With the residual effects of colonialism, decades of violence, exploitation of resources, and a string of corrupt leaders, it’s no real surprise that the world’s 10 poorest countries are in Africa. Crippled by civil wars, drought and disease, some African nations are trapped in a cycle of poverty. The tragic irony is that most of them are endowed with rich natural resources, including diamonds, oil, and gold, yet a large majority of the population never reaps the benefits.
A country’s wealth can be measured by its per capita GDP, an approximation of the value of goods produced per person. The lower the value, the more impoverished the nation. For the sake of comparison, the per capita GDP in the United States was approximately $47,000 in 2010. Here are the 10 poorest countries according to their per capita GDP (as of 2010).
10. Malawi ($900 Annual Per Capita GDP)
The Republic of Malawi is a small landlocked nation in southeast Africa. The economy is largely agricultural, and among its main exports are tobacco, tea and sugar. The majority of the population lives in rural areas and the country is struggling with an AIDS epidemic, with an average of almost 10 people dying of the disease every hour. Weak exports, a lack of education, low life expectancy, environmental problems, and poor infrastructure assure this sub-tropical African country a spot on this list. Malawi does, however, sit on unexploited deposits of uranium, coal, and bauxite.
9. Sierra Leone ($900 GDP)
Torn apart by civil war from 1991 to 2002, Sierra Leone is still recovering from the conflict, which claimed tens of thousands of lives and displaced 2 million people. Located in West Africa, Sierra Leone borders Guinea, Liberia, and the Atlantic Ocean. Sierra Leone has mineral, agricultural, and fishery resources, yet the country may be best known for its diamond production. Instead of bringing wealth to the country, these “blood diamonds” have instead funded devastating wars, caused unimaginable suffering, worker exploitation, human rights abuses, and environmental damage.
8. Niger ($700 GDP)
Niger is a landlocked Sub-Saharan country in West Africa with a turbulent history. Drought, food shortages, and population growth have caused major problems. Human trafficking, forced labor and domestic servitude are rife in certain areas. Niger’s economy depends on subsistence crops, livestock, and some of the largest uranium deposits in the world. More than half the country’s residents live on $1 per day, and never see the benefits of the rich natural resources.
7. Eritrea ($700 GDP)
Eritrea, in East Africa, is a neighbor and former province of Ethiopia. It also borders the Red Sea, Sudan and Djibouti. Plagued by wars for more than 30 years, Eritrea is now facing the enormous task of rebuilding its shattered economy, which is based on agriculture, livestock, and fishing. Eighty percent of the population is involved in subsistence agriculture. Eritrea’s mineral resources include oil and gold.
6. Central African Republic ($700 GDP)
The Central African Republic (C.A.R.) has been unstable since gaining its independence from France in 1960. A landlocked nation in the heart of Africa, C.A.R. is roughly the size of Ukraine, and one of the world’s least developed countries. Internal conflicts, geographic setting, poor transportation, an unskilled workforce, and bad management have stalled the country’s economic progress, and left much of the population dependent upon subsistence farming. As with most of the other countries on this list, the C.A.R. boasts a wealth of natural resources, including diamonds, uranium, timber, gold, and oil.
5. Somalia ($600 GDP)
With a barely functioning government and suffering from two decades of civil war, Somalia, in the horn of Africa, is one of the more unstable countries on this list. Fighting between rival warlords, drought, famine and disease have caused up to 1 million deaths. A third of the population depends on food aid, and this is one of Africa’s worst humanitarian crises. The war has displaced hundreds of thousands of Somalis, who end up in refugee camps, or are resettled in other countries. The country lacks natural resources and its economy is largely agricultural. Livestock, hides, fish and bananas are Somalia’s main exports.
For Americans who think these countries’ fortunes have no impact on them, remember that it was in Somalia in 1993 that 19 U.S. Special Forces troops were killed while trying to capture a pair of Somali warlords, an incident later recounted in the 2001 movie Black Hawk Down.
4. Liberia ($500 GDP)
Liberia is Africa’s oldest Republic, founded by freed American and Caribbean slaves on the continent’s west coast. This small nation has been plagued by two decades of civil war, and is in the process of recovery. Around 250,000 people were killed and many thousands fled the fighting. The conflict left the economy in ruins. Liberia’s president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, was the first woman to be elected leader of an African nation. She has worked to stabilize and unify the country and pressed the UN to lift a ban on the export of diamonds, arguing the funds could be used to improve the standard of living. The ban was put into place to halt the trade in “conflict diamonds” or “blood diamonds,” that fueled the civil war.
3. Zimbabwe ($400 GDP)
Zimbabwe, formerly Rhodesia, is a landlocked country in the southern part of the continent, perhaps best known as home to Victoria Falls. Robert Mugabe has ruled the country since 1980. His controversial seizure of white-owned commercial farms, which he claimed would benefit landless Zimbabweans, led to a decline in production and badly damaged the agriculture-based economy. There have been severe food and fuel shortages, and many talented people have fled the country. Some 700,000 urban poor lost their homes and jobs under the government slum demolition in 2005. In 2008 Mugabe agreed to a power-sharing deal after months of turmoil. Although the economy is slowly stabilizing, Zimbabwe faces a large external debt, rampant unemployment, inflation, disease, and ongoing political repression and instability.
2. Democratic Republic of the Congo ($300 GDP)
Roughly the size of Western Europe, the DR Congo (formerly Zaire) is located in West Central Africa, although through a quirk of geography it has a short coastline on the Atlantic Ocean. The DR Congo is yet another African nation blessed with natural resources — diamonds, gold, copper, cobalt and zinc — but plagued by civil war and corruption, resulting in a humanitarian catastrophe and economic hardship. Rather than bringing wealth to its people, the country’s natural resources attracted corrupt leaders and violence, causing havoc for the population. The war claimed about 3 million people, as a direct result of fighting, and through disease and malnutrition.
1. Burundi ($300 GDP)
Civil war, corruption, lack of education, disease and other woes all contribute to a wrecked economy that earns Burundi the distinction as the world’s poorest country. The assassination of the east African nation’s first president in 1993 sparked ethnic violence between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, a conflict that lasted almost 12 years and claimed over 200,0000 lives. Hundreds of thousands more were displaced during the fighting. As the country recovers, poverty remains, as does illiteracy and disease (one in 15 adults suffers from HIV/AIDS). Among its natural resources are cobalt and copper, but the country’s main exports are coffee and tea. Burundi is heavily dependent on outside aid.