Why are Poor Countries Poor?

Why are poor countries poor? There is probably no simple answer to that question. Most likely, there are numerous factors that play a role. This essay is an attempt to enumerate and discuss these factors. It covers both views that are critical of rich countries, and views that are critical of the poor countries.

I will be discussing some quite controversial theories. By reading this text, you accept that I do not assume responsibility for incorrect or incomplete information, for personal unease, or for any other claim formed on the basis of the present text. Even though I did my best to reproduce third party studies and their results truthfully, I cannot guarantee that the data presented here is correct. Notably, third parties cited here do not necessarily agree with the conclusions I draw. Should you partially or fully disagree with these conditions, please abstain from reading this text! If you have suggestions, corrections, or feedback, please send me a mail!

This text is available under a Creative Commons Attribution License. Images are taken from the sources cited. Images marked with the words “compiled from” are my own, derived from the data sources I cited. Images without references are my own. References are listed at the end of this document. References refer to Wikipedia, unless otherwise noted.



The Problem

A number of countries in this world are economically less developed. Traditionally, these countries are known as the “Third World” or the “Developing World”. This implies that life is hard for a large number of people. So the question arises why this is the case.

These countries are not only less economically developed, but they often also

The present text aims to share some thoughts on poverty and its correlated factors.

Terminology and Scope

There is no clear definition of what a “poor country” is. The common understanding is that a country is poor if the majority of its people do not have a certain minimum living standard. Wikipedia lists a number of more quantitative criteria, ranging from low average income, or a low Gross National Income per capita, to a low Human-Development-Index [44]. This is not to say that material wealth would be the most important or the only factor to optimize. Yet, it constitutes a rough approximation for the well-being of the people. Poverty is usually also not distributed equally in the country: Certain ethnic, religious, or social groups might be particularly advantaged or disadvantaged. As Hans Rosling points out in an informative and entertaining talk about country statistics [130], the population in poor countries is usually affected very unequally by poverty.

The common assumption under any definition of “poor country” is that Japan, North America, Australia, New Zealand, Western Europe, and Israel are considered “not poor”. This essay will refer to these countries as “rich”. It will refer to Western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand as “the West”. African countries and South-Asian countries are usually considered “poor”. This text, in particular, is inspired by my trips to Senegal, Morocco, South America, and India. Therefore, it mainly focuses on these regions as “poor”. I do not know in how far my thoughts transfer to other countries. Also, not all countries are equally poor. Some developing countries have a higher GDP than developed countries. Furthermore, some countries are behind on some accounts, but way ahead on others. Cuba, e.g., has a lower child mortality rate than the US [130]. Therefore, this text will discuss potential reasons for poverty without claiming that they would apply equally to all poor countries.

There is considerable dispute about the right term for “poor countries”. The word “poor” has a very negative connotation. Furthermore, “poor countries” are not necessarily poor: They often have vast natural resources. On the other hand, terms such as “developing” or “industrializing” are very positive. They imply that the country would actually be moving out of poverty. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. I have therefore opted for the term “less economically developed country”, or “LED country” for short [44]. It implies that the country has a low income, and I think the term is neither euphemistic nor overly negative.

The Methodology

To make this very clear: I do not know why exactly LED countries are poor. I have no education in political, economic, or social sciences. And I do not have a solution for the problem of poverty. I just spent some time in LED countries and I would like to share my thoughts. I have been to Senegal, India, South America, and Morocco, for three months in total. I have been there for tourism, for traveling, and for work. I have talked to different people — to professors, to taxi drivers, to people on the street, to students, to tax inspectors, and to hotel staff. This yielded a potpourri of factors that could contribute to the problems of LED countries. This text is essentially a list of such factors. For every factor, I will give
  1. A hypothesis of what could be a source of poverty.
  2. Reasons that make me bring forward this hypothesis.
  3. An elaboration of the effects if this hypothesis is true.
  4. A discussion of controversies and possible solutions.

Thus, this text is essentially an exploration of the possible factors that could play a role. This text does not say that these factors would definitively be the reasons for the poverty. Nor does it differentiate between important and negligible factors. It does not even say that these factors would be the only reasons for the poverty. Rather, this text is a call for these factors to be analyzed and taken into account when thinking about LED countries.


This text consists of two parts. The first part treats the possible problems in the political structure of these countries — notably foreign influence. In the second part, it treats possible problems in the societies of these countries.

Naturally, Western readers tend to emphasize the second part and disregard the first part. I therefore encourage Western readers explicitly to read also the hypotheses in the first part.

Many people from LED countries I talked to, in contrast, took delight in emphasizing the first part (the foreign influence). I therefore ask them to read also the second part very carefully and see whether there is some truth in it.

If the reader hails from one of the countries discussed here, she or he is kindly reminded that not all factors discussed here apply uniformly to all countries. For any corrections or additional (referenced) information, please send me a mail!

Possible Reasons at the Top

Land Grabbing

The Hypothesis
LED countries and foreign countries maintain vivid trade relationships. One source of trade is the exploitation of natural resources and agriculture in the LED country. The hypothesis is that the land is often used mainly to the advantage of foreign companies.
Reasons for this Hypothesis

Land in Large Land Deals

Country Area (k ha) % of total
Philippines 5182 17%
Sierra Leone 1078 15%
Malaysia 481915%
Benin 1040 9%
Madagascar 3747 6%
Cambodia 1139 6%
Liberia 679 6%
Indonesia 7527 4%
Mozambique 2280 3%
Ghana 669 3%
Land allocated by large land deals, with proportion of the total land area. Compiled from Land Portal data [60].
Foreign investors own large parts of the lands in LED countries. The World Bank notes “significant levels of activity” in large land deals (those over 1,000 hectars) in LED countries. It has conducted detailed studies in 5 LED countries. It finds that non-trivial portions of the land suitable for rainfed crops have been allocated this way: 1.39% of the land in Ethopia, 2.12% of the land in Ghana, 2.29% of the land in Madagascar, and 0.46% of the land in Sudan [55]. Half of that area in Madagascar is owned by a single investor [55]. The International Land Coalition (ILC), a non-governmental organization that comprises 116 organizations, tries to monitor large land deals globally. It focuses on deals that imply a conversion from land used by smallholders to large-scale commercial use, and that are 200 hectars or larger. The ILC has confirmed and cross-checked evidence for land deals of 71 million hectares in the period from the year 2000 to the year 2010 [59]. That is roughly the size of Turkey. Half of that area is in Africa, amounting to the size of Germany. In total, the size of large scale land deals (including those that still need to be cross-checked) is 203 million hectars globally. That is roughly the size of Saudi Arabia or Mexico. The organization maintains the Land Matrix, a project that aims to document large land deals [60]. The project shows that large land deals can make up considerable portions of the country surface (see table).

The use of the land is diverse. The land is used to produce crops for export, for biofuel production, for large-scale infrastructure projects, for carbon-credit mechanisms, or simply for speculation. The ILC estimates that 78% of the land deals are for agricultural production, of which three-quarters are for biofuels. The remainder is allocated for mineral extraction, industry, tourism, timber, and forest conversions [59]. Investor countries are Western countries, but also China, and Arab countries that aim to produce food for their populations.

The Effect

Land Investors

Country Area (ha)
India 7392834
Malaysia 5998590
Indonesia 5487902
USA 3711856
China 2962344
UK 2842922
South Korea 2423297
Saudi Arabia 1986357
United Arab Emirates 1882739
South Africa 1405631
Main investor countries in large land deals. Compiled from Land Portal data [60].
Large land deals are connected to hopes for benefits for both the investor and the host country. The investor expects productivity and fertility of the land, and a rich source of income. The host country expects fees for land use, income from taxes or customs, job creation for the local population, and the attraction of further foreign investment. In reality, neither the hopes of the investor nor the hopes of the host country always materialize. We focus here on the effect on the host country. The ILC has done a review of studies on the benefits of land deals for the host countries, and found that many governments allocate land for little or no rent, so that income from “lease fees are negligible” [59]. In return, the host countries often require the investor to develop infrastructure such as irrigation systems, roads, and social facilities for affected communities. However, such commitments may be too unspecific to be enforceable, and monitoring and sanctioning compliance involves an unknown cost for the host state. Thus, in the end, the deal often does not benefit the host country [59]. Job creation estimates are often exaggerated, at least in the early stages. Jobs that do materialise are often low-paid and insecure, and sometimes linked only to an initial construction phase [59]. China, in particular, signed an estimated $148bn worth of construction deals with Arab states, as the Economist related [186]. Yet, these rarely lead to any local jobs. On the projects in Algeria (worth a combined $16bn), some 40,000 Chinese labourers did most of the work.

The land deals may also have devastating effects on the local population. The ILC explains that virtually all valuable land is used or at least claimed by local people in one way or another: the land provides a range of forest products, areas for grazing and transhumance, and for hunting and fishing. They are also often used for shifting cultivation (bush farming or forest farming) or held to be the reserve areas for generational expansion of cultivation [59]. In summary, even though the land is registered nowhere as officially owned, it still forms the basis of the livelihoods of the local communities. If this land is sold or leased, the basis of their subsistence is in danger. The ILC also records cases where people have been forcefully evicted from their habitual homes due to large scale land deals [59]. Such dislocations do not just deprive people of their land and housing, but also disrupt historical methods of farming, and social ties. Compensation is often inadequate, if not outright inexistent. Dislocated people find themselves pushed to areas of the country that are disadvantaged in terms of infrastructure, ground fertility, access to water, and access to the market. Large numbers of people are pushed to live in slums.

Large scale land deals also have a negative effect on the environment. As the ILC summarizes, these include land degradation, water pollution, excessive use of fresh water, biodiversity loss, degradation, diversion of water from environmental flows, and loss of ecosystem services such as the maintenance of soil and water quality, as well as carbon sequestration [59]. In general, agriculture for export means that the food prices in the producer country rise. This threatens the food security in the local country, and inflicts additional hardship on the population.

Technically, all land is initially owned by the government. The government can dictate the terms under which the land can be used. It has the right to lease or to sell the land to companies, local or foreign. It can decree that the land shall be used only for a certain period of time; it can tax the produce of the land; it can impose restrictions on the exploitation; it can impose customs on the export; it can give the land to local companies only; it can demand that whoever exploits the resources has to make contributions to the surrounding infrastructure; it can establish quotas for local employees; and it can impose that if foreign companies get a permit to use the resources, they have to contribute to long-term sustainable projects for the local economy. Through these measures, the government can make sure that the exploitation of the resources generates advantages for the country. Should the company not agree to these conditions, the contract can be given to another company. Should the company agree, but not fulfill these requirements, the contract can be canceled, and the company can be fined.

In reality, things do not work this way. First, land ownership is not always officially regulated. There are no official land titles, or a land register, which would allow people to prove that they own the land. Local farmers may simply rely on customary right as proof of their ownership. Land may also be distributed without formal procedures or written proof by the heads of tribes. Land may also be used temporarily by nomad people, or collectively owned by communities. The World Bank estimates that “in Africa formal tenure covers only between 2 and 10 percent of the land” [56]. Under these conditions, it is practically impossible to make proper deals for land.

As the ILC observes, land deals are made behind closed doors, and local land holders have usually no say in the deals [59]. The World Bank adds that, even if local land rights are taken into account, “communities were rarely aware of their rights and, even in cases where they were, lacked the ability to interact with investors or to explore ways to use their land more productively” [55]. Contracts are often vague, and do not adequately take into account environmental and social consequences.

Furthermore, the LED countries often do not have the administrational infrastructure to sign and document land deals. The World Bank says that the process to acquire land is usually complicated and often unclear to those involved [55]. Approval processes for land deals are often ill-defined, centralized, and discretionary, with different parts of the same government often at odds with each other [55]. There may be significant problems in identifying the multiple land claims at stake, even where the land is classified as privately held and land certificate documents are produced [55]. The World Bank itself has severe difficulties estimating what proportion of the land is owned, because “even in countries where there are official “land banks” available for investment, records may be incomplete, contradictory or not communicated to the relevant district administrations themselves” [55]. Under these conditions, land ownership seems mainly a question of money and influence. Indeed, the World Bank finds that “lower recognition of land rights increases a country’s attractiveness for land acquisition”, implying that investors would actively seek countries where the land rights are soft [55].

Furthermore, the LED countries often have no stable governmental structure. Enforcing contracts is not as straightforward as one might think, due to excessive red tape and an often dysfunctional administration. Beyond that, corruption may play a large part in such contracts,. Even in democratic or pseudo-democratic countries, the interests of politicians and senior officials are often commercial, because these individuals are often both public officers and businessmen, as the ILC explains [59]. All in all, the World Bank concludes that “in some cases investors can benefit more from trying to navigate the system than from trying to design investments that generate jobs and increase productivity” [55].

Hence, if land possessions are to be distributed more equitably, then this has to happen on a global scale, supported both by local governments and by foreign governments. As a first step in this direction, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) has developed guidelines for the allocation of land [54]. These guidelines are voluntary, but they have been approved unanimously by all countries — including the top investor countries.

Foreign Corruption

Most LED countries have close economic relationships with Western countries. This may not always be to the advantage of the LED country. On the contrary, the hypothesis is that foreign companies bribe government officials in LED countries, thus gaining state contracts and other advantages.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
When I talked to people in LED countries, they mentioned corruption by foreigners as one of the more frequent complaints. For Morocco, this complaint is supported by Transparency International, an NGO that fights against corruption. Their report of 2009 states that “large numbers of multinational corporations from the richest nations are pursuing a criminal course to win contracts” [4]. One recent example was the case of Siemens, which bribed several governments around the world, as reported by the New York Times [52]. Siemens “used bribes and kickbacks to foreign officials to secure government contracts for projects like a national identity card project in Argentina, mass transit work in Venezuela, a nationwide cellphone network in Bangladesh and a United Nations oil-for-food program in Iraq under Saddam Hussein”. In total “the company paid an estimated 1.4 billion [US dollars] in bribes to government officials in Asia, Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Latin America”. Most Western countries had no law against giving bribes to foreign officials. The OECD convention that pushes countries to punish bribery abroad came into effect only in 1997 [26]. Until recently, corruption was tax-deductible in many Western countries. As the OECD notes, Germany abolished tax-deductible bribes in 1999, the Netherlands 2006, and Switzerland in 2011 [25]. As of September 2012, Germany has not yet ratified the UN convention against corruption. This suggests that bribery by foreigners was common-place. Indeed, an OECD report from 2014 notes that in 41% of the 400 cases under investigation, corruption by companies is sanctioned by higher ranking company officials. The average sum per case is 14m USD. Most cases target industrial nations, but some do target LEDs [169].
A state contract obtained by corruption always indicates that the contract went to a company that offers a suboptimal cost/benefit ratio. Thus, the LED country suffers an economic disadvantage by making a contract based on a bribe. It can also happen that the state contract would not have been made at all, if it were not for the bribe. In these cases, the bribe wastes public money and makes things happen that are not in the interest of the country. It may, e.g., lead to the destruction of historical city centers due to a large-scale building contract, or give permission to build a factory that causes heavy environmental impact.

