How 28 Poor Countries Escaped the Poverty Trap

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Remember the poverty trap? Countries stuck in destitution because of weak institutions put in place by colonial overlords, or because of climates that foster disease, or geographies that limit access to global markets, or simply by the fact that poverty is overwhelmingly self-perpetuating. Apparently the trap can be escaped.

The World Bank did its annual assessment of poor countries last week. Low-income countries are those with average gross national incomes (GNIs) of less than $1,005 per person per year.

And there are only 35 of them remaining out of the countries and economies that the World Bank tracks. That’s down from 63 in 2000.

New middle-income countries this year include Ghana and Zambia. Lower middle-income countries are those with per capita GNIs of between $1,006 and $3,975 per year; while upper middle-income countries are those with per capita GNIs between $3,976 and $12,275.

The remaining 35 low-income countries have a combined population of about 800 million. Tanzania, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia and Bangladesh account for about half of that total, and there are about 350 million people living on under $1.25 a day in the remaining low-income countries.

So what’s behind all of this sudden income growth? Is it a story about aid? One prominent Zambian, Dambisa Moyo, has written of her country that “a direct consequence of the aid-driven interventions has been a dramatic descent into poverty. Whereas prior to the 1970s, most economic indicators had been on an upward trajectory, a decade later Zambia lay in economic ruin”. In the 1980s, aid to Zambia averaged about 14% of the country’s GNI. In the 2000s, a decade of strong growth, the same proportion was 17%. If Zambia’s ruin in the 1980s was the result of aid, is Zambia’s graduation to middle-income status in the new millennium a sign that aid now works really well?

Of course both the ideas that previous stagnation was all the fault of aid, or current growth was all the result, are ridiculous. The price of copper (Zambia’s major export) was depressed in the 1980s and saw its price rocket in the middle of the last decade as China and India’s economies grew and demand for the metal soared.

But growth among low-income countries in Africa and elsewhere isn’t just limited to big mineral exporters. And the continent is fast drawing in more investment. Foreign direct investment to Africa is projected to rise to $150bn by 2015, reports the Africa Attractiveness Survey (that’s more than the total global aid budget) – and domestic resources are being mobilised at a faster rate, too, as the Commission for Africa 2010 report discussed.

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