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A Tragedy Is Unfolding in the Poorest Countries

The world’s 28 poorest countries are facing growing social, economic, and political distress, owing to rising debt burdens, diminishing development prospects, and chronic underinvestment. The world’s wealthier countries have chosen exactly the worst moment to become less generous with aid and development assistance.

WASHINGTON, DC – The poorest countries are in desperate straits, and the rest of the world is looking the other way. Doing so comes easy, because low-income countries (LICs) matter little to the fate of the world in the near term. At the end of June, the combined GDP of the 28 countries in this group was roughly $500 billion – a drop in the $100 trillion ocean that is the global economy. The world’s poorest countries are also nobody’s ideal export markets: the average annual income is barely $1,000, and conflict and instability are the norm for about half.

Nonetheless, 700 million people live in these countries, and about half of them are in extreme poverty. Very poor people have long been accustomed to neglect from their own governments, which often have other priorities. For example, they spend about 50% more on war and defense than they do on health care. Nearly half their budgets go toward public-sector wages and interest payments on debt, while a mere 3% of total government spending across LICs goes to support the most vulnerable citizens. That is one-tenth the average for developing economies more broadly.

It therefore should surprise no one that a human tragedy is now unfolding in these countries. Key indicators of human development in today’s LICs are far worse now than they were in the LICs of 2000, before many of the latter had ascended to middle-income status. For example, maternal mortality is 25% higher now, and the share of the population with access to electricity has fallen from 52% to barely 40% across this cohort. Average life expectancy is now just 62 years, among the lowest rates in the world.