Furthermore, state contracts usually come with large amounts of money. They also often come with long-lasting follow-up engagements. Thus, the state contract would secure long-lasting employment for locals, if it went to a local company. It would also help build up local know-how and create a sustainable local industry. If the contract goes to a foreign company instead, these advantages are sacrificed. This does not mean that local companies should be favored on principle over foreign companies. It just means that an illegal bias towards foreign companies through corruption will hurt the local economy. Last, corruption at the highest level gives a bad example for fighting the corruption at the local level.

Companies that try to do business in LED countries may get so frustrated with excessive red tape, dysfunctional administrational structures and the general prevalence of corruption in the country that they see bribes as the only viable solution. Yet, that does not make bribing any less immoral. I have argued that, in general, the fault with corruption lies with the person who accepts the bribe [5 / Corruption]. Seen this way, the main fault with corruption would lie with the local government, as a receiver of the bribes. The local government is also responsible for prosecuting offenders. Yet, there is also a considerable amount of fault with the companies that engage in such endeavors [5 / Corruption]. Corruption is universally accepted as illegal or immoral, and companies that bribe officials (no matter whether in poor or in rich countries) act in an irresponsible and reproachable way.

One may argue that it is the responsibility of the people to elect governments that cannot be bribed. If there is no party that promises freedom from corruption, people should form parties. Yet, democracy does not always work as intended in LED countries, for a wide number of reasons.

The most obvious countermeasure against corruption seems a more rigorous application of the rule of law in the recipient country. Yet, institutions in the LED countries are typically weak. Furthermore, the corruption effectively prevents its own extinction. It bribes the politicians who want to fight it, the judges who want to try it, and the people who want to uncover it. Therefore, it is difficult for a corrupt country to eradicate its own corruption. This is especially true if the money comes from countries and companies whose financial power exceeds that of the local population by several orders of magnitude.

Therefore, one way to fight against foreign corruption is to prosecute and penalize corruption more consistently in the foreign countries. Foreign companies are still subject to the foreign country’s jurisdiction, which gives these some leverage. Therefore, the OECD countries have agreed to fight corruption by legal means also if it takes place abraod. This is what the OECD convention of 1997 establishes [26].

Foreign Meddling

The Hypothesis
LED countries have not just economic relationships with Western countries, but also political relationships. The hypothesis is that this relationship is asymmetric. Foreign countries, notably the US and Europe, or companies from these countries, influence politics in LED countries by
Reasons for this Hypothesis
The concern that foreign countries influence local politics is the most frequent response I got when I asked people about the reasons for their country’s poverty. For some cases of foreign influence, there is concrete evidence. For example, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) complains that France supported Yssoufou Mahamadou, the candidate of the PNDS party in Nigeria [6]. (He was also said to enjoy the backing of the rulers of Algeria, Nigeria, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad and Libya.) France first backed the dictator of Central Africa, then ousted him in 1979, and then granted him asylum in France [24]. The United States helped topple the governments of Cuba (1952), Iran (1953), Brazil (1955), and Pakistan (1977) and helped establish the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet in Chile (1973) [24]. It obtained sovereignty of the Panama Canal, and invaded the country in 1988 [66]. Several foreign nations took sides in the Iran-Iraq war from 1980 to 1988 [65]. The US even involved the CIA in gas attacks, as Le Monde reports [166] The West also toppled Muhammad Ghaddafi, the leader of Libya, in 2011. The people in Senegal to whom I talked see this war as an act of foreign meddling in local politics. The most blatant example of foreign meddling is probably the assassination of Thomas Sankara. Sankara was a hugely popular president of Burkina Faso, who aimed to reduce foreign influence in the country. He was assassinated in 1987 in a coup d’état supported by France [7]. Still in 2018, the former chief of the CIA and NSA let it be understood that the US also intervened in other country’s elections [176]. In the 2019 conflict in Libya, France backs General Haftar and Italy backs the Libyan government, laments the Economist [188]. Thereby, the two European countries fuel a civil war. In the Sahel, European powers fight jihadists. In this process, any leader who is not a jihadist is a welcome ally: The Economist relates [189] that French warplanes bombed rebels in Chad to protect Idriss Déby, who has ruled since 1990. In Cameroon special forces trained by the West have been implicated in brutal abuses against opponents of Paul Biya, who has been president since 1982.

Such activities are part of what is known as “Neo-colonialism”: the practice of using capitalism, globalization and cultural imperialism to influence a developing country. Neo-colonialism is particularly developed between France and its ex-colonies — a concept known as “Françafrique” [129]. In this essay, we drill into Neo-colonialism and discuss each of its components: meddling (this article), donor dependencies, debt, and trade regulations.

Foreign meddling is not limited to colonial powers: In Congo, e.g, militias backed by Rwanda and Uganda energetically loot minerals, as the Economist explains [193].

The Effect
If the West does indeed influence local politics in LED countries in an undue way, then this will have two main adverse effects: First, the meddling will influence politics in a way that is beneficial to the foreign country, but not necessarily to the LED country. The intervention may impose foreign values or policies, force a dependency upon the LED country, or force an opening of the local market. Notably, foreign countries and companies want mainly their own products sold in the LED country. This, however, suffocates the local economy (see.

Second, the meddling of foreign countries gives people in the LED country the impression that they have no power over their own country. This endangers the concepts of self-responsibility and democracy. It also gives people an easy excuse to blame foreign powers and abandon any personal engagement for their country. It may also encourage them to wait until a foreign power sorts out the country’s problems.

The West says it is in a dilemma that goes beyond economic interests: On the one hand, it does not want to be seen as meddling in the affairs of other countries. On the other hand, it says it feels a moral obligation to counteract dictatorships. This is maybe best illustrated by an example: When the civil war in Libya started in 2011, some people criticized the US for being so reluctant to go to war on the side of the rebels. They told me that the US had limited commercial interest there, and hence would not step in. When the US did step in, people in Senegal told me that Western powers overthrew the Libyan government because of their commercial interests. This shows that the opinion concerning foreign meddling and its motivation is highly subjective. What is foreign meddling to some is too reluctant an intervention for others.

People in Senegal criticized Western governments for not stepping in for Syria during the civil war in 2011. At the same time, no non-Western government stepped in either. The West proposed a UN Security Council resolution that would have enabled sanctions against the Syrian regime, but Russia and China vetoed it. The people in Senegal whom I talked to did not want to believe that this was true, and did not wish to check the UN Security Council protocols to verify it [164]. No country, neither Western nor regional, stepped in in Syria in 2011, in Libya during 40 years of dictatorship, in Algeria during the dictatorship, or in Zimbabwe. Iran, Russia, China, the Arab League, Turkey, and the African Union are all reluctant to go to war — even though some of these countries have large armies and military. Many people just point to the West. This means that in some cases, people desire Western intervention.

People also criticize Western powers for shaping the countries they overthrew (Afghanistan and Iraq in the early years of the 21st century, Libya in 2011). Yet, Western domination is not always harmful. Germany, for example, was defeated by the Western and Soviet allies after the Second World War in 1945. In the following years, Western powers shaped the Western part of Germany. They controlled the constitution, the political structure, and the economy of the country. This involved not only some early shaping, but continued influence over 40 years. Germany did not gain formal independence until 1990. Foreign military units remained in the country until 1995. Yet, this time brought Germany prosperity, a vivid democracy, and a high standard of living. In some respects, the country is doing better now than its former tutors. In particular, Germany has a lively democratic system, which it had never before in its history. This is a case where Western influence was good for a country.

The situation of LED countries and post-war Germany is not directly comparable. Germany was already economically developed before the intervention. LED countries were not economically developed. So every country remained roughly in its state of development despite the destruction. Germany also received large amounts of money through the Marshall plan — roughly 1% of the US GDP each year for 7 years. On the other hand, Germany also had to pay reparations for the war. These exceeded the aid received under the Marshall plan. Thus, it is difficult to draw a concrete conclusion. We can just note that there exists a known case of positive Western intervention.

In any case, foreign influence has to be administered with approval of the international community. It is unacceptable that Western powers overthrow governments without international agreement. It is also unacceptable that Western governments interfere with local politics. Financing electoral campaigns constitutes electoral fraud. Such practices have to be outlawed. They have to be outlawed in the Western countries, because the institutions in the LED countries are often too weak to protect against such meddling.

Trade Regulations

The Hypothesis
Trade between rich and poor countries is regulated through international treaties. The hypothesis is that these treaties give a disadvantage to the poor countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
The Roca-Runciman Treaty, e.g., was a trade agreement between Argentina and the British Empire that severely disadvantaged Argentina. As Roca summarized, it made Argentina “an integral economic part of the British Empire” [67]. Other influence happens through international organizations: the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The WTO, in particular, has been criticized for representing mainly the interests of the rich countries. The main asymmetry is as follows:
  1. Rich countries subsidize their agriculture. This means that their agricultural exports are cheap. This means that consumers (in rich and poor countries alike) buy rich countries' products. These give a disadvantage to the poor countries, where a large part of the population depends on agriculture [69].
  2. Rich countries want to tear down customs and trade restrictions to poor countries. This allows the rich countries to export into the poor countries. The poor countries do not yet have the economic infrastructure to compete with the rich countries' products. Hence, people buy the rich countries' products, and the industry of the poor country cannot develop.
  3. At the same time, rich countries do their best to protect their own market from the products from poor countries, as the Economist explains [167]. This makes it difficult for poor countries to export to the rich ones.
Finally, rich countries insist on protecting their patents, which leads to high prices for technology and medicine for poor countries.
If rich countries force open the markets of poor countries, but subsidize their own agriculture at the same time, then the markets of poor countries are flooded with cheap food. This may help reduce hunger in the poor countries on the short run, but ultimately takes away the main economic activity of large parts of the population. This pushes these people into poverty — and ultimately increases hunger and misery. As Global Exchange, an activist group, summarizes, “WTO policies have allowed dumping of heavily subsidized industrially produced food into poor countries, undermining local production and increasing hunger” [64].

The Economist further argues that trade obstacles for export from poor countries to rich countries severely hamper progress in the LEDs. With reference to the constant influx of immigrants to Europe, the paper quips that as long as Europe does not want to import African tomatoes, it will have to import African refugees [167]. Indeed, it has been argued that the import protection of Western markets causes US$50 billion in potential lost agricultural exports for LED countries [173]. In 2002, that was equivalent to the entire development assistance given to these countries.

Officially, WTO decisions are taken in consensus. The decisions are ratified by local governments. Thus, they should reflect a compromise that is supported by each member state. In reality, Global Exchange complains that poor countries would often not have enough personnel or enough negotiation power to defend their interests [64].

The Doha Development Round of the WTO is stalled since 2001 mainly because the US and the EU refuse to give up their agricultural subsidies, if the other countries keep trade tariffs on other products [69].

Donor Dependencies

LED countries receive a substantial amount of foreign aid. The hypothesis is that this aid is not always given with good intention. Foreign countries that donate money do so in order to influence the LED country in their interest.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Foreign countries use the dependency on donor aid in several ways. One standard method is “tied aid”, i.e., money that is given under the condition that it be spent on products from the donor country [8]. Another one is an indirect political pressure on the LED country to make political decisions in the interest of the donor country. Finally, the money is not always donated in a way that supports sustainable progress in the recipient country. It is often donated to causes that harm the environment, to military equipment, or to counter-effective subsidies [9].
By influencing the LED country, the donor country advances its own interests, and disregards the interests of the recipient country. If, e.g., all aid money has to be spent on products or services from the donor country, then the recipient country can suffocate its own local competitors. As Thomas Sankara remarked, “he who feeds you, controls you”.
Let us first look into the hypothesis that aid money would merely patronize the LED countries. One way to see this is to argue that the donor country has the right to decide what shall happen with its money. If the LED country does not accept the conditions imposed by the donor country, it can always decide to walk off. Then, however, it will most likely remain poor, and need foreign aid even more ardently. That said, recipient countries do not always support the donor country politically as one might think. The conservative Heritage Foundation laments that 95% of US aid recipient countries voted against the US in UNO decisions in the years 2000-2010 [10].

Let us now look at the effect of development aid. Paradoxically, it is disputed whether the influx of money helps the receiving country or not [173]. In terms of numbers, the development aid did not produce the results one may have hoped for [ibid]. This may be due to several reasons: First, the money usually goes to the government. However, the government is often corrupt, and may give large portions of the money simply to its own cronies [ibid]. Thereby, the foreign aid just fuels the local corruption. Second, development aid will lower the prices of certain goods (e.g., if corn is donated, the price of corn falls). While this is good for the general consumer, it is disastrous for the local producers of these goods [ibid]. They may be forced out of business. Thereby, they increase the number of people who are out of work. Worse, once the aid stops, and the demand for the goods rises again, there are no local producers to supply it. In this way, the aid may destroy a local branch of the economy, and induce a long-term dependency. This phenomenon has been termed the “Aid industry” [173]. Third, even where the aid aims to develop the local economy, and even where it actually reaches its destination, it may not have the intended consequences [173]. For example, some aid money is used to develop the local agriculture so that it can export. At the same time, import tariffs in the rich countries make such imports impossible. Aid money that is used to train local doctors may simply lead to those doctors emigrating to richer places.

Let us now look into the amount of the development aid. The OECD reckons that LED countries received a total of 144 billion US dollars in 2017 [15]. To assess that quantity, let us assume that this money were handed out directly to the people. In 2019, there were 5 billion people living in the developing countries (using a broad definition, and excluding China) [177]. This means roughly 28 dollars per person. The poorest people in these countries have to live on less than 2 dollars a day. If we triple that to 6 dollars a day, then the aid money could nourish roughly 1 in 100 poor people for a year. Yet, this would mainly maintain the status quo without helping the country to fight its poverty on long-term. Furthermore, as of now, only a tiny percentage of the money reaches the people at all. As Stephen Pinker points out, people disagree on the effects of donated food and dollars, but all agree that donated technology (medicines, electronics, crop varieties, and best practices ion agriculture, business, and public health) has been an unalloyed boon [192].


