energy Statistics - Time SeriesEconomic inequality

The Geography of Poverty

"Poverty is no longer contained within national boundaries. It has become globalized. It travels across borders, without a passport, in the form of drugs, diseases, pollution, migration, terrorism and political instability."

  • - Human Development Report 1994

Poverty as a Rural Problem

On a global scale, poverty is a rural problem. Poor countries are agrarian countries. Poor people are predominantly rural people. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations has pointed out that, in the world's poorest countries, more than 75 per cent of the population lives in rural areas, depending on agriculture for work and income. Moreover, agriculture accounts for almost 40 per cent of these countries' gross domestic product (GDP) and more than 50 per cent of their export earnings.

The rural poor: Close to a billion of the world's poor live in rural areas, with their numbers increasing steadily, especially since the development set-backs during the "lost decade" of the 1980s. They now encompass almost one fifth of the entire global population.

  • In 1988, it was estimated that the percentage of the rural population living below the poverty line was 61 per cent in Latin America and the Caribbean, 60 per cent in Sub-Saharan Africa, 31 per cent in Asia and 26 per cent in North Africa and the Near East;
  • There has been a rapid increase in the incidence of rural households headed by women, which now number 75 million. Today a majority of those living below the poverty line in rural areas are women; since 1975, their numbers have grown by 50 per cent, compared to 30 per cent for men;
  • Food insecurity is also, paradoxically, a rural problem. Of the 800 million people worldwide suffering from chronic malnutrition, the vast majority live in rural areas of developing countries;
  • With mounting populations, landholdings in most regions of the developing world are becoming smaller and more fragmented; rural landlessness or near landlessness is on the rise, affecting at least 40 per cent of households in South Asia.

Survival over conservation: The struggle to survive often under-mines the vital natural resource base of the rural population. For example, just within the past thirty years:

  • Nearly 20 per cent of the topsoil from croplands has been lost, largely due to lack of capital and technology to undertake appropriate soil conservation measures;
  • Deforestation of tropical forests and woodlands has occurred at the rate of 11 million hectares a year, as the poor make a desperate attempt to clear land or to obtain fuelwood.
  • Millions of hectares have become wasteland due to poorly constructed and ill-maintained irrigation systems;
  • Mismanagement of resources is responsible for over 80 per cent of recent worldwide desertification.
  • The world risks losing all its productive land to desertification in less than 200 years if the present annual loss of 27 million hectares (66.7 million acres) continues.

No "trickle-down" welfare: In 1992 the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) developed four major indices - food security, integrated poverty, basic needs, and relative welfare - to quantify the relative standing of each of 113 nations surveyed. According to overall country averages, the lowest-ranked rural populations were in Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Somalia, Mauritania and the Sudan, while the five best-off rural populations were in Cyprus, Malta, the Republic of Korea, Barbados and Mauritius.

While significant progress in reducing rural poverty was reported in India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Lesotho over the past 20 years, the IFAD report concluded that, overall, it has proved false to assume that growth and welfare "trickle down".

Despite the progress achieved as a result of 40 years of development efforts, real suffering persists as half a billion poor people do not get enough to eat each day and 15 to 20 million of them actually perish each year from starvation and disease exaggerated by malnutrition.

Lured by the prospect of food, jobs, service and other opportuni- ties, an ever-increasing share of the world's population gravitates to towns and cities. Rural poverty thus fuels urban poverty. Most of the migrants are men, leaving women behind to manage the homestead and the family.

The Urbanization of Poverty

Although about one billion of the world's poor live in rural areas today, this situation is swiftly changing. In the last 40 years, the urban population of the industrialized countries doubled, while increasing fivefold in the developing countries.

Not only is the world becoming increasingly urbanized, there is also an urbanization of poverty. According to the United Nations Secretariat, the urban population has grown from less than 30 per cent of humanity in 1950 to about 45 per cent in 1995. By the year 2005, every second human being will live in a city or town.

