Improving Countries’ Standards of Living

Growth Policies for Economically-Challenged Countries

Many economically-challenged or low-income countries are geographically located in Sub-Saharan Africa. Other pockets of low income are in the former Soviet Bloc, and in parts of Central America and the Caribbean.

There are macroeconomic policies and prescriptions that might alleviate the extreme poverty and low standard of living. However, many of these countries lack the economic and legal stability, along with market-oriented institutions, needed to provide a fertile climate for domestic economic growth and to attract foreign investment. Thus, macroeconomic policies for low income economies are vastly different from those of the high income economies. The World Bank has made it a priority to combat poverty and raise overall income levels through 2030. One of the key obstacles to achieving this is the political instability that seems to be a common feature of low-income countries.

Figure shows the ten lowest income countries as ranked by The World Bank in 2013. These countries share some common traits, the most significant of which is the recent failures of their governments to provide a legal framework for economic growth. Ethiopia and Eritrea recently ended a long-standing war in 2000. Civil and ethnic wars have plagued countries such as Burundi and Liberia. Command economies, corruption, as well as political factionalism and infighting are commonly adopted elements in these low-income countries. The Democratic Republic of the Congo (often referred to as “Congo”) is a resource-wealthy country that has not been able to increase its subsistence standard of living due to the political environment.

This bar chart that shows ten low-income countries, which include, from lowest income to highest: Burundi, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Eritrea, Niger, Ethiopia, Malawi, Madagascar, Liberia, Guinea, and Central African Republic.
The Ten Lowest Income Countries This bar chart that shows ten low-income countries, which include, from lowest income to highest: Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zimbabwe, Burundi, Liberia, Eritrea, Central African Republic, Niger, Madagascar, and Afghanistan. (Source:

Low-income countries are at a disadvantage because any incomes that people receive are spent immediately on necessities such as food. People in these countries live on less than $1,035 per year, which is less than $100 per month. Lack of saving means a lack of capital accumulation and a lack of loanable funds for investment in physical and human capital. Recent research by two MIT economists, Abhijit Bannerjee and Esther Duflo, has confirmed that the households in these economies are trapped in low incomes because they cannot muster enough investment to push themselves out of poverty.

For example, the average citizen of Burundi, the lowest-income country, subsists on $150 per year (adjusted to 2005 dollars). According to Central Intelligence Agency data in its CIA Factbook, as of 2013, 90% of Burundi’s population is agrarian, with coffee and tea as the main income producing crop. Only one in two children attends school and, as Figure shows, many are not in schools comparable to what occurs in developed countries. The CIA Factbook also estimates that 15% of Burundi’s population suffers from HIV/AIDS. Political instability has made it difficult for Burundi to make significant headway toward growth, as verified by the electrification of only 2% of households and 42% of its national income coming from foreign aid.

This is an image of children sitting in a ruined structure which serves as their outdoor “classroom.”
Lack of Funds for Investing in Human Capital In low-income countries, people often spend all income on necessities for living and cannot accumulate or investe in physical or human capital. The students in this photograph learn in an outside “classroom” void of not only technology, but even chairs and desks. (Credit: Rafaela Printes/Flickr Creative Commons)

The World Factbook website is loaded with maps, flags, and other information about countries across the globe.

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Other low-income countries share similar stories. These countries have found it difficult to generate investments for themselves or to find foreign investors willing to put up the money for more than the basic needs. Foreign aid and external investment comprise significant portions of the income in these economies, but are not sufficient to allow for the capital accumulation necessary to invest in physical and human capital. However, is foreign aid always a contributor to economic growth? It can be a controversial issue, as the next Clear it Up feature points out.

Does foreign aid to low-income countries work?

According to the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), about $134 billion per year in foreign aid flows from the high-income countries of the world to the low-income ones. Relative to the size of their populations or economies, this is not a large amount for either donors or recipients. For low-income countries, aid averages about 1.3 percent of their GDP. However, even this relatively small amount has been highly controversial.

Supporters of additional foreign aid point to the extraordinary human suffering in the world's low-and middle-income countries. They see opportunities all across Africa, Asia, and Latin America to set up health clinics and schools. They want to help with the task of building economic infrastructure: clean water, plumbing, electricity, and roads. Supporters of this aid include formal state-sponsored institutions like the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) or independent non-governmental organizations (NGOs) like CARE International that also receive donor government funds. For example, because of an outbreak of meningitis in Ethiopia in 2010, DFID channeled significant funds to the Ethiopian Ministry of Health to train rural health care workers and also for vaccines. These monies helped the Ministry offset shortfalls in their budget.

Opponents of increased aid do not quarrel with the goal of reducing human suffering, but they suggest that foreign aid has often proved a poor tool for advancing that goal. For example, according to an article in the Attaché Journal of International Affairs, the Canadian foreign aid organization (CIDA) provided $100 million to Tanzania to grow wheat. The project did produce wheat, but nomadic pastoralists and other villagers who had lived on the land were driven off 100,000 acres of land to make way for the project. The damage in terms of human rights and lost livelihoods was significant. Villagers were beaten and killed because some refused to leave the land. At times, the unintended collateral damage from foreign aid can be significant.

William Easterly, professor of economics at New York University and author of The White Man’s Burden, argues that countries often receive aid for political reasons and ends up doing more harm than good. If a country's government creates a reasonably stable and market-oriented macroeconomic climate, then foreign investors will be likely to provide funds for many profitable activities. For example, according to The New York Times, Facebook is partnering with multiple organizations in a project called to provide access in remote and low-income areas of the world, and Google began its own initiative called Project Loon. Facebook’s first forays into providing internet access via mobile phones began in stable, market-oriented countries like India, Brazil, Indonesia, Turkey, and the Philippines.

Policymakers are now wiser about foreign aid limitations than they were a few decades ago. In targeted and specific cases, especially if foreign aid is channeled to long-term investment projects, foreign aid can have a modest role to play in reducing the extreme levels of deprivation that hundreds of millions of people around the world experience.

Watch this video on the complexities of providing economic aid in Africa.

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