Public debt may be a major problem for LED countries.
Reasons for the hypothesis
Public dept as % of GDP, according to the International Monetary Fund [21]
Debt is a trap, in which the borrowing country gets a short-term relief, but a long-term headache. Public debt is a problem for many countries — both rich and poor (see figure on the right). Many rich countries have the same debt ratio of GDP as many LED countries, and on average, the rich countries may fare even worse than the LED countries by this measure. However, debt hits an LED country harder than a rich country. First, the interest rates are usually higher, because the probability of default is higher. For example, while the US and Jordan have comparable ratios of public debt (around 100% of GDP [21]), the US pays 2.5% of interest, while Jordan pays 7% [178]. Furthermore, the debt is usually in the currency of the rich countries (US Dollars or Euros). Thus, rich countries can just print money to pay their debt. LED countries can’t. Furthermore, the currency of LED countries often lose value with respect to the rich country currency. This makes it harder to pay back the loan. Through these effects, a country can end up paying the debt back many times over. Finally, these effects accumulate: the more interest a country has to pay, the greater is the danger that it has to take a new loan. The more loans it takes, the less money it has, and thus the more loans it may be forced to take.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank have singled out 37 so-called heavily indebted poor countries, which suffer particularly from high debt [180].

Sometimes, debt is given in the form of an investment that has to be paid back later. China’s “Road and Belt Initiative”, for example, invests heavily in infrastructure around the world — under the agreement that the invested money will be paid back later by the host country. As the Economist notes [187], Chinese money is in ports in Oman, factories in Algeria, and skyscrapers in Egypt’s new capital. In 2018, China pledged $23bn in loans and aid to Arab states and signed another $28bn in investment and construction deals. As previously discussed, such deals do not create many jobs in the host country, because the work is often done by Chinese workers. Thus, the host country burdens itself with debt in order to pay foreign workers.

The Effect
Taking up a loan may be reasonable for a country, if the initial amount is invested in sustainable measures to improve the economy, so that the short-term boost translates into a long-term advantage. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case. The proof is that few countries have been able to reduce their debt over time, let alone to pay it back. Debt just does not work. It decreases the net amount of available money that the country has. This cash is then missing for building infrastructure, investing in education, or creating a health care system. For example, the heavily indebted poor countries spend, on average, as much on debt service as on health and education combined, according to the IMF [180]. In Zambia, debt service is the largest budget item, with a quarter of government spending going to pay back loans, as the Economist notes [70].

Worse, much like foreign aid, debt money usually arrives at the top of the society, where it disappears in corrupt channels, is misused by the elite, or finances war machinery. There are also cases (e.g., Indonesia) where loans were given to abusive dictators. These used the loans mainly to consolidate their own power, and suppress any opposition. When the dictator is finally toppled, the debt is not forgiven. On the contrary, the people have to pay the interest for the loans that were used to suppress them.

It thus looks as if the best option were to forgive the debts. Donor countries may say that they have a right to get the money back. That is true. At the same time, this argument becomes weaker if the LED country has already paid back the sum one or several times. The argument also becomes weaker if the loan has been given to a dictator, and is now reclaimed from the people who toppled him. One may also argue that forgiving debt encourages poorly governed places to borrow more money and then default. The answer is quite probably that loans should not be handed out to poorly governed places in the first place — which is unfortunately a large portion of the LED countries. Zambia is a case at hand: The world forgave Zambia its entire debt in 2006. As the Economist notes [70], the country was again at the brink of another debt crisis just 12 years later — with no progress to show for the money received or the debt forgiven.

Quite surprisingly, debt relief does not always translate into huge gain for the indebted country. The Heavily Indebted Poor Countries Initiative of the World Bank relieved the debts of 36 LED countries in the early 2000’s, at a cost of around 76 billion US dollars to creditors [179]. The World Bank concluded that this enabled the countries to increase their poverty-reducing expenditure by one and a half percentage points of GDP between 2001 and 2015 [ibid]. This sounds ridiculously small, and even more so because the curve of debt relief and the curve of social spending in [179] do not actually seem to be related: social spending has always been increasing anyway.


African countries
Democracy is one of the cornerstones of Western political philosophy. The hypothesis is that democracy is not so well established in LED countries, and that many countries are run in an authoritarian style.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
The king is posted everywhere
in Morocco
Some LED countries are not democracies. Morocco, e.g., is a monarchy that gives only a limited role to the parliament, despite a constitutional reform in 2011. Those countries that are democracies often allow only one single party. As the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) notes, competitive elections, allowing for more than one party, were held in only 10 of Africa’s 53 countries in the period 1985-1989 [16]. As Freedom House counts, the situation is not much different in 2012, with elections either rigged or restricted de facto to a single party [17] (see figure below).

If countries do hold real elections, the legal or customary system often gives the president king-like power. In Senegal, e.g., the president remains for 7 years (Article 27 of the Senegale Constitution [18], as opposed to 5 years in France [180]), he has the power to name the judges in the Constitutional Council (Art. 89, as opposed to only part of the members in France), and to dissolve Parliament (Art. 87, as opposed to only under certain conditions in France). This gives the president strategic influence on the executive, the judiciary, and the legislation. (In parliamentary democracies, such as Germany, India, and Portugal, the presidents or prime ministers have no such powers.)

Countries that have multi-party elections [17]
In African countries, electoral politics is often highly opaque, allowing the ruling party to use its power to maintain its position. As IDEA notes, “Fewer than one in five African states has comprehensive laws to govern the raising of revenue, detail permitted sources of revenue, prohibit others (such as foreign and corporate donations), or impose ceilings and specify sanctions. Laws demanding the disclosure of sources of party funds and audited accounts — the minimum regulation required to grapple with issues associated with the difficult relationship between political financing and liberal democratic governance — exist only in a tiny minority of African states. Even in those states, implementation is usually a problem.” [16].

An authoritarian government can use its power to consolidate its power. People who criticize the government or ruler risk sanctions: They will risk losing their job, they will be denied permits or services, or, in extreme cases, even put in prison. The press is not free to criticize the government [51]. Demonstrations are prohibited or dissolved. Opposition figures disappear. Gatherings of people wo are critical to the government will be surveyed or dissolved. This makes it hard, if not impossible, for the ordinary citizen to oppose the government. These countries are democracies just for those who vote for the state party.

Coups d’État since 1945 per region, compiled from [24]
The powers that the ruler enjoys allow him to stay in power for a long time. In Senegal, the legislative period was reduced from 7 years to 5 only in 2011. In 2012, the president got permission from the Constitutional Council (whose members he appoints) to run a third term, even though the new constitution permits only two terms. It did not work out for him in the end, but in general, presidents of such countries remain in power for impressive times, ranging up to several decades [19].

In general, African countries have a holey tradition of democracy. Since the Second World War, the region has had a disproportionate share of coups d’état [24]. Africa and Latin America are the only two regions with statistically more than one coup per country. Basically every history of an African country includes one or more violent transitions of power after its independence. In such circumstances, democracy is feeble.

The Effect
If a ruler has the power to name all important people in the country, then he can abolish or control all institutions in the country that check his ruling. If he controls these institutions, then they cannot control him. In particular, if he abolishes or obstructs opposition parties, then there is no threat for him to be called to account for his actions. This means that he can do what pleases him, and this is not necessarily what benefits the country.

There are some prominent examples. The Forbes Magazine tells us that Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, the president of Equatorial Guinea, owns some 600 million USD [20]. This is five times the amount of foreign aid the country receives [23]. It is equal to half of the public debt of his country (as by the International Monetary Fund [21]). The Herald Daily also maintains a list of dictators and their fortunes [22]. Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, is said to own a 40 million USD house in China — possibly to relax from the inflation of 11,200,000% that his country saw during his reign.

The king of Morocco, Mohammed 6, does active business in his own country, as reported by Le Monde [53]. He owns the majority of the SNI group, which, in turn, owns the largest private bank of Morocco, the largest mine operator, and the largest distribution chain in the country. This group is lead by Mounir Majidi, who is at the same time the special secretary of Mohammed 6. This entanglement of political power and business allows the king to control 8% of the GDP of Morocco.

Not everybody believes that the separation of powers is a good thing. Some people I talked in to LED countries can live with a strongman at the top. They would even argue that a strongman is in the best interest of the country, because he avoids conflict and instability. Some people also told me that it’s OK that the ruler uses his power to increase his own wealth — after all he is the boss and deserves it. A dictatorship (or an authoritarian system) may also be the only way to run a country that has a poor record of democracy, in particular in the presence of ethnic strife and war.

Yet, in general, the numbers show that the population in LED countries is almost entirely in favor of democracy. This may be because what a dictator does is almost certainly against the interest of the people. If the ruler truly acted for the best of his country, then he could have his power checked with no fear in the frame of a democratic system. Yet, the fact that rulers typically abolish such checks indicates that they do not act for the best of their country.

During my visits, people told me that political leaders tend to “buy” votes by promising development in particular villages, by handing out goods such as shoes, or by simply handing out cash. The Economist says the ANC party of South Africa hands out food parcels before elections [133]. Naturally, poorer people are more susceptible to such bribery. This may explain why certain political leaders have no interest in really abolishing poverty in their country: Poor people can be bribed more easily into voting for them. The behavior of the ruler seems to be part of a more general problem with the ruling elite of the country.

People are also more susceptible to the ruler if they are illiterate. Illiterate people are more easily influenced by populism or demagogy, because they cannot collect information from different written sources. The ruler may tell people that they have to be thankful because the ruling party freed the country from colonialism. As the Economist notes, the ANC party of South Africa still takes credit for having liberated the country from Apartheid [133]. People may not dare challenge this position, because they they may not be knowledgeable or informed enough about the performance of the government. They may know only the government’s view of the opposition parties. A lack of education, illiteracy, and a general focus on day-to-day business does not allow them to challenge official positions. Sadly, this may even give the ruler an incentive to keep people illiterate.

A change in this seems extremely hard to achieve. This is because the ruling party or the ruler benefits from the status quo and has no interest in changing it. They can use their power to consolidate the current state and bolster it against change. Yet, pressure from inside and outside the country has recently led to some changes: In 2011, Morocco has given more power to the parliament and Senegal has reduced its legislative period from 7 to 5 years. Tunisia has also successfully transitioned to democracy — even though it was the only country to do so in the Arab Spring.

War and Civil War

Ongoing military conflicts [27]
When watching the news, it seems that most military conflicts happen in poor countries. Thus, the hypothesis is that LED countries are plagued more than average by war, civil war, and ethnic strife.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Terrorism attacks as recorded by The Economist [153]
A look at the list of current military conflicts shows that most of them are happening in the poor world (as of 2019, [27]). There are some notable exceptions, such as the war in Ukraine. However, the majority is focused on LED countries. The same holds for terrorism attacks. As recorded by the Economist [153], most terrorism attacks take place in LED countries (see figure). In Afghanistan, terrorism aims at removing the foreign military. However, the victims are mostly natives. In the other places, the victims are almost exclusively natives, too: in India, Iraq, the Philippines, and Algeria.
The cost of violence, according to the Institute for Economics and Peace [172]
Wars and conflicts severely hamper the progress of a country. Wars kill people, induce human suffering, destroy homes, and damage infrastructure and equipment. They also bind resources that might find better uses elsewhere. The Institute for Economics and Peace estimates [172] that some countries lose more than 20% of their GDP to violence — through the cots of human life, security spending, decreased productivity resulting from an injury, pain and trauma stemming from being a victim of violence, and the yearly reduced economic growth resulting from a prolonged war or conflict. This cost, however, does not hit all LED countries equally. The majority of LED countries have low costs from violence (see figure on the right). But where violence hits, it does so with a high impact on human life, property, and life quality in general.
In many of the world’s conflicts, external powers play a role — with financial, military, and political support for one group or the other or both. For example, the Taliban in Afghanistan hold that they are fighting foreign influence. In Syria, foreign armies contribute to the warfare. There are other examples, too. However, as of 2017, all ongoing military conflicts with more than 1000 deaths per year happen between different fractions of the local population.
Conflict Opponents Religious
War in AfghanistanTaliban (Islamist) - Government (Muslim)Yes
Iraqi Civil WarIslamic State (Islamist) - Government (Muslim)Yes
Mexican Drug WarGovernment - Drug Militias
Syrian Civil War Syrian Armed Forces (led by Alawites) - National Defense Force (Shia-leaning) - Shabiha (Alawite) - Christian militias (Christian) - Hezbollah (Shia) - Iran (Shia) - Russia (Orthodox) - Foreign Shia militias (Shia) - Free Syrian Army (Sunni) - Islamic Front (Sunni) - Al-Nusra Front (Salafist) - Syrian Democratic Forces (multi-faith and/or secular) - Islamic State (Islamist) - Western coalition (Secular) BelligerentsYes
Kurdish-Turkish conflictGovernment - Kurdish insurgents
Somali Civil WarGovernment - Militant groups (Islamist)Yes
Communal conflicts in NigeriaGovernment - Boko Haram (Islamist), as well as other conflicts, not all of them religious or culturalYes
War in DafurGovernment - Insurgents
Boko Haram InsurgencyGovernment - Boko Haram (Islamist)Yes
Libyan Civil WarIslamist forces (Islamist) - Anti-Islamist forcesYes
Yemeni Civil WarShia - SunniYes
Sinai insurgencyIslamists - GovernmentYes
Kordofan Conflict Army of Sudan - Sudan People’s Liberation Movement
South Sudanese Civil warGovernment - Opposition forces
2017 ongoing military conflicts with more than 1000 deaths per year [27]
In the majority of the cases, the factions coincide with religious boundaries. The same is true for the conflicts in Israel, in ex-Yugoslavia, in North Ireland, in the Sahel, and in Sudan. This may be because religion is being misused to stimulate conflict, because some religious interpretations fuel intolerance, because religious fanatism and claims of absolute truth facilitate conflict, or because religious boundaries happen to coincide with other factors. Whatever the reasons, I invite readers to think carefully about the role that religious beliefs play.

In some cases, wars happen because a region wants to be independent from a country. This applies, e.g., to the conflict in Sudan, in Senegal, in Kosovo, and in a certain sense also to the Palestine/Israel conflict. Some of these conflicts were induced by the colonisation: The foreign powers had little concern for existing boundaries of tribes or land when they scrambled for Africa. Thus, their boundaries, which gave rise to the boundaries of today, may cut ethnically homogeneous groups and force together heterogeneous groups.

