What causes extreme poverty in developing countries?

What causes extreme poverty in developing countries?

With the economic recession biting the United Kingdom hard, the nation is facing rising levels of poverty. Eurozone countries such as Greece, Spain, and Portugal have also been hit heavily by higher levels of unemployment and inflation rates.

The situation though is far worse in developing countries, especially in areas such as sub-Saharan Africa. Though academic research has shown that there has been a general reduction in extreme levels of poverty in developing countries across the globe, serious problems remain. A large section of the world’s poor are still left without the basic necessities of life, are malnourished and destitute.

We asked Labs participants how they defined poverty and what they believed were the causes of extreme levels of poverty in developing countries, in deprived regions such as sub-Saharan Africa.

What is Poverty?

Labs participants gave numerous definitions of what they perceived poverty to be. The majority of participants said that poverty comes in different forms, with most participants referring to relative and absolute or extreme levels of poverty.

Most stated that poverty in the United Kingdom was relative. 

  • Some participants saw relative poverty where people had little or no money and had been living off benefits, or had been unemployed for a considerable period. Participants also stated that the poverty in the United Kingdom was increasing, and consisted of families as well as individuals falling into the poverty trap.
  • In addition, other participants said that different areas in the United Kingdom had differing levels of poverty, and that poverty has to be classified according to a case by case model, rather than a universal model.
  • In contrast, the majority of participants said that extreme levels of poverty were far worse than the poverty seen in developed countries such as the United Kingdom. Most noted that extreme levels of poverty were where people faced a daily struggle just to survive, as these people lacked basic needs, such as water, food, and shelter.
  • Many participants noted that the poverty experienced in the United Kingdom and in developed countries is different to the poverty experienced in developing countries.

Causes of extreme poverty

Participants outlined different causes as to why extreme levels of poverty exist in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa. Participants were largely divided in their opinions

Political regime & dictatorships:

A large number of participants remarked that the political regimes in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa had caused extreme levels of poverty to exist. Most participants in this group outlined that much of the economic wealth was in the hands of a dictatorship, rather than being dispersed out to the people.

Participants also noted that these political regimes were highly corrupt and had economic programmes which did not create growth, but instead made the rich richer and the poor poorer in society. These reasons, plus a lack of development and accessible education was perceived as a root cause.

Western Countries & The Global Order:

A large section of participants suggested that rich western countries such as the United States and the United Kingdom are to blame for the plight of the poor in destitute countries. Participants cite the colonization period, using examples such as Nigeria and Zimbabwe where colonialism had exploited these countries and led to tribal divisions, religious conflict, and Civil wars.

Similarly, participants also remarked that under the colonial period, valuable resources such as diamonds and oil were taken from these countries and given to rich Western countries, which have arguably caused long-term poverty in sub-Saharan Africa.

A minority noted that the current global order is to blame, with certain dominant global powers and international organizations such as the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund not doing enough to help the plight of the poor in impoverished countries. On the other hand though, some participants questioned the effect of international aid and outlined its limitations.

Physical geography & disease:

Participants in this group noted that widespread famines and lack of healthcare in poor developing countries were to blame.

Participants discussed factors such as the lack of crops in poorer countries, which made it virtually impossible to produce food, in effect leading to starvation and an increase of famines. Other participants in this group recognised that geography played a part, with some countries landlocked and without a natural water source, more prone to famines and droughts.

What causes poverty

(Click on the titles below to read the views of Labs participants)

Viewpoint 1- Political regime & dictatorships

“Exploitation of resources by bodies which do not place sufficiently high importance on the source of their wealth. These bodies may be internal to the areas suffering from poverty, where a dictator appropriates resources or from external sources such as western society” Anon

“Having visited Africa many times, the problems are corruption, tribalism and a lack of basic education” SY, Yorkshire

“Africa has poverty from the last thirty years. About 1.4 billion live in poverty; they don't have food, shelter, sanitation and water so on. Main reasons are lack of education and low GDP, limited resourcesSaba, London

“Over population in some areas, but greed and corruption is the greatest cause. India can afford Nuclear weapons and a Space Programme for example but seems unwilling or unable to look after huge numbers of its population. How can countries such as this have thousands of children left to fend for themselves on the streets whilst the ruling classes live in luxury?” Simon, North Cornwall

Lack of education is the main cause - the people have no way to get out of the situation. Coupled with a lack of facilities (some have no water or electricity), lack of investment by their governments, corruption of the governments, and lack of social services” Anon

“A lack on infrastructure to allow the combatting of poverty (such as education, medicine and farming), normally caused by political turmoil, corruption or natural disasters” Anon

Viewpoint 2 - Western Countries & The Global Order

Legacy of colonialism and exploitation. These nations never developed industrially in a normal way, and now the mega-corporations that run the world dictate the terms of trade, so the poor nations can't get out of the pit they're in. The solution has to be fair trade” Anon

“There are many and varied causes of poverty in Africa. Civil wars, corruption, rampant nepotism and mismanagement. Imposition of unfair and damaging policies by the IMF and World Bank, through the nineties. Lack of social welfare and social policies in general that would be helpful to the population in generalBrian

“Africa’s absolute poverty comes from the inequality of the way it is shared out! Not everyone in the World can be disgustingly rich. In Africa it is the western world that has stolen the resources and they are not in an unending supply!” Carl, Devon

“Trade barriers prevent them trading their goods with the west” Anon

“Capitalism. The system that we live under will always lead to oppression, exploitation, poverty and death for the majority of people in the world” Anon

Viewpoint 3 - Physical geography & disease

“Lack of birth control, disease, lack of clean water” Anon

“I believe ‘poverty’ is different in developing countries. This is because they are more likely to suffer from the following issues whereas developed countries often will not - famine, access to sanitation and clean water, war, illnesses such as TB, cholera, HIV/AIDS” Anon

“Drought, famine, lack of clean water, lack of hygienic living conditionsDavid, Cambridge

"Famine due to crop failure and despots who prevent their populace from getting all the aid sent by more affluent countries" Anon

What's your view? Are there any other factors which you think could cause developing countries to have high levels of extreme poverty?

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Authors

James Downes

Writer and contributor to the YouGov Labs website.

Works in the YouGov London office