Where is poverty the worst?

Poverty is a global issue that affects millions of people worldwide. But where is poverty most severe and difficult to escape? There are several ways to measure and compare poverty levels between countries, which can help identify where poverty is most extreme.

What is poverty and how is it measured?

Poverty is defined as lacking the financial resources and essentials needed for a basic standard of living. The most common way poverty is measured is based on income levels and household consumption. The international poverty line is currently defined as living on less than $1.90 per day. By this measure, 10% of the world’s population lives in extreme poverty.

Other measurements of poverty look at factors like access to education, healthcare, proper nutrition, housing, clean water, and sanitation. Multidimensional poverty indexes combine income measures with other indicators of quality of life and basic necessities.

Which countries have the highest rates of poverty?

Many of the countries with the highest rates of poverty are located in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. These regions face massive economic challenges and lack sufficient infrastructure and resources to lift large segments of the population out of poverty.

According to the World Bank, some countries with the highest poverty rates based on the $1.90 per day poverty line include:

  • Madagascar – 77.6% poverty rate
  • Central African Republic – 62%
  • Democratic Republic of the Congo – 60.9%
  • Burundi – 64.9%
  • Liberia – 54.1%

Many of these countries have experienced long periods of political instability, conflict, poor governance, and lack of investment in health and education, making it very difficult to address entrenched poverty.

Which regions have the most people living in extreme poverty?

While countries in Africa tend to have some of the highest poverty rates, the two regions with the largest total populations living below the extreme poverty line are South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.

This can be seen in the following table showing estimates of the population living on less than $1.90 per day in different world regions:

Region Population in Extreme Poverty
South Asia 244 million
Sub-Saharan Africa 413 million
East Asia and Pacific 25 million
Central and Southern Asia 9 million
Middle East and North Africa 9 million
Latin America and Caribbean 10 million

As seen in the table, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa combined account for nearly 80% of the world’s extreme poor. The main drivers of this concentrated poverty are high population density, lack of infrastructure, political instability, and vulnerability to natural disasters and climate change impacts.

Which countries have the highest multidimensional poverty?

Looking beyond just income, the countries with the highest levels of multidimensional poverty highlight similar regions as those focused solely on monetary poverty. These countries face immense challenges across education, health, living standards, and other areas.

According to the UN Development Programme’s 2022 Multidimensional Poverty Index, the top 5 countries with the highest rates of multidimensional poverty are:

  1. South Sudan – 91.2%
  2. Chad – 87.7%
  3. Central African Republic – 76.2%
  4. Burkina Faso – 73.0%
  5. Somalia – 72.4%

These countries in Africa face high deprivation across the board, including poor access to basics like electricity, drinking water, nutrition, healthcare, and education. Conflict and weak governance also play major roles in driving high multidimensional poverty.

How is urban vs. rural poverty distributed?

When assessing poverty on a national level, it is also important to look at distribution between urban and rural areas. In many developing countries, rural poverty greatly outpaces urban poverty due to less access to stable jobs and essential infrastructure.

For example, in India 21.2% of the urban population lives in poverty compared to 25.7% of the rural population. In Bangladesh, 14.3% of urban dwellers live below the poverty line vs. 24.3% of rural citizens.

Rural areas often suffer from lack of transportation, irrigation for crops, healthcare clinics, and schools. People may only have seasonal agricultural work. Poverty reduction programs in developing nations often focus on providing services and economic opportunities specifically to rural villages and communities to help close these gaps.

How do poverty levels compare between developed vs. developing nations?

When looking at entire countries’ poverty rates, there is a clear divide between poverty levels in developed and developing countries. Developed countries have much greater resources to invest in infrastructure, social services, and poverty reduction programs. Developing nations often have large gaps in basic services and much of the population suffers from food insecurity.

For example, according to World Bank data on poverty measured at $3.20 per day:

  • Ethiopia – 61.9% poverty rate
  • Haiti – 49.3%
  • Bangladesh – 43.7%

Compared to developed nations:

  • United States – 1.5% poverty rate
  • Ireland – 0.9%
  • Switzerland – 0.3%

Even using measurements of relative poverty in developed countries, their poverty rates are far lower than those in emerging economies. However, pockets of poverty still persist even in wealthy nations, especially affecting marginalized groups.

How is poverty connected to conflict and weak governance?

Many of the poorest nations in the world are also those affected by conflict, political instability, and weak governing institutions. Poverty can increase the risk of civil unrest and make it much harder for countries to develop functioning economic and social systems.

Countries like Yemen, Afghanistan, Syria, and South Sudan have experienced years of violent conflict. This causes massive displacement of people, destruction of infrastructure, disruption to jobs and agriculture. It becomes nearly impossible to undertake poverty reduction in the midst of turmoil.

Even in times of peace, corruption, poor management of resources, and lack of democratic norms can worsen poverty. Countries with inclusive political institutions, transparency, and stable elected governments tend to be much better equipped to address the needs of the poor.

How do natural disasters impact countries already struggling with poverty?

Poverty makes countries much more vulnerable when natural disasters strike. Poorer nations lack the housing infrastructure and disaster response systems to cope with hurricanes, drought, earthquakes, and climate change effects.

Haiti, for example, has struggled to come anywhere close to recovering from the devastating 2010 earthquake. Nearly 60% of Haitians live below the poverty line. When hurricanes hit the island, the flooding and damage is far more extreme due to lack of drainage systems, resilient buildings, early warning programs, and emergency response capabilities.

For nations already stretched thin in terms of food supplies, water access, healthcare, and jobs – natural disasters can completely destabilize any progress, plunging countries even deeper into poverty.

How is poverty passed between generations?

Poverty often gets transmitted between generations when children do not have access to education and later opportunities. Some key facts about cyclical and generational poverty:

  • Poor parents cannot afford to send children to school, continuing the cycle.
  • Even when primary education is free, hidden costs for books, transportation, and uniforms may make education prohibitively expensive.
  • Children often drop out to support the family through child labor in agriculture, factories, and elsewhere.
  • Girls in poor families in developing nations have much lower school attendance rates.
  • Lack of education leads to inability to find jobs or generate sufficient income later in life.

Targeted interventions to increase access to education, improved nutrition, and healthcare for children and mothers can help break this cycle over generations. But sustained political commitment and funding are required.

How do gender inequalities relate to poverty?

Due to cultural norms and expectations in many countries, women tend to experience higher rates of poverty than men. This relates closely to issues of education, economic opportunities, and health.

Key facts on the connections between gender and poverty:

  • Women are often relegated to domestic work or informal sector jobs with low pay or job security.
  • Even when employed, women on average earn only 60-75% of what men earn for the same positions.
  • In many societies, women lack inheritance rights and access to land or banking services.
  • Early marriage for girls interferes with education and economic potential.
  • Women and girls face greater food insecurity in poor households and higher rates of malnutrition.

Targeted microfinance, educational opportunities, and equal rights and protections are critical for empowering poor women to overcome challenges and poverty.


In examining where poverty is most severe globally, South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa stand out for their high rates of extreme monetary poverty as well as multidimensional poverty across education, health, and living standards. Within nations, rural areas typically suffer more entrenched poverty than urban areas.

Countries with conflict, weak governance, gender inequality, vulnerabilities to natural disasters, and low investments in health, education, and infrastructure struggle most with endemic, generational poverty. Targeted aid and building local capacities are critical to lift these nations out of poverty and meet basic human needs worldwide.

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