In its first article, the Charter of the United Nations introduces the principle of self-determination as a primary goal of the organization [29]. This principle is commonly interpreted as the right of nations to freely choose their sovereignty and international political status [30]. If we take “nation” to mean “a large aggregate of people united by common descent, history, culture, or language, inhabiting a particular country or territory”, as the Oxford Dictionary suggests [31], then this would mean that every group of people who qualifies as a nation has the right to decide to which country they would like to belong — or to form a new country. This corresponds to an enlightened view: a country is not a goal in itself. It is an entity that humans have created in order to organize their territory. The country is there to serve the people, not vice versa. This interpretation is highly disputed. However, it goes well with the intuition that no group should be forced to be part of a country that it does not want to belong to.

To implement this principle, the most straightforward way seems

  1. to determine the regions and sub-regions that voice discontent.
  2. to have the UN organize an election, where participants can choose which country their sub-region should belong to.
  3. to respect the outcome of that vote.
  4. to submit any disputed border claims to the International Court of Justice to resolve.
In practice, this proposal does not work. Some of the reasons are as follows: People also argue that the principle of territorial integrity should not be violated. This principle, however, has no direct justification in the well-being of the people concerned. It is an abstract concept that does not have an intrinsic value per se. People argue that historical boundaries should be kept. Yet, historical boundaries per se are not an entity worthy of protection — in particular if populations have changed since the borders have been defined, or if the historical boundaries do not correspond to ethnic boundaries. It is people who define boundaries, not boundaries that define people. People often fear for the rights of the minorities in the break-away regions. These rights would have to be protected as a pre-condition to the break-away. Yet, in the end, the total number of people who are a minority in a country decreases if the region breaks away. The same argument applies to mixed regions and mixed cities: The number of people living in conflict-loaded areas decreases if the country splits up and the mixed area is put, e.g., under UN control. We may say that people should live together in peace and therefore not split into different countries. Yet, if for decades, people do not want to live in peace together in the same country, then there is no reason to think that this will change. People also argue that when a small region becomes a country, this country will be too small and weak. This may be true, but is ultimately the responsibility of the people themselves. Small countries realize automatically that they need to team up with other countries. If break-away regions were let go, large amounts of resources could be used for more constructive purposes.

The principle of self-determination may look like a highly optimistic, even insanely idealistic proposal. Yet, there are some positive examples for countries that implement this principle. In Canada, e.g., the region of Quebec has repeatedly staged referendums to decide whether the region should stay with the main land or not. So far, the official result is that the majority has voted to stay with Canada. In the United Kingdom, Scotland has always been debating an exit from the country. The region held a referendum on this matter in 2014. In both cases, it is out of question that the mainland invades the region with military force to prevent secession. Most likely, a wish to secede will just be respected. Northern Ireland seems a violent exception to this rule. Yet, it is not. The current status in Northern Ireland is based on an 1998 agreement between the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. The agreement states that Northern Ireland shall belong to whatever country the majority of its population prefers. So far, the majority of people in Northern Ireland is in favor of staying in the UK. It remains to hope that other countries handle the question of separation as democratically and peacefully as these countries.

Arms Trade

The problem of wars and civil wars in LED countries is fueled by economic interests of the rich countries in the arms trade.
Reasons for this hypothesis
According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute [71], the main weapon exporters are mainly rich countries. The main weapon importers are mainly LED countries (see tables).


Top arms exporters

1United States
6South Korea
8United Kingdom
15South Africa
Top arms exporters [71], LED countries in blue

Top arms importers

1Saudi Arabia
7South Korea
13United States
16Viet Nam
18United Kingdom
Top arms importers [71], LED countries in blue
The Effect

Military Spending

Country % of GDP
Saudi Arabia10,3%
Military spending as % of GDP [28]. LED countries in blue.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute regularly estimates the amount of money that countries invest in military equipment [28]. Among the top 25 spenders by percentage of their GDP, only 2 are high-income nations (the US and Israel). The remainder is roughly equally split between the Middle East, Africa, and the remainder of Asia. In particular, the list contains some of the poorest nations of the world. These numbers indicate that these countries attach a larger relative importance to the military than the rest of the world.

This has three effects: First, such spending fuels the ongoing wars and civil wars in the LED countries. We have already discussed that this comes with a high human cost. Second, the money that is spent on weapons cannot be spent on education, infrastructure, or health care. Third, the high military spending strengthens the position of the army in politics. This, in turn weakens the democracy. The army can even have an interest in an ongoing conflict to justify its existence. The political rulers of the country can have an interest in the army and thus in the conflict. In this way, the conflicts, the military spending, and the army all support each other.

Technically, the perpetrator of a murder is the person who holds the gun [5 / Perpetrator]. The responsible person for the military spending of a country is the leader of the country. Then again, countries that export arms to poorly governed places are guilty at least of cognisance [5 / Denial of Assistance]. We may argue that the arms are exported to the “good” side of the conflicts. That is, however, visibly not the case. Saudi Arabia supports the war in Yemen, and it is hard to argue that this would be for a “good cause” by Western standards. Egypt, Algeria, Qatar, Turkey, and the UAE are run by autocrats. Pakistan and India nourish an eternal conflict over Pakistan, and so the list goes on.

We may argue that, if the Western states do not provide the arms, then other states will do it. Then, the danger is that these other states can prop up their arms industry. Be that as it may, the global peace would certainly benefit from a global reduction of the arms sale — by all parties and under the auspices of the UN.

Bad Governance

Observance of the Rule of Law, according to the World Justice Project [11]
The hypothesis is that, in LED countries, the government does not function the way it should function. It does not provide a reliable law and a reliable implementation of it, and the administration and judiciary do not work the way they should.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
LED countries consistently figure at the bottom of rankings on good governance [11]. As an example, take the use of money for the poor. As the Economist noted in 2010, “70% of the money allocated for drugs and supplies by the Ugandan government in 2000 was lost to “leakage”; in Ghana, 80% was siphoned off. Montek Ahluwalia, of India’s Planning Commission, said last year that he reckoned only 16% of the resources earmarked for the poor under the country’s subsidized food distribution scheme ever reached them.” [1]. A study by the World Bank in 2017 found that Zambia paid $360,000 per kilometre of road — which is more than twice the African average [70]. Other deals have been similarly wasteful, with mega projects “costing” much more than was actually invested.

Another, more general, reason for this hypothesis is that some of the LED countries hold some of the world’s largest reserves in natural resources. Among the top 15 diamond producing countries, e.g., are 10 African countries (see table below). Still, these countries are among the poorest on Earth. This raises the suspicion that some of the money from natural resources is misappropriated.


Diamond Production

Country Volume Value
Botswana 22,018 2,586
Canada 11,804 2,305
Australia 9,976 251
Zimbabwe 8,435 339
Angola 8,362 976
Namibia 1,692 744
Guinea 374 27
Ghana 333 11
Lesotho 108 197
Tanzania 70 13
Guyana 46 7
Liberia 26 15
Brazil 25 1
India 18 3
Top diamond producing countries in 2010, as by the Kimberly Process Statistics [34]; Volume in thousand carats, value in million USD.
If the government cannot or does not guarantee the rule of law, then the very basics of trade, economy, and justice are under threat. If a merchant cannot trust that a business partner who does not fulfill his obligations will be put to justice, then he has to take potential losses into account when making business. If a company cannot trust on laws and their implementation, then it cannot make long-term investments. If people see that those who do not follow the law prosper, they will themselves start deviating from the law.
Bad governance is an umbrella term that encompasses and induces other problems such as corruption, nepotism and lack of democracy. The fault with bad governance lies with the people who work in the government. We might argue that, at least in democracies, the people are themselves responsible for their government. They have the choice to vote for a different party, and if no party appears good to them, they have the choice of creating a new party. In this view, a democracy makes sure that every people has the government it deserves.

In reality, however, things are different. People in power cling to their power. They have an interest in the status quo, however bad it might be for the rest of the population. People at the bottom are too poor or too uneducated to engage in politics. People in the middle layer are happy to get a job with the government, whatever wicked the job might be. There is often no de-facto democracy. Organized crime may play its part, benefitting from the weakness of the institutions, and amplifying it.


World Empires and Colonies in 1936 [35]
Many LED countries have been colonized for centuries. The hypothesis is that this has given them a disadvantage from which they still suffer.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
The colonization is a reproach that looms in the countries I have visited.
The Effect
Colonization has given the colonizer decisive political and material advantages, which allowed it to widen the gap with the LED country. From inferior preconditions, the LED country has a much harder time catching up.

The colonizing countries typically point out that they provided a large part of the infrastructure for the country, from which the country still benefits. This includes the administrative system, which is almost entirely French-style in Senegal and British-style in India. It also includes the transport infrastructure, roads and trains. 55,000 kilometers of the 65,000 kilometers of rail lines in India were built by the British [50]. The French built a train line in Senegal, which has since been abandoned, and no other train line has been built since then. Universities have often been founded by the invaders. Both cities of importance in Senegal have been created by the French. The foreign language is one of the components that unite India and Senegal, which are otherwise countries of diverse ethnicities and cultures. The common language also simplifies the administration and economic exchange with other countries.

On the flip side, colonization has unjustly exploited a large number of countries and caused great human suffering. European colonial powers have killed millions of people — in efforts to subdue populations, or through slavery and insane working conditions. The German-driven Herero Genocide alone killed dozens of thousands of people in Namibia. The Belgian-operated Congo Free State imposed a terror regime on Congo, killing 8 million people. Around a dozen million African people were captured and sold as slaves. Illnesses such as smallpox, measles, malaria, and yellow fever were carried to populations that had no natural defense against them, killing millions of people in the Americas.

In addition to the human suffering, the colonization also had considerable social and economic effects. Notably, they allowed European nations to enrich themselves with natural resources and cheap labor from the colonized peoples. The African countries, in particular, remained under foreign control well into the second half of the 20th century. Colonization has favored certain ethnic groups over others, distributed wealth and power unequally, and grouped unrelated ethnic groups together, thus laying the foundation for long-lasting social and military conflicts. Thus, colonization has given the occupied countries a substantially worse starting position — both economically and politically.

While colonization has disadvantaged the LED countries, it cannot be the only reason for the problems of LED countries. A few countries resisted colonization or liberated themselves early. Ethiopia, e.g., was never colonized. Liberia became an independent country in 1820. Yet, these countries fare as badly on socio-economic measures as most other African countries.

It is interesting to see colonization in the perspective of time. Colonization happened until the 1960’s. The majority of people in the colonized countries was born after independence from the colonizer. To see what can happen in 60 years of time, we can look at Europe. In Europe, the two World Wars have devastated the continent around the same time as colonization had its grip on the LED countries. Germany initiated the two most fatal wars of human history. The country killed one quarter of the Russian population (24 million people). In total, 60 million people lost their lives. In return, the Russians established a dictatorship in the eastern part of Germany. The dictatorship lasted 40 years and shot dead its own citizens at the border. Thirty years after the abolishment of this regime, the eastern part of Germany is still underdeveloped in comparison to the western part. Yet, nobody in Germany blames Russia for these problems. Likewise, it seems rare to hear Russians complain about the harm that Germany inflicted on them during the World Wars. The two countries get along no better or worse than other countries in the world. Likewise, Germany invaded France three times in recent history. Alsace, a region that has been German-speaking for centuries, is now French. Saarland, a region which France had an interest in, is now German. The region switched sides as late as 1957. Yet, nowadays, very few people in France blame the Germans for the ills their country suffered. On the contrary, France and Germany style themselves as the brotherly motor of European integration. The end of the Second World War also saw the expulsion of 12 million Germans from regions that are today in Poland and the Czech Republic. The expelled people were integrated into the core part of Germany. Any claim to return was abandoned. Today, very few Germans blame the Poles or the Czechs for these expulsions. In return, very few Poles and Czechs blame Germany for her invasions. On the contrary, all countries co-operate in the European Union. As of 2019, they will soon share the same currency. The Czechs benefit happily from German tourism. All of this is not to say that the sins of the past should be forgotten. It is also not to say that the distress of Africa under colonization and the distress of Europe in the World Wars would be comparable. It is to say that people can overcome the cruelties of the past and build prosperity even if their coutries suffered injustice and devastation.

Since other countries have successfully recovered from devastation, and since the vast majority of people in the LED countries was born after the colonial powers left, it seems that the effects of colonization are mostly now the other ills discussed in this section: The foreign meddling in politics, land grabbing, arms sales, and the corruption by foreign companies.

Red Tape

Everybody hates complicated bureaucratic procedures. The hypothesis is that bureaucracy is even more cumbersome in LED countries. LED countries would burden themselves with unnecessary red tape.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Ease of doing business, as estimated by the World Bank [43]
The World Bank regularly rates the ease of doing business in countries across the world [43]. Factors include, e.g., the number of days needed to start a business, to obtain a construction permit, to employ a worker, to register property, to get credit, and to enforce a contract. LED countries consistently figure at the bottom of these rankings. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, it takes a company twice as many hours to prepare a tax return document as it takes a company in the rich countries. It takes 4 times longer to open a business in Latin America than to open one in the rich countries. The procedure is more expensive and takes more separate bureaucratic steps. It takes twice as long, and is twice as expensive, to register land in Sub-Saharan Africa as it is in the rich countries.
Inefficient or excessive bureaucracy can hamper business severely. It not only costs time and money, but it also prolongs the state of legal insecurity between a decision and the completion of an act. This invites bribes and fuels corruption. Finally, red tape discourages business initiative, foreign investment, and the creation of employment.
Most people, most governments, and most businesses are against excessive bureaucracy. Given that red tape is universally complained about, that less red tape would reduce the burden on the economy, and that it would actually mean less expenses, it is surprising to see that excessive bureaucracy is still so widespread. Still, red tape prevails. This seems to indicate that there are people who have an interest in red tape. Government officials, e.g., may have an interest in giving advantages to some companies at the expense of others. Bureaucrats may see red tape as a way to secure their jobs and bribes: Everyone with even a littlepower makes life miserable for ordinary folk in the hope of being bribed to back off, as the Economist explains [193]. Tax inspectors get money for every tax fraud they uncover, so they bribe employees to do something that’s incorrect, and then uncover the fraud in order to get the reward [193].

It may also be that the bureaucracy in LED countries is not excessive, but just inefficient. Reasons can be lack of money, of skilled personnel, and of resources plus poor infrastructure. Other inefficiencies may arise when regulations are poorly documented, when it takes months to find a skilled lawyer or inspector, when it takes weeks to find records kept in some archive instead of in digital form, or when it takes weeks instead of seconds for such records to be delivered from one authority to another. A chat with my Namibian friend indicated that one reason for the slow pace of bureaucracy may also be a demoralized workforce. People would simply take longer to perform their duties. Absenteeism may also play a role.