Some 300 million urban dwellers in developing countries currently live in poverty, without sufficient incomes to fulfil even basic nutritional and shelter requirements. But the rapidly increasing population in urban areas is causing considerable strain, not only on the urban infrastructure and on housing, but also on the urban environment.

By 1990, at least 600 million people in the urban areas of developing countries lived in precarious health and under life-threatening conditions. In some cities, more than half of the population live in slums and squatter settlements. Most people living under such conditions also face another problem: continued unemployment and underemployment. Most cities and towns are unable to keep pace with the staggering urban population growth and cannot provide sufficient job opportunities or adequate shelter.

As a result, a large proportion of the 700 million people added to the urban population of developing countries during this decade may end up unemployed or with very low incomes.

"The intensity and the rapidity with which populations are being concentrated in urban areas adds to the feeling of uncertainty about the viability of contemporary models of consumption and development", the United Nations Secretary-General has said.

Cities suffer: The sprawling cities of the world-once symbols of progress, prosperity and hope-are increasingly turning into cities of despair for an ever-larger share of humanity, according to the UN Centre for Human Settlements (UNCHS) which is sponsoring Habitat II-"the City Summit"-in June 1996 in Istanbul.

"Towns and cities-the sources of economic activity, innovation, freedom and culture-are suffering today from problems of overcrowding, inadequate public services and insecurity". While some cities are becoming not only more populous but younger, others are becoming less populous and older.

The effects are dramatized in the numbers and faces of the urban homeless, even in affluent societies. For example, according to The New York Times, over 20 per cent of the population in the greater New York metropolitan area lives below the poverty threshold.

In addition, "nearly a quarter of a million New Yorkers - more than 3 per cent of the city's population and more than 8 per cent of its black children-have stayed in shelters over the past five years", according to Human Development Report 1994, an annual study commissioned by the United Nations Development Programme.

In Europe, too, cities are increasingly "home" to the homeless. London has about 400,000 registered homeless people, while nearly 10,000 of France's half million homeless are in Paris.

The situation is worse still in cities of developing countries, where more than 60 per cent of the population live in squatter settlements or inner-city slums. "In Calcutta, Dhaka and Mexico City, more than 25 per cent of the people constitute what is sometimes called a floating population", the Report says.

As the incidence of poverty increases worldwide, the Habitat II secretariat has had to concede that the goal of ensuring adequate housing for all by the millenium, as stated in the 1988 Global Strategy for Shelter to the Year 2000, will not be achieved.

The Poorest and Least Developed Countries

As the gap between the world's richest 20 per cent and the world's poorest 20 per cent doubled, from 30:1 to 61:1 between 1960 and 1991, it hit the poorest, least developed countries hardest.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, over two thirds of the world's 1.3 billion poor live in just 10 of the UN's 185 Member States: Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia, Nigeria, Pakistan, the Philippines and Viet Nam.

Figures for people living in poverty are highest in Asia. India has the most in aboslute terms (350 million people, or 40 per cent of the population); however, the highest proportion of poor people - 80 per cent of the country's entire population of 93 million-live in Bangladesh.

Foreign aid has not accurately reflected the demographics of poverty. During the period 1988-1990, for example, the Philippines, which was perceived as a strategic priority point even in the post- cold war world, received proportionally more aid ($49 per person) than less strategically located Brazil, which received a mere $3 per person, although every second person there is poor.

Sub-Saharan Africa: Although it is not the largest region demographically, the downward pull of poverty is perhaps most pervasive in Sub-Saharan Africa. There social progress has generally not been able to keep pace with high population growth or hold its own in the face of economic disaster, often additionally linked with armed conflict and environmental degradation. It is estimated that half the people in sub-Saharan Africa will be living in absolute poverty by the year 2000.

Least developed countries: The phrase "Least developed countries" (LDCs) was coined by the United Nations in 1971 to describe the "poorest and most economically weak of the developing countries, with formidable economic, institutional and human resources problems, which are often compounded by geographical handicaps and natural and man-made disasters".

