Poverty in South Asia by the Numbers

Poverty-fighting measures tend to focus largely on sub-Saharan Africa, and rightly so given the desperate poverty in the region. Unfortunately, there is also a tendency to ignore South Asia. While it is true that the poverty rate in India and the other South Asian countries is lower than in the worst African nations, South Asia has the most poor people in a concentrated area. The Multidimensional Poverty Index, created by the University of Oxford and the United Nations to measure poverty in a more complete way than by income, is a good tool to compare poverty in different regions.

As expected, no country in South Asia ranks especially high by percentage of the population living in poverty. The poorest countries by percentage of the population are the usual suspects, including Niger, Ethiopia, Liberia, and the Central African Republic. By total numbers of people living in poverty though, three of the top five countries are South Asian, with small but impoverished Nepal also in the top fifteen. In total, South Asia has about 800 million people who are considered poor by the MPI standard, only a little less than the entire population of sub-Saharan Africa. Approximately three-quarters of these poor people live in India.

The heart of South Asian poverty is in a belt of high population states that runs from Rajasthan, on the Indian border with Pakistan, through the Hindi-speaking heartland in northern India, all the way east to Assam, plus Nepal and Bangladesh. This swath of territory represents about 1% of the land on Earth, but is home to 12% of the world’s population and 32% of its poor people as defined by MPI. To provide perspective, that is an area slightly larger than Alaska packed with about 850 million people, of whom nearly two thirds, or a little less than twice the United States’ entire population, live in poverty. Two Indian states, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, that encompass the Gangetic Plain are the epicenter of this region. They make up 0.2% of the world’s area, 4% of its population, and 12% of its poor. Combined, they are about 75% the size of California, but with a population of 300 million (roughly the same as the U.S.), of whom three quarters live in poverty. The poverty belt is highlighted below in light blue, with Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in darker blue:

South Asia Poverty Belt

While Africa continues to be the most impoverished region of the world, with Niger scoring as the worst country per capita by MPI, South Asia has the highest concentration of poor people. For example, the poverty belt in South Asia has a combined area just 40% larger than that of Niger, but a population that is a whopping 5300% higher than Niger’s. Clearly, we should try to eradicate poverty in all areas in the world, but fighting poverty has the greatest chance to succeed in the Indian subcontinent, due both to its extraordinary concentration of poor people in a relatively small area, and to its political stability compared to Africa.

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One thought on “Poverty in South Asia by the Numbers

  1. What you have here is essentially the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin being the epicentre of poverty in the world, apart from Uttarakhand.

    It is therefore worth speculating how much of a role climate and environment play in poverty in this region. My hypothesis is that the reason why the Ganges-Brahmaputra basin is so poor is because it has just about exceeded its capacity to sustain a reliable, prosperous agrarian economy without extensive human intervention. The water from the snow melt is not enough to create widespread irrigation networks (in contrast to Punjab/Haryana/West UP) and the monsoons are erratic enough for a large enough population to be affected by either drought or floods every year shocking the economy every year.

    I have never heard of Punjab or Haryana ever affected by floods or drought. Never. Whereas Bihar, UP, Assam, Bangladesh are in the news for these virtually every monsoon.

    My speculation is that the building of dams in Nepal, Sikkim, Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh will do more than anything else to reduce poverty in this region.

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