We tend to think of the LED countries as places that are (or should be) on their way to a Western style economy. Maybe this is a wrong way to see it.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
People have been living in the LED countries happily for millennia without things such as health care or mobile phones. Maybe they have a better life without them. In particular It may be that the Western model of economy and society just does not work for these countries.
If the Western socio-economic model did not apply to the societies of LED countries, then the basic Western hypothesis of how to help LED countries would be wrong. All reasoning would be based on a faulty idea. Benevolent Western countries would impose structures on LED countries that are simply not good for them.
It is certainly an outrageous idea to consider whether Western life is good for everybody. Yet, I believe that even outrageous ideas deserve being thought through [36]. We need to ask ourselves whether the basic assumption that we are all making is correct.

While not all achievements of Western culture are to be welcomed, some are undisputedly so. It is almost universally agreed that every baby that is in danger of death has to be saved. Therefore, most ethics will dictate that we have to use modern medicine to save lives wherever possible (e.g. [5 / Denial of Assistance]). Yet, if we combine modern medicine with the high fertility rate of LED countries, the result is a population explosion. The population of Africa has quadrupled from 221 million people in 1950 to 1 billion people in 2009. It seems as if society had not adapted to the medical progress.

Modern products, likewise, are almost universally accepted eagerly. A large proportion of people in LED countries nowadays own a mobile phone. Virtually everybody uses plastic bags. So many people own cars that roads are traffic jammed. This indicates that people desire modern products. It seems unjust to deny people modern products if people want them. Yet, then the society has to adapt and handle these products responsibly.

In any case, there is no way back. It seems that modernity is on the march in the LED countries — pushed by Western powers, but also in large parts welcomed by the LED countries. If the societies of the LED countries want the advantages of Western style life and economy, they have to adapt to them. Otherwise, things might go wrong.


People in the West tend to think that democracy is the best model for a government. Maybe that is wrong.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Democracy may be good for a country where people want a say in politics. It may be not the right system, in contrast, for a country where the majority of people is illiterate, where people identify more with ethnic or family ties than with the country, or where democracy just does not take off even after 5 decades.
If democracy were the wrong model for a country, then all pushing for democracy would simply go in the wrong direction.
In the ideal case, a democracy works as follows: There are a number of parties that represent particular political strategies. In regular time intervals (typically 4 years), there are elections, and people vote for their favorite party. The parties then form the parliament, where their number of seats is proportional to the number of votes they received. This way, the parliament mirrors the political preferences of the people. The parliament makes laws and guides politics. At the next election, the process is repeated. This way, people have the opportunity to either reinforce the current politics, or to punish politicians and choose a different politics.

If people cannot find a party that suits their interests, they can found a new party. If this party gathers enough votes, it enters parliament at the next election and then represents that particular interest. This way, every citizen participates in the politics of their country: either by delegating responsibility (by electing a party, or by not voting), or by taking over responsibility (by founding a party). Thus, if someone does not like what the government does, there can be 5 reasons for it: (1) If your party is in government and does not do what you want, then you voted for the wrong party. (2) If your party is in government and does not do what it promised, then you will not vote for it again, and most other people won’t either. The damage is limited to the coming 4 years. (3) If your party does not have a majority in parliament, then the majority of people in the country want something else than you. You have to accept it. (4) If you did not vote for any party because you do not care, then there is no problem. You should not complain. (5) If you did not vote for any party because no party represents your interests, then you should found your own party. If you did not, then apparently your interest is not strong enough.
In other words, the advantage of a democracy is that people are themselves responsible for their country. There is no one they can blame except themselves. Seen this way, a (working) democracy ensures that every people has the government it deserves.

Voting by district: Even if the majority of people votes red, the result is blue.
There are some caveats to this. Even if a country has a truly democratic system, the system does not necessarily guarantee that the government represents the will of the majority of the people. If, for example, the president is voted by majority of voting districts (as it is the case in the US), then a person can become president even if the majority of people voted for someone else. To see this, consider 3 districts, each with 1000 inhabitants (see figure). In the first district and in the second district, 501 people vote for the blue candidate, and 499 people vote for the red candidate. In the third district, all 1000 people vote for the red candidate. Thus, 501+501=1002 people voted for the blue candidate, and nearly twice as many people (499+499+1000=1998) voted for the red candidate. Yet, the blue candidate has a majority in the first and in the second district. Thus, he wins 2 out of 3 districts for himself — and hence becomes president. In such a system, the presidency depends on how the country is partitioned into voting districts. Furthermore, usually only two parties can survive in such a system, because it favors parties that can win an entire district.

However, if the political system allows for a true proportional representation of parties, then democracy can work very well. As an example, take Germany. The country has 5 parties in its parliament. In the last decades, the majority in parliament has sometimes stayed with the same party, and sometimes shifted. This indicates that people are either happy with the government (and thus confirm it), or unhappy (and thus abandon it). The last decades have also seen the birth of new parties, which have successfully entered parliaments (the Green party in the 1980’s, the Leftist party in the 1990’s, the Pirate party in the 2010’s, and the right-wing Alternative for Germany a few years later). This indicates that people are ready to take over responsibility if politics does not go the way they want.

Now, we have to address the question whether such a system is the right thing for every country. I can only talk from my experience with people. Most people I talked to in Senegal had an opinion on politics. People said that foreign influence should be reduced or that more should be done to foster the local economy. The fact that people express desires for what their government should do means that they want a say in politics. If they did not want a say, they should just stay silent and do whatever their ruler wants them to do. Yet, people have very concrete ideas of what their ruler should do. This means that people want a democracy. One cannot sensibly want the ruler to do what the people want without calling it a democracy. Thus, people want a democracy. In fact, polls suggest that over 90% of the population of LED countries agree that democracy is good to have.

If we agree on this idea, then we have to see what obstacles are in the path of democracy in LED countries. First of all, many countries do not have a truly democratic system that allows different parties to compete fairly for votes. Opposition parties are not allowed, suppressed, or disadvantaged. People who get engaged in politics against the government risk losing their job, sometimes their liberty or their life. Second, in many countries, the established ruling class has all interest in maintaining its position. Since they benefit from the current status quo, there is no incentive for them to foster democracy and give power to people. If a democracy gets manipulated by corrupt officials, then it is not a true representation of the people’s will. It is a pseudo-democracy.

Furthermore, the society would have to be ready for democracy. First, literacy rates would have to increase in places where they are low. For a country where many people are illiterate, democracy may have difficulties. Second, poverty itself is currently a big obstacle to democracy. Poor people do not have the financial means and the time to invest in politics. A general prevalence of carefulness and mistrust is not helpful for sharing responsibility. Political engagement would have to increase, and people would have to be ready take over responsibility. If people are not yet ready or able to take over political responsibilities, democracy will have difficulties. Finally, the general culture of democracy would have to take foothold: The concept of electing leaders, and of following their decisions for the coming 4 years; the concept of accepting minority opinions, and of giving them due weight; the concept of peaceful opposition at the ballot box; the concept of a military that serves the people instead of vice versa; the concept of supporting a party even if it does not implement 100% of one’s personal wishes; and the choice of either delegating responsibility or taking responsibility. If these concepts are not taking foothold, there will always loom the idea that a dictatorship would be the lesser evil.


In a supermarket in Dakar / Senegal
The LED countries do not have a strong local economy.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
In most supermarkets in LED countries, we find Western products. In Senegalese supermarkets, e.g., there are half a dozen types of milk. Yet, all of them are European. Milk from Germany, Belgium and France gets imported across the Mediterranean Sea to be sold in Africa. The only exception was Kirene milk. It contains 20% of milk from Senegalese farms — in the form of reconstituated milk from milk powder. The picture is not much different for other products. Chinese-fabricated goods are similarly prevalent. As the Economist notes, even the trinkets hawked to tourists in souqs are usually made in Chinese factories, not Arab workshops [186].

Indeed, LED countries are not known for particular products: we buy German cars, French wine, and American technology, but we do not know of any product that would be specific to the Congo or Botswana. These countries just do not have any industry. This holds almost by definition: LED countries are those with less industry, and with less economical activity. As the Economist puts it for sub-Saharan Africa: The region lacks an industrial base [184].

Most exported products, according to the CIA World Factbook [45]. Purple and green are processed goods, the others not. Click to enlarge.
Furthermore, according to the CIA factbook [45], LED countries export mainly crude materials such as oil, minerals, and metals. Some of the also export food, such as soybeans, coffee, or fruits. However, they generally do not export industrialized goods such as technology, cars, or refined products (see map).

We thus conclude that LED countries do not have a strong local economy, let alone an industry. The strongest export-oriented economy they have concerns unprocessed goods.

In general, a working economy is the basis for the financial well-being of a country. When products are produced, refined, and traded, they create value, and give work to people. If the products are consumed locally, then this creates a basically endless source of income and employment. If there is no such value creation, then the country cannot become rich.

The value creation also usually goes along with a need for a skilled workforce, and thus with a higher importance for education — which is itself a prerequisite for a country to succeed.

A country needs to create value also if it wants to import goods that it does not produce itself. Every country imports some goods (think of mobile phones alone). If a country wants to import a mobile phone, then it has to send an equivalent value abroad. This can only work if the local economy produces such values. If it does not, then either the living standard cannot rise, or the country accumulates debt.

The production of unprocessed goods does not produce the value we are looking for: Picking fruits does not require a large local skilled workforce, does not build up a supply chain, and offers little room for economic activity around it. The same is true for oil, gas, and minerals. Thus, the exported goods benefit mainly a number of unskilled workers and their companies — which are often foreign companies. The goods are transferred out of the country and disappear. Thus, the LED country cannot create and distribute wealth locally.

We may argue that the dominance of foreign goods comes from the fact that the West forced the local markets to open up for foreign products. Yet, that does not explain why there are no local products at all in the supermarkets. Local products should be much cheaper than foreign products. Where they are available, local products are cheaper (a senegalese-produced baguette in the supermarket costs 0.30 EUR). This is because local labor costs are cheaper than foreign labor costs. It is also because the products do not have to be shipped around the world. Thus, it seems that the local products are just not produced in the first place.

A butcher in Ngalel / Senegal
(posted on the Web with his permission)
We may also argue that the local economy would need more subsidies or would need protection from foreigners through import customs. Yet, the impression that I got (and that people confirmed me at least in Senegal) is that there is just no local production for local consumption. If there were, it could probably compete effortlessly with the imported products. Imported products sell for more than their European price. Local products could do for much less — and do so wherever they are available (notably Kirene water and milk).

Supermarkets are maybe also not a good indicator, because the vast majority of people shops in local markets and not in supermarkets. Yet, local markets offer a hygiene and food protection that are inferior to supermarkets. Local markets have, e.g., no cooling systems. They sell meat that just hangs in the open — even if the climate is tropical. Thus, as the society gets richer and more food conscious, supermarkets are likely to gain customers. If the supermarkets could be filled with cheap local products, they might gain more clients.

Discussion with people indicates that the LED countries just did not start producing for the local economy. Instead, it seems that LED countries mainly export raw materials, only to import them again as manufactured goods from the rich countries. A discussion with an agriculture professor unveils another reason: The LED country does not have the quality control mechanisms that are standard in rich countries. This is why every food item is passed through the border (either into the country or out of the country) to benefit from European food quality checks. Investment into such quality checks, and encouragement of local production for local consumption could do miracles. Yet, it requires stable institutions, and freedom from corruption.

Another reason could be the state of the infrastructure: Commercial activity needs roads, railways, Internet, electricity, and mobile networks. When these are not there (or of substandard quality), trade cannot evolve. As the Economist notes, the entire continent of Africa (excluding South Africa) produces about as much electricity as France [184].

Possible Reasons at the Bottom


Global Corruption, as compiled by Transparency International [37]
Corruption is a an illness that many countries suffer from. The hypothesis is that corruption is even more prevalent in LED countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Transparency International, an NGO that fights corruption, compiles an annual report on corruption [37]. LED countries score at the bottom of these rankings. In Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, traffic cops receive about 80% of their income from “informal tolls” [175]. I have also witnessed a case of corruption personally (in Varanasi in India).
Corruption has a devastating effect on the country. This is because corruption makes government officials do something for their own interest that is against the interest of their country. Moreover, corruption eradicates the trust in the law and the government.

Corruption also reinforces itself. Once the majority of people is corrupt, the ones who are not are disadvantaged. Hence, as soon as a critical mass of people is corrupt, the rest is likely to follow.

People tell me that corruption happens everywhere, even at the highest levels in Western countries. It is true that corruption happens everywhere. Yet, unfortunately, that does not make corruption less bad. In particular, corruption is not as embedded in everyday life in the West as it is in the LED countries. The majority of citizens in the West have never bribed an official. The majority of people in LED countries did. As Transparency International notes, 56% of people in Sub-Saharan Africa report paying a bribe in 2011 [38].

People also tell me that corruption is an illness brought by the West. Yet, that does not explain why the majority of people in LED countries participates in corruption. Thus, such thinking seems rather wishful.

We might think that the bad government services force people to pay bribes. Yet, the bad government services are themselves operated by people from the LED country. Policemen, civil servants, public officials, and military people who demand bribes are all part of the society. Thus, both bribe payers and bribe receivers are just the people themselves. It appears that corruption is an illness that is deeply rooted in the local society. Whoever does not take part, will finally just be disadvantaged. Therefore, most people participate. This may make corruption part of the general culture. In the worst case, people would no longer regard corruption as evil, but as part of life.

Global inequality [168]
Corruption may be facilitated by a larger inequality of income in the LED countries (see figure). If a policeman earns a few dollars per month, but a business owner makes thousands of dollars per month, then it is very easy and tempting for the businessman to hand over a few dollars to the policeman. Corruption is a cheap solution. It also makes money trickle down to the less well-paid professions.

Another big contributor of corruption may be organized crime and drug cartels. These organizations typically have financial power that exceeds that of the ordinary population by orders of magnitude. The government may also play its part. In the case of Argentina, this is exemplified by leaked diplomatic messages from Wikileaks. According to the messages, Dr. Abel Fleitas Ortiz Rozas, head of Argentina’s Office of Anticorruption (OA), complains about “a general public tolerance of corruption, the lack of a culture of transparency, and a slow and cumbersome legal system that hinders his office’s ability to successfully prosecute cases.”. Furthermore, it is reported that “corruption cases in Argentina took 14 years, on average, to be resolved and only 15 out of 750 cases tried resulted in convictions.” In general, diplomats show themselves disappointed about the lethargy of the government [68].

In Africa, Botswana shall be mentioned here as a notable exception of corruption. Landlocked, colonized, and with an enormous diamond production, it has not succumbed to corruption as badly as the other countries in the region. It is the yellow spot in the red map of Africa.