Whereas there were 21 such countries when this definition was initially formulated, today that number has swelled to 48, 33 of which are in Africa.

48 countries as of September 1995: Afghanistan, Angola, Bangladesh, Benin, Bhutan, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cambodia, Cape Verde, Central African Republic, Chad, Comoros, Djibouti, Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Haiti, Kiribati, Lao People's Democratic Republic, Lesotho, Liberia, Madagascar, Malawi, Maldives, Mali, Mauritania, Mozambique, Myanmar, Nepal, Niger, Rwanda, Samoa, Sao Tome and Principe, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, Sudan, Togo, Tuvalu, Uganda, United Republic of Tanzania, Vanuatu, Yemen, Zaire and Zambia.

These 48 least developed countries have a combined population of some 560 million people, or approximately 10 per cent of the world's population, but only one tenth of one per cent of the world's income. Their average per capita income in 1993 was $300, as compared to $906 for the developing world as a whole and $21,598 for the developed-market-economy countries.

The average GDP growth rate in the least developed countries has declined in real terms, from 2.2 per cent during the 1980s to 1.8 per cent during the period 1990-1993. As for trade, these countries' share in world exports and imports has likewise declined (i.e., from 0.7 and 1.0 per cent respectively in 1980 to 0.4 per cent and 0.7 per cent in the early 1990s). This trend, which may be worsened by implementation of the Uruguay Round Agreements, signals a further marginalization of LDCs in the world economy.

Although poverty and lack of overall human development are not synonymous, they are strongly correlated. For example, in 1995 UNDP used criteria based on longevity, knowledge and standards of living to evaluate the level of human development in 174 countries. Forty of the 44 lowest-ranked countries on that Human Development Index are also least developed countries.

In spite of debt relief measures, the stock of outstanding debt in almost half of the LDCs equals or exceeds their gross domestic product. This high level of debt hinders all attempts to halt socio-economic decline, reactivate development and set these countries on a path of sustained growth through a sequence of national and international actions. What is needed is not charity, but immediate and sustained help to meet basic human needs.

Success stories: There are a few success stories. For example:

Between 1960 and 1992, Botswana, China, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Malaysia, Portugal, Syria, Thailand, Tunisia and Turkey made striking gains in overall development;

Mauritius, ranked as one of the world's poorest countries in the 1950s, today boasts not only full employment but an actual labour shortage and is considered one of the most harmoniously ethnically and socially integrated countries in the world.


    It is possible to emerge from poverty in a relatively short time. Botswana, the first country to graduate from the group of least developed countries, illustrates how socio- economic difficulties can be surmounted. When it became independent in 1966, Botswana was one of the world's poorest countries, included in the United Nations original 1971 list of least developed countries.

    Today, Botswana has one of the most prosperous economies in Africa. Key ingredients in the country's emergence out of poverty have been sound economic management, strong democratic traditions, the discovery and successful exploitation of substantial resources, sustained foreign aid and investment over an ample time period and political and economic stability.

Bolstering support for LDCs: A major high-level meeting-the Mid-Term Global Review of the Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries-was held in New York from 26 September to 6 October 1995.

Five years after the initial Paris Declaration in 1990, it was clear that these countries and their 555 million citizens were being more, rather than less, marginalized. Delegates, including ministers from some 30 countries, focused on the specific issues of debt, finance and-for the first time in this context-trade performance and the implications of the Uruguay Round.

The conference concluded with a "pledge of cooperation" between LDC and donor nations and some specific initiatives by Member States. One of these was an LDC-earmarked $10 million contribution by Norway to a new UNDP Trust Fund for Good Governance. Another was an offer, also by Norway, to host a 1996 conference aimed at trans- forming the "20/20 proposal" highlighted at the 1995 Social Summit into concrete action.

Published by the United Nations Department of Public Information * DPI/1782/POV - March 1996

                        Table of Contents