High Fertility Rate

Sub-Saharan Africa
Global Fertility Rate [13]
The hypothesis is that African countries have a fertility rate that is too high.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
African countries have a fertility rate of about 4-8 children per woman [13]. This is the average number of children per woman. If some women have less children than this average value, then some other women have more (e.g., as many as 10).

This has an impressive influence on the size of the population. The total population of Africa doubled in the period from 1982 to 2009. In the time from 1950 to 2009, it quadrupled from 221 million to 1 billion [47].

Malnourishment in the world [12]
People have many children, but many parents can hardly feed them. This causes a great deal of malnourishment and suffering. Unfortunately, a look at the rate of malnourishment in the world [12] suggests that, the more children a country has, the more likely they are to be malnourished.

A large fertility rate also has a consequence on education. If it is hard for the parents to send 1 child to school, it is harder to send 5 children to school. If it is hard to find university scholarships for thousands of students, it is harder to find scholarships for tens of thousands of students. If people cannot be sent to school or university, they lose out in today’s world.

To put this in perspective, we can make a thought experiment: If we take the population of France in 1950, and we quadruple it, we arrive at 160 million people. That is two and a half times the current population of 60 million. France would be completely ungovernable with 160 million inhabitants — and this is what happened to many African countries. The growth of population has just outpaced the resources and infrastructure that the countries can provide — in terms of streets, cities, sewerage, garbage collection, schools, universities, public transport, healthcare, and administration.

In 2040, the population of sub-Saharan Africa is projected to be 2billion people, as the Economist reports [184]. That would correspond to over 300 million people living in France — an impossibility not just given the space, but also the infrastructure and organization.

Interestingly, the higher (taxpaying) social layers in the LED countries have lower fertility rates. This means that the ratio of people who pay taxes and the people who need government services worsens steadily. The same is true for development aid: the population of Western donor countries increases in a nearly linear fashion, if at all. Such a population cannot support a population that increases exponentially. As Thomas Malthus remarked in 1798, “a slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the second power in comparison to the first.”

A high fertility rate will lead to a large working force, and may thus ultimately benefit the local economy. This phenomenon is known as the demographic dividend. Yet, this dividend can pay off only when the fertility rate decreases at some point of time. If it does not decrease, then the needy part of the population will always be larger than the working-age part of the population.

Many families enjoy having many children. We may not impose a restriction on the number of offspring just because Western cultures have fewer children. Yet, having a child also comes with a certain responsibility for the parents. People who have children, but cannot afford giving their children a healthy upbringing, act in an irresponsible way [5 / Dereliction].

Education clearly plays a role in the family planning. Educated people tend to have fewer children. However, the basic problem of malnutrition seems to be accessible even to uneducated people: If a household has difficulties feeding 1 child, it will have more difficulties feeding 10 children. We may also argue that the problem appears because there is no access to birth control methods for the parents. Yet, if people really had uncontrolled sex all the time, there would be even more children (roughly one per woman every two years). That does not happen. Therefore, it seems that the children that people have are desired.

It is frequently argued that parents have many children in order to have social protection when they are older. However, for this purpose, 2 children would be fully sufficient. It is illogical to assume that 2 parents can care for 5 children, but 2 children could not care for 2 parents. It is also argued that people produce children to help them work on the farm. Yet, a dozen years pass before a child becomes productive. Furthermore, work on the farm is no longer a means that guarantees a future for the child. There is thus no justification for having children that you cannot support.

It seems that the high fertility rate is rather a relic from times of high child mortality. Steven Pinker reminds us that well into the 19th century, in Sweden (one of the richest countries in the world) between a quarter and a third of children died before their 5th birthday. In hunter-gatherer societies, half of children die before reaching adulthood [192]. If parents see only half of their offspring survive their 15th birthday, they have to have twice as many babies in order to have the desired number of descendants. Therefore, I hypothesize that there is a Darwinian argument for the high fertility rates: Societies and cultures that did not encourage a high fertility rate would simply have died out. Therefore, today’s older cultures encourage having many children. The same argument applies, interestingly, to the religions that are prevalent in Africa: Catholicism and Islam. These encourage having babies [3 / BabyBoom]. As I have argued before, the other religions and interpretations have simply died out.

While having many babies was a valid strategy to ensure the survival of the culture (or religion) in the past, that is no longer true today. As the Economist explains, there are two reproduction strategies [89], the r-selection (which produces lots of offspring and invests little in them), and the K-selection (which produces less offspring, but takes more care of them). While the r-selection produces more children, the K-selection produces more competitive children: “Children grand-children, and great-grand children alike get better marks at school, are more likely to go to university and have higher incomes as adults.”. Therefore, as child mortality decreases, the advantages of r-selection have decreased, while the advantages of K-selection become more prevalent as the society values education more. Therefore, the Economist concludes that there is a “mismatch between ancient psychology [that supports having many children] and the modern world [that favors fewer children]”. In other words, society did not always follow suit.

So the question arises how we can encourage people to have less children. Women’s Education is known to reduce fertility. Some say female education is the socially most accepted means of contraception. China has outlawed having more than one child per couple. A general prohibition, however, contradicts the Harm principle of a liberal value system [5 / Harm principle]. Other countries merely encourage having less children, but not with much success. Religions could play a role by encouraging people to have less children (”Ne faites que deux / Allah le veut”). With their power over society, they could also promote birth control. Yet, as discussed above, this is probably a vain hope...


Subsaharan Africa, South-America
Crime is more prevalent in LED countries, and this hinders their progress.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Percentage of people who were victims of crime in the last 5 years. Compiled from the UNICRI data [40]
Homicide rates according to the UNODC [170]
The United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute has conducted a global poll, asking a sample of people personally whether they have become victim of a crime in the last 5 years [40]. The most violent place on these accounts is Latin America: Robberies are 4 times more prevalent than in Western Europe, assaults are more frequent, and sexual violence is 3 times as prevalent. Next in line is Africa, with significantly higher rates on sexual violence and assault than Western Europe, and a robbery rate that is twice as high. The picture is similar concerning homicides. As the Economist notes, of the 560,000 violent deaths around the world in 2016, 68% were murders; wars caused “only” 18% of the deaths [174]. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has compiled the rate of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants per country [170] (shown on the right). Homicide rates are particularly high in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa.

Sexual assault is more prevalent in Africa and in Latin America than in other regions of the world. In Latin America, in particular, 5% of respondents have experienced sexual violence in the last 5 years (and 8% in Brazil), as opposed to 1.5% of respondents in Western Europe. In Africa, a woman is 5 times more likely to be raped than in Western Europe — although other contact crimes are not 5 times more likely. This does not just concern countries shaken by civil war, but also the others (Egypt, South Africa, Tunisia, Zimbabwe, Botswana; Costa Rica, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Paraguay).

The Sahel, in particular, is plagued by ethnic militia, as the Economist explains [185]: hundreds of them have sprouted in Mali and Burkina Faso, and they have killed hundreds of people. The governments have made no serious attempt to disarm these militias. Since they target in particular the Muslim minority, they actually help local jihadists to recruit more people. In 2018, conflicts with jihadists in Africa claimed more than 9,300 lives, mostly civilian, as the Economist relates [189>]. In Niger, Mali and Burkina Faso the number of people killed in jihad-related violence has doubled from 2017 to more than 1,100 in 2018. Fear of terrorism and a refugee crisis makes Western countries intervene, with 4500 French, 1000 Germans, 10.00 Italians, and 7000 US troups stationedin Africa. The UN has more than 16,000 peacekeepers in Mali alone. This, in turn, is in itself a problem.

Crime has its cost. The World Bank [171] lists several factors:
Physical damage
the value of property loss and damage, as well as medical costs, public programs for victims, and lost income of the victim
Intangible damage
higher mortality rates, higher morbidity rates, pain, and suffering, loss of quality of life, and lower levels of life satisfaction.
Cost of security
the costs of arrest, prosecution, and detention of criminals; plus the value of all goods and services used to prevent violence or offer treatment to its victims or perpetrators. This includes health costs, police, justice and prison costs, as well as resources spent on private security measures.
Economic effects
negative impacts on human capital and labor force participation, lower wages and incomes, savings and macroeconomic growth, including through a cost on tourism.
Social multiplier effects
erosion of social capital, inter-generational transmission of violence and lower quality of life.
Organized crime may be the most impactful: Human trafficking, illegal trade, extortion, drug trade, cyber criminality, the sale of fraudulent medicine, piracy, and the trade of firearms. Organized crime may also contribute to a dysfunctioning of the government.

I have not found any study that quantifies the cost of crime per country in terms of lost GDP (apart from the general cost of violence that we discussed for the case of wars). The World Bank just notes that “Haiti and Jamaica could boost economic growth per capita by 5.4 percent per year if they were to bring their homicide rates down to the levels of Costa Rica” [171].

LED countries generally have weaker governments. This, in turn, allows crime to flourish. Flourishing crime, in turn, can be one of the factors behind a lack of trust, and a general feeling of being delivered to one’s fate. All of these, in turn, go along with less economic development. For South America, the Economist explains: Extortion gangs were responsible for a lot [of the murders] in some parts of Central America, drug-trafficking in others. Institutional weaknesses were widespread. Police and prosecutors in the region were badly trained, underpaid and often corrupt. In some places only one in 20 reports of murder led to a conviction. A penchant for ineffective but brutal government crackdowns often made things worse; grossly overpopulated prisons became crime factories rather than rehabilitation centres [174].


Sub-Saharan Africa
HIV rate among young adults [33]
AIDS is one of the few endemics against which we have not yet found a remedy. The hypothesis is that Sub-Saharan Africa is particularly hard-hit by HIV and AIDS.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
HIV rates are particularly high in the part of Africa that is South of the Sahara. In South Africa, Botswana, Swaziland, and Lesotho, around a quarter of the population are affected [33]. South Africa is particularly hard hit. As the Economist notes, the country is home to 12% of all HIV/AIDS sufferers, even though it is home to just 0.7% of the global population [42].
AIDS and HIV cause a lot of human suffering. Affected people lose a large part of their life quality, they suffer physically, psychologically, and socially from the illness. Families suffer as they witness that one of their members is doomed to die young. If a parent dies, the children are left as orphans. Orphan children suffer emotionally, and they are often more likely to have a more difficult life later on.

Apart from the humanitarian aspect, AIDS also deprives the society of their most productive members: young adults. This has consequences for the social stability of the country and its economy. If an AIDS patient dies, they often leave their family without a breadwinner, thus pushing the entire family into poverty. This, in turn, has negative consequences for all family members. Children might be forced to work early on, thus having less time to invest in education. Apart from these direct consequences, AIDS also binds public resources for health care, prevention, and care for orphans.

The link between poverty and HIV is particularly troubling: The poorer an HIV-infected person is, the more they are affected by the health, economic and social consequences of their infections, as a UN-AIDS report notes [39]. Food insecurity and the difficulties of affording transport and other expenses related to health care contribute to later treatment initiation, lower treatment adherence and higher rates of AIDS-related mortality, thereby amplifying the effect of the desease.

Although Sub-Saharan Africa is home to just 12% of the world’s population, the region has 66% of all people infected with HIV. Poor medical conditions, ineffective governance, and lack of education can be thought of as reasons, but apply more or less to many other LED countries as well.

HIV can be spread in several ways. The virus can be spread by poor hygienic conditions in hospitals. This can happen, e.g., through the use of infected needles, or by unchecked blood transfers. HIV can also be transfered from the mother to the baby, either before birth, at birth, or through breastfeeding. The high fertility rates then contribute to the spreading of the virus. The virus can also be spread through drug users, if they re-use needles. Prostitution is also a major risk factor. Some women are pushed into sex work to support their families. High supply may force these women to accept worse conditions, i.e., non-safe sex. Populations particularly at risk are gay men (risk 28× greater), drug users (× 22), and female sex workers (× 13), together with their clients and transgender people, as the UN notes [39]. These groups make up half of the infected population in the world [39]. In Southern Africa, however, 83% of infections fall on the remainder of the population. As the UN notes, the vast majority of people newly infected with HIV in sub-Saharan Africa are infected during unprotected heterosexual intercourse.

Some part of the infections comes from the virgin cleansing myth. This is the belief that sex with a virgin cures AIDS [62]. It is medically unfounded. As CNN reports, the belief leads infected people to rape girls in the hope to cure their illness [63]. This not only brings unspeakable distress to the victims, but also helps spread the disease.

Another contributing factor is a culture of higher promiscuity, particularly in South Africa. As the Economist summarizes [42], “Black South Africans, who make up four fifths of the country’s population, have been the hardest hit: 13% of their total of all ages are HIV positive, compared with just 3% of coloreds and Indians and just 1% of whites. Research suggests that this has little to do with poverty. Instead, blame is put on cultural differences. According to various studies, black South African men tend to be more promiscuous, have more concurrent sexual partners, and have sex more often than other South African males”. Wikipedia provides more references about this phenomenon [181].

This higher degree of sexual activity also tends to be more violent. Intimate partner violence remains a large problem in sub-saharan Africa, with 20% of women experiencing it in the past 12 months (as opposed to 6.5% in Europe) [39]. Now violence (or the fear of violence) can make it very difficult for women to insist on safer sex, and to use and benefit from HIV and sexual and reproductive health services, the UN report notes [39]. The violence also extends to rape: The Economist describes that “Prostitution and violence appear to be more common in black communities; a survey conducted in Soweto, a Johannesburg suburb, found that a quarter of schoolboys described gang rape as fun.” [42]. Wikipedia provides more references for this phenomenon. Findings are that one in three women in Johannesburg has experienced rape, one in four men admitted committing a rape, and that 60% of both boys and girls at school-age thought it was not violent to force sex upon someone they knew [41]. This general prevalence of sexual violence in the population may contribute to the high HIV rates in South Africa.

Another aggravating factor is the failure of politics. The UN report notes drily that the four factors that prevent an effective containment of AIDS are lack of political commitment, insufficient investment in prevention, policy barriers, and the failure to systematically implement proven programmes at scale. The former president of South Africa, Thabo Mbeki, denied that HIV would lead to AIDS. Consequently, the government did not support curing efforts or campaigning efforts, leaving HIV free to spread.


Poverty is directly correlated with the amount of resources that are available to the individual. The hypothesis is that a large amount of resources is lost in LED countries due to misplanning.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Suburbs of Saint Louis / Senegal
To the casual observer, there always seem to be a large number of unfinished construction sites in LED countries. In Senegal, I have seen half-completed building sites that fill entire suburbs. I have also seen lonely walls in the middle of the steppe, showing the intention of building something, but appearing to be abandoned for years. In the cities, there are construction sites every few meters — construction sites that never seem to have hope of being completed. Rather, the construction sites rot with time, making it improbable that the work already done could ever be used.
It seems that such construction projects waste a large amount of resources. Theoretically, for every two houses that are half finished, there could be one that is finished. For every finished house, there could be one family spared the hut. In general, the construction of a house is not a cheap task. If the work is not completed before the site rots, the money is invariably lost.
I do not know why people build so many unfinished houses. It might be due to misplanning, due to an overestimation of financial resources, due to bankruptcy of the construction company, or due to the fact that these houses are built illegally. It may also be that the money disappears into the pockets of the construction industry or corrupt officials. It may also be overambitious government projects. The BBC gives an example for such a deal: In return for oil, China has built a city of 2800 apartments in Angola. However, since the apartments sell for over 100,000 US dollars, and two thirds of Angola live on less than 2 dollars per day, there is no one to buy the apartments. The city remains an empty ghost town [61]. Thus, Anglos has wasted an enormous amount of money for building something that was never used. Unfinished houses are a problem that can also be observed in Southern European countries, albeit to a lesser degree. It seems that misplanning in construction is a systematic problem. Hence it would require a systematic analysis and solution.


Literacy today [Alex12345yuri @ Wikipedia]
Education is a cornerstone of modern societies. Thus, the hypothesis is that education of the general public could help ease many of the problems in LED countries.
Reasons for Hypothesis
LED countries lag behind the rich ones in terms of education on several accounts: Their literacy rate is lower, the proportion of university degrees is lower, and the quality of the institutions is lower. In 10 African countries, you are more likely to meet a person who cannot read than one who is literate. By way of example, the Economist notes that just 15% of 12-year-old pupils in South Africa scored at or above the minimum proficiency on the language test. In maths, just 12% did. Only 20% of schools have libraries, and only 7.5% actually have books. The country needs 25,000 new teachers a year, but only 10,000 qualify [133]. According to a 2018 World Bank study of seven sub-Saharan African countries, half of nine-year-olds cannot read a simple word and three-quarters cannot read a simple sentence. The same study found that only 7% of teachers had the minimum knowledge needed to teach reading and writing effectively [185]. Many teachers just do not show up.
Education is usually universally seen as the means to cure all types of national problems. Better educated people tend to earn more, have fewer children, contribute more to the national economy, are of more use to the government, and, best of all, are more likely to have educated children. Education for women, in particular, is commonly seen as the most effective means for birth control. The Girl Effect Movement cites a UN study that shows that women who received 7 or more years of education have 2.2 less children on average [120]. On the long run, a country’s economy tends to shift from manufacturing and agriculture to service-oriented and intellectual economic activity. A better educated population is better prepared for this future.
A Student Residence in Dakar / Senegal
More schools, and more academic education will certainly help a country progress. Yet, more education will not automatically solve all problems of the LED countries. I am not sure in how far more education relieves the problem of garbage, for example. During my trips, I found that university campuses are as scattered with dirt as everything else. School teachers, who are relatively well-educated, are in fact the root of a large problem with absenteeism. I found no activism in any layer of the society I had the chance to talk to. Corruption seems to be endemic, and spread among government officials, who already have an above-average education. The governments of LED countries, often the best educated layer of society, misuse their power in many cases. Thus, it appears that academic education alone will not help.

Instead, one could think of an education that encourages people to handle garbage responsibly, and, possibly most importantly, to have less children. LED countries might also require a particularly tailored type of university education. University studies would probably focus first on the industries that the country needs. They would also focus more on educating teachers and professors, and less on academic research.


Absenteeism is the phenomenon that people do not show up for work. The hypothesis is that this poses a problem in LED countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
A personal chat with a Senegalese tax inspector indicated that people often do not show up for work. Companies cannot work efficiently because, at any point of time, some proportion of workers is absent. Reasons commonly given are illness and family events.

Also globally, absenteeism is a known problem in LED countries — in particular in the education sector and the health sector. As the Economist notes, “teacher-absenteeism rates are around 20% in rural Kenya, 27% in Uganda and 14% in Ecuador. In Rajasthan in northern India, nurses who were supposed to be staffing primary health clinics were found to be at work only 12% of the time over an 18-month period.” [1]. For South Africa, the Economist notes that many teachers “arrive late to school and leave early, spending barely half their allotted time in class. Many fail to turn up at all on Fridays” [133]. The World Bank confirms these findings for Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, Indonesia, Peru, and Uganda: At unannounced surprise visits by enumerators, 19% of teachers and 35% of health workers were absent [2].

Teacher absenteeism eradicates the quality of the education system. A low-quality education system gives a disadvantage to the children. On the long run, it contributes to a less educated population. Absenteeism in health care has obvious negative effects for the patients. It may also contribute to a less healthy population. Absenteeism in general, across all professions, creates delays, gives incentives for bribes, and degrades the quality of the service. It may also eradicate trust in services and people, and thus throw sand in the wheels of the economy.
People will have their reasons for not going to work. One reason might be a low salary. Public employees (such as teachers or health professionals) tend to be paid badly. Therefore, they might do other jobs in parallel, and do not show up for their main one. However, as the Economist notes, that is not necessarily true for teachers: annual salaries are four times GDP per person in India and five times in Kenya and Nigeria, while they are less than twice the GDP per person in rich countries [186].

People may just be less willing to give everything for work because the general structure is not supportive: Imperfect training for themselves, bad equipment, nepotism, and dim chances of career may give people no incentive to be perfect at work. At the same time, such behavior weakens the institutions even further. A country cannot rise if its people are not there. The problem is that absenteeism is largely tolerated by the society. As the World Bank report wryly notes, “given the rarity of disciplinary action for repeated absence, the mystery for economists may not be why absence from work is so high, but why anyone shows up at all.” [2].


An impression from Patna / India
Recent decades have seen a growing awareness for environmental concerns. The hypothesis is that this awareness is less developed in LED countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
In Goa / India
In northern Senegal
At the beach in Saint Louis/Senegal
To support this hypothesis, it is sufficient to step out of the hotel in a LED country. Garbage is about everywhere: children play in it, goats eat it, the wind blows it through the streets, it blocks sewers, makes the cities stink, and fills rivers. People let their garbage fall wherever they go — in the cities as on the countryside. Outside dwellings there is usually a large area of scattered garbage, sometimes knee-deep.
Too much garbage has several negative effects. First, it damages the environment. Plastic objects can take several hundred years to decompose. If every one of us uses one plastic bag per week, and throws it into nature, there will soon not be a single place without a plastic bag. Second, ubiquitous garbage makes a city less attractive to tourists. Thereby, it might reduce the number of tourists coming, and thus ultimately the income that tourism generates. Third, garbage deteriorates physical infrastructure, as Lewis Dartnell explains in his book “The Knowledge”: if sewers are blocked by garbage, the water will accumulate in the streets and soften the ground — thus destabilizing streets and nearby houses [46]. Garbage can also get into the expansion gaps of bridges, and contribute to their collapse on the long run. Last, and most importantly, garbage is the source of a large number health problems: Goats eat the garbage and people eat the goats. Thus, people eat the garbage. Garbage also attracts animals, such as rats, dogs, and insects, and spreads diseases.

In particular, garbage poisons the ground water. One of the main sorrows of LED countries today is the lack of clean drinking water. Water is an essential component of our everyday lives, be it for human consumption, for animal consumption, for hygiene or for cleaning. If the water is poisoned by garbage, it will contain disease vectors, pathogens, toxins and suspended solids. Drinking or using such water in food preparation leads to widespread acute and chronic illnesses and is a major cause of death and misery. Thus, garbage might be responsible for a large part of the decreased life expectancy in LED countries.

People often do not have the means for disposing properly of their garbage. There are often no public garbage disposal places. People do not own the land, so that they cannot create proper garbage deposits. There is often no public garbage disposal system, as garbage collection costs money. Yet, that does not mean that the garbage has to be distributed in the countryside. Garbage can be piled up in designated places or it can be put into holes, even if people do not own the land. It seems that any solution is better than distributing the garbage in the countryside.

We may suspect that the treatment of garbage has to do with a lack of education. However, the fact that garbage is something bad for humans seems to follow from the fact that it stinks and does not decompose. Even uneducated people do not keep their garbage inside their house. Therefore, it seems that people understand that garbage is something bad. Furthermore, universities and student residences are equally dirty — so education is not the problem. It must be something else.

Then again, the picture is not the same in all LED countries. My Namibian friend tells me that Namibia does not have such a problem of garbage.

Sense of Maintenance

The hypothesis is that the concept of maintenance for physical equipment is less developed in LED countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
In Saint Louis / Senegal
In Fez / Morocco
As every visitor will confirm, it seems that few physical objects are in a proper state in an LED country outside the hotels. Houses have cracks, sanitary equipment has leaks, streets have holes, cars have dents, roofs fall down, paint peels off, dirt piles up, and just about everything seems to be falling apart. This seems to indicate that there is less maintenance for physical objects in LED countries.
A lack of maintenance has two effects: First, it damages the physical equipment. A window that is not well-fixed will move with the wind, and eventually break. A car that is not well maintained will be unsafe to drive, and will be more susceptible to rust, malfunctioning, and loss of value. A house that is not well painted and maintained will attract humidity and will take damage on the long run. A roof that is not well secured will injure people if it falls down. If equipment is maintained well, in contrast, it will last longer, be more reliable, and function better.

Second, the lack of maintenance also wastes an opportunity for the local economy. By its very nature, maintenance tasks can only be carried out by the local workforce. Thus, a market for maintenance could stimulate the local economy.

Some people are probably too poor to afford maintenance. Yet, on the long run, continuous maintenance might be cheaper than the costs of replacing something that has broken down. Labor is cheap in the LED countries. Having someone work for you all day costs probably around as much as the mobile phone bill for one month — and many people can afford mobile phones. Most damages could probably be repaired by the people themselves. It would probably take two people two days to clean up the courtyard on the picture. We may think that the sense of maintenance comes more with education. Yet, unfortunately, from my experience, universities are in an equally poor state as everything else. This problem seems to be connected to the problem of unfinished construction sites.

The picture is not the same in all LED countries. My Namibian friend tells me that things tend to function in general in Namibia, and that university campuses are in good shape.

Unwelcoming Attitude

Tourism plays an important role for the economy of many LED countries. The hypothesis is that this potential is not fully used. On the contrary, some groups of people in LED countries are less welcoming to tourists than would be appropriate.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
My experiences from Morocco and Senegal were not very enchanting. As soon as I stepped into the street in a touristic city, I was immediately surrounded by people who wanted to sell me something, wanted to show me their shop, or wanted to offer me their services. This was usually done in a persistent, sometimes aggressive way. People clung to me even when I walked away. When I decided not to take an offer, I was insulted with surprising multilingual eloquence. Children see that I am a foreigner, come to me, and tell me “Give me money!”. People shouted at me when I took a picture of whatever thing, even if it was just the street. In general, people will claim extraordinary prices from you as a tourist. They will even try to cheat you. Unfortunately, I have to say that not a single person who talked to me on the streets in Senegal during 3 weeks wanted something good for me.

The picture is not much different in other LED countries: taxi drivers are proverbial for trying to cheat on tourists; souvenir shops will first ask where you are from in order to then adjust the price accordingly; and merchants will aggressively try to sell their products.

This environment seems to have a negative influence on tourists in general. Tourists often do not feel safe in LED countries. Therefore, they tend to visit these countries in travel packages with foreign tour operators. They will stay in foreign-operated hotels, eat foreign-imported food, pay a foreign tour operator, use foreign guides — and possibly not visit at all. Through this, the LED countries lose out on an opportunity to attract foreign money.
Of course, not all people in LED countries are as unwelcoming as described above. My observations in Senegal apply only to those people who started talking to me on the street. When, conversely, I started talking to somebody, people were usually extremely helpful, giving me directions, helping me with public transport, and even giving me a ride on their motorcycle. Yet, unfortunately, the dominating impression that tourists get in LED countries is rather burdensome. This impression is much less pronounced in rural areas. Still, there as well, children will come and tell you to give them money, if you are not a local. This problem might be related to a general climate of less trust between people.

In Western countries, foreigners often complain about discrimination — and rightly so. Foreigners or foreign-looking people suffer from prejudices against them, and there are even cases of racially motivated violence against them. However, if a foreigner goes into shop, he will pay the same price as everybody else for an item. It would be considered unethical, or even illegal, to ask a higher price from him just because he is foreign. This holds even if the foreigner is visibly richer than the shop owner. If, in contrast, a foreigner goes into a shop in an LED country, he will in many cases pay at least double the price for an item that a local would pay. It is true that a tourist will also be much richer than the average population in the LED country. However, the foreigner suffers a disadvantage just for being a foreigner. A foreigner will thus constantly have the impression of being hornswoggled. No wonder then that many tourists perceive such a climate as hostile, and stick to foreign tour operators — or other countries.

Missing Trust

Trust is the basis of human interaction. The hypothesis is that people in LED countries trust each other less than in rich countries. This would make employment and trade harder.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Views on Trust, compiled from [49]
As a foreigner, I experienced cases where local people in the LED country did not tell me the truth: Taxi drivers lying about the official price of the trip, people telling me directions that are completely wrong, sellers who tell me everything about their merchandise, with only half of it being true. I thought that this would happen to foreigners only, but chats with locals make me think that locals are also affected by this problem: People do not necessarily tell you the truth. They will work mainly for their own advantage, and we cannot always trust what they say.

This hypothesis is confirmed by the World Values Survey Organization [49]. The organization conducts period interviews with people all over the world, asking them what is important in life for them. Several questions in the interviews pertain to interpersonal trust. When asked whether most people are trustworthy, people in LED countries tend to agree less than people in rich countries (19%, as opposed to 40% in rich countries). People in LED countries are also less likely than people in the rich world to assume that most people are fair (49%, as opposed to 63% in the rich world). Rather, a slim majority thinks that most people want to take advantage of them. There is some kind of correlation with the general satisfaction in life and these numbers (people in LED countries tend to be less satisfied with their life than people in rich countries).

If it were true that people cannot have trust in each other, then this would hamper local trade relations. If one cannot be sure whether the other party will fulfill its obligations or whether the merchandise is of the quality that is claimed, then one can only trade with people whom one trusts. This increases the importance of family networks, clans, and nepotist circles. The effect is twofold: First, such structures make life more difficult for people who cannot resort to such a network (such as tourists). Second, it will almost certainly make people pay more for a service than would be necessary, because the seller can increase his prices with his trustworthiness. (Foreigners, e.g., will rather take a foreign-operated tour because they can trust the operator, but then pay way more.)
There are untrustworthy people in every country. Yet, my impression is that more caution is needed when trading with a person on the street in an LED country than when trading with a person on the street in a rich country. Quite a number of factors may contribute to this climate of distrust: First, some LED countries have a higher crime rate that Western countries. Thus, statistically, people have indeed less reason to trust a random person on the street. Second, given the performance of the governments in LED countries, people learn that the state is not a guarantor of trust (as it is in Western countries). Third, particularly in dictatorships, people may suspect that they are being controlled or surveyed. This was indeed the case in a large number of ex-communist countries, possibly contributing to the lower scores of trust in these countries. Fourth, the lack of trust is sometimes justified: Absenteeism, corruption, a possibly different concept of responsibility, and the probability of being hornswoggled are all understandable reasons for lower levels of trust.


Senegal, Morocco
Every region in the world has its own culture, customs, and habits. This may also influence people’s attitude towards responsibility. The hypothesis is that people in LED countries have an approach to responsibility that is different from the approach in Western countries. This approach would not encourage them to vouch for their actions. This hypothesis is related to the one on scapegoating.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
The World Values Survey Organization provides a weak hint that the concept of responsibility might be less valued LED countries [49]. The organization conducts period interviews with people all over the world, asking them what is important in life for them. One question asks what are the 5 most important qualities of a child. In rich countries, 80% of respondents thought that responsibility was essential. In LED countries, only 69% of respondents thought the same.

But let me make the hypothesis more concrete by examples: In discussions with people in LED countries, the following opinion came up:

Women are a temptation to men. Therefore, women have to be veiled, so that men do not succumb to the temptation.
In this view, the responsibility for an aggression against a woman or an act of fornication is put mainly on the woman. That is, the responsibility for an act is put not on the acting party, but on the party who does not take all measures against it. I do not want to discuss here whether this is the mainstream interpretation of Islam or not. I do that further down in this essay. Here, I just want to say that this opinion came up in discussions. As the BBC reports, 83% of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment, and 53% of Egyptian men blame women for “bringing it on” [152].

Strange as it may seem, this thinking resurfaces in a completely different scenario as well. The following opinion was also popular in discussions:

It is bad that the US abolished the dictatorship in Iraq, because now sectarian strife kills many more people than the dictator did.
By invading Iraq in 2003, the US have created a power vacuum in the country. This has led to a civil war between sectarian factions, mainly Shias and Sunnis. The above viewpoint puts the responsibility for the killings in this civil war on the US. Again, I do not want to discuss the role of the US here, I do that further up in this essay. Here, I just want to say that this viewpoint came up in discussions.

Both of these viewpoints heap the blame on the person who does not prevent the crime rather than on the one who commits it. In a certain sense, these views portray people as animals that have to be controlled. The fault is not with the one who acts, but with the one who lets them act. Or, in the words of Thilo Sarrazin: In this type of thinking, the central instances for control and responsibility are outside the individual person.

If people valued control more than responsibility, then the consequences would be far-reaching. First, people would be more willing to accept misbehavior if it happens in the absence of control. Misbehavior, however, should never be accepted. Second, people would themselves be more willing to do injustice, if there is no force to hinder them. They would be tempted to put part of the blame for their action on those who gave them the opportunity. Think of corruption. Finally, a working democracy requires people to be accountable for their actions. If people always call for being controlled, then they need a strongman and not a democracy.

This attitude could further mean that people would invest more in controlling the people rather than in teaching them to be responsible. Yet, teaching responsibility offers a more sustainable solution for the problems of society.

A non-Muslim woman
We may argue that the comparison of animals and humans is simply true. Many people do act like animals and do have to be controlled. However, that does not justify lifting the blame from a person who does injustice. A person is always responsible for their own acts [5 / Personal Responsibility].

People may argue that men are indeed tempted by beautiful women, and that, therefore, women should veil themselves. On the other hand, all non-Muslim cultures have successfully tamed their men (e.g., China, Europe, Hindu India). And women from these cultures are no less tempting than Muslim women.


Senegal, Morocco
A society changes if people feel pressure or incentive to change their behavior. The hypothesis is that people in LED countries feel less incentive to change their society. This would be because people tend to give the fault for their country’s problems to others, but not to themselves.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
When talking to people in Senegal about the condition of their country, the first reaction was to blame other forces for the problems that the country suffers from. These were mainly France, Europe, the US, and the government — not the people themselves. Examples for opinions along these lines are:
  1. Europe is responsible for the AIDS epidemic in black Africa. (Yet, Europe colonized also the North of Africa, where the AIDS rate is very low.)
  2. African countries cannot have good politicians, because France will remove them. (This view is based on the removal of Thomas Sankara by France. Yet, foreign influence alone cannot explain the disproportionate share of coups d’état in African countries in general)
  3. Politics in Africa is so bad because Europe still controls the politics of LED countries. (This may be true to a certain degree. Yet, it neglects the role that people, parliamentarians, government officials, and voters themselves play.)
  4. Corruption is an illness brought to Africa by the West. (Yet, this does not explain why the majority of people engage in corruption).
Other sorrows of Africa, such as the garbage problem and the high fertility rate, were usually not mentioned.
If people indeed blamed others for the ills of their country, then they would have less reason to change their habits and way of life. This means that the part that the people themselves are responsible for is less likely to change.
The “American Dream” has it that success and failure are but the consequences of one’s own behavior. If someone succeeds, it must be because they are smart and hard-working. If someone fails, then it must be because they are lazy or dumb. No matter whether this is true or not, or to which degree, the attitude seems the opposite of the attitude that I have encountered in Africa. Put in an exaggerated way, the difference is: In the US, everything is your own fault. In Senegal, everything is someone else’s fault.

Indeed, much of the fault for the problems of LED countries does not lie with the individual person. SectionTop lists a number of them. However, some fault does seem to lie with the general culture of the country, and thus to a certain degree with each individual. Problems such as corruption, the high fertility rate, too much garbage, discrimination of women, and less sense of maintenance, follow from the behavior of each individual. By neglecting this component, it seems that people give away an opportunity to change whatever little they could change themselves.

Womens’ Rights

The UN convention on Human Rights establishes equal rights for men and women [81]. Yet, many countries are far from achieving this goal. The hypothesis is that women’s rights are particularly weak in LED countries, and that this contributes to the poverty of these countries.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Discrimination against women appears on multiple levels:
Social and legal discrimination
Legal discrimination against women, compiled from World Bank data [182].

Empty map by Wikipedia contributors.

Rights of Women to go out (WomanStats [101])
The World Bank has studied laws that discriminate against women [182]: whether a woman is legally required to obey her husband; whether she can obtain a divorce in the same way as a man; whether she can be dismissed when she is pregnant; whether she can open a bank account; etc. The World Bank found that LED countries score lowest on these accounts, meaning that they legally do not give the same rights to women as to men. Muslim countries score particularly bad (see figure). In some Muslim countries, women are even prohibited from going out alone without a male guardian, as the WomenStats project finds [101]. This legal discrimination goes hand in hand with social segregation. Large proportions of the society in Pakistan, Egypt, Jordan, Nigeria, and Indonesia favor a segregation of public life by gender, as Pew Research finds [149]. This segregation finds its visual expression in clothing requirements. In many Muslim countries, women are required to wear clothing that covers their entire body and sometimes also their faces. In Saudi Arabia, the clothing requirement for women has led the police to prevent girls from escaping a burning school, because they were not adequately covered. As reported by the BBC, this has caused several deaths [91].
Discrimination in Education
Discrepancy in Education (WomanStats [101])  
In LED countries, women are consistently less educated than men. The Girl Effect Movement (GEM) cites a Human Rights Watch report, which found that “out of the world’s 130 million out-of-school youth, 70% are girls.” [120]. As the WomenStats project shows, some countries have discrepancies of up to 20% in secondary education [101]. The International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD, a UN agency) adds that “in many traditional societies, especially in South Asia and in parts of East and Central Africa, women have been excluded from the market economy” [121]. This, together with social values, entails that women have fewer say in business and politics in LED countries — even fewer than in rich countries. As WomenStats shows, women make up less than 20% of government members in most LED countries [101].
Child marriage
Marriage of girls under age of 16 (WomanStats [101])  
Child marriage is widely spread in LED countries, and it disproportionally affects women [99]. The International Center for Women Research says more than 40% of girls are married before the age of 18 in 20 countries — all of them LED countries [100]. The WomenStats project agrees, showing that it is common in many LED countries to marry the girls at age 16 [101]. The effects of child marriage also fall mainly on the woman. GEM cites a UNICEF report that explains that “medical complications from pregnancy are the leading cause of death among girls ages 15 to 19 worldwide. Compared with women ages 20 to 24, girls ages 10 to 14 are five times more likely to die from childbirth, and girls 15 to 19 are up to twice as likely, worldwide.” [120]. Early marriage also has consequences for the children. A UNICEF report explains that early marriage "is also associated with adverse health effects for her children, such as low birthweight. Furthermore, it has an adverse effect on the education and employment opportunities of girls.” [111]. Child marriage is closely related to forced marriage in general. In the United Kingdom, the Government’s Forced Marriage Unit is "bringing three girls a week back from Islamabad as victims of forced marriage" — sometimes in spectacular rescue actions, as the Independent notes [144].
Statistically speaking, women in Africa and South America become victims to rape more often than in rich countries. This has grave consequences not only for the victims, for their social status, and for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, but also for the future of the children that are conceived from a rape. Most LED countries do not allow abortion for rape, while rich countries do [82]. Social attitudes sometimes put the blame for a rape not on the rapist, but on the women herself. Therefore, some cultures punish the victim of the rape by whipping or by death. Press reports detail this practice for Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh, Libya, and Somalia [83,84,85,86] (see above for discussions). Sharia law requires a woman to bring 4 male witnesses for a rape [87 / o13.1]. Sharia law is a source of law many Muslim law systems [103]. The Hudood Ordinance of Pakistan [104] regulated rape in this way until it was withdrawn in 2005. It is clear that it is almost impossible for a rape victim to get 4 male witnesses for the rape. It would be much easier to prove the rape by DNA samples. If the woman cannot bring the witnesses, she is can be charged herself first for false accusation [87 / o13.1], and then for having sex outside of marriage [87 / o12.0]. The fear of this punishment, and the shame that society heaps on the victim of a rape discourages her to report the incident. This, in turn, gives men who rape a carte blanche. They know that the woman will not report the crime. Some legal systems allow the rapist and the victim to escape punishment if the rapist marries victim. In practice, this leads to women being forced to marry their rapist — either because the rapist is a family member whom the family wishes to protect from punishment, or because the family wishes to restore their honor this way, or because the woman would otherwise have an illegal child. Press reports detail this procedure for Morocco [93], India [94], Afganistan [96], Jordan [97], and, until at least 1997, 12 Latin American countries [95]. In 40 countries, rape in marriage is not a crime [98]. These countries are all LED countries.
Honor Killings
In some societies, a girl who has had undesired sexual relationships is killed by the family in order to restore the family’s honor — even if she was raped. As the Time of India explains, such crimes are committed for a wide range of “offenses” — marital infidelity, pre-marital sex, flirting, or even failing to serve a meal on time that can be perceived as impugning the family honour [142]. A UN report says that honor killings take place in “Egypt, the Islamic Republic of Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Pakistan, the Syrian Arab Republic, Turkey, Yemen, and other Mediterranean and Gulf countries” [105]. It also complains that “legislative provisions for partial or complete defense in that context could be found in the penal codes of Argentina, Ecuador, Egypt, Guatemala, Iran, Israel, Jordan, Peru, Syria, Venezuela and the Palestinian National Authority”. Honor killings are just the most violent and visible excesses of a culture that is largely hostile to women. As the Yemen Observer notes, in Yemen, “the concepts of women as property and honor are so deeply entrenched in the social, political and economic fabric of society that the government, for the most part, ignores the daily occurrences of women being killed and maimed by their families” [143]. In Pakistan, "the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan recorded at least 565 cases of honour killings. Under Pakistani law, families can escape punishment by following a few simple steps: a brother confesses to having killed his sister. His father forgives him, or accepts blood money. No money actually changes hands and the matter is closed”, as a UN agency explains [147]. Another UN report [105] remarks that honor killings had also taken place in such countries as France, Germany and the United Kingdom, within migrant communities. The Independent details the phenomenon for the United Kingdom, stating that “up to 17,000 women in Britain are being subjected to “honour” related violence, including murder, every year, according to police chiefs” [144]. Press reports provide details for the practice in LED countries in general, and about the pride that family members take in the murder [107, 146]. A similar practice happens in India, where women are killed if their family fails to pay the bride money (dowry) to the husband’s family. As an UNICEF report estimates, more than 5,000 women are killed annually by their husbands and inlaws in India [111].
Genital Mutilation
As the World Health Organization (WHO) explains, Female genital mutilation (FGM) are procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons [106]. This is a very technical definition, which does not convey the extraordinary pain, the lifelong health problems, and the permanent loss of sensitivity that the mutilation brings. FGM has severe physical and psychological consequences for the women who fall victim to it. The WHO details these [106], as does Wikipedia [108]. In 82% of the cases, FGM is carried out by non-medical experts [106]. The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among migrants from these areas [106]. UNICEF estimates that in Burkina Faso, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethopia, Guinea, Mali, Mauritania, and North Sudan, over 70% of girls are mutilated [108]. The WHO estimates that about 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM [106].
Sex-selective abortions and killings
In many countries, girls are seen as less desirable than boys. Therefore, many women abort their baby when it turns out to be female, or families kill the baby. A UNICEF report summarizes that “there are 60 million fewer women alive in the world than should be expected on the basis of general demographic trends. The phenomenon is observed primarily in South Asia, North Africa, the Middle East and China” [111]. This practice does not just deprive babies of their life, but also testifies to a deep disrespect for women in these cultures.
Other violence
% of women who suffered violence from their intimate partner (WHO [165], click to enlarge)
The WHO has studied domestic violence against women in 10 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Ethiopia, Japan, Namibia, Peru, Samoa, Serbia and Montenegro, Thailand, and the United Republic of Tanzania [109]. The study finds that “one quarter to one half of all women who had been physically assaulted by their partners said that they had suffered physical injuries as a direct result”. A report in the Guardian summarizes the problem for West Africa [112]. The most comprehensive study of violence against women so far has been devised by the WHO [165]. It finds that women in LED countries are significantly more likely to suffer violence, even from intimate partners (see figure). The highest prevalence rates for violence from intimate partners are found in South-East Asia and the Middle East, with 37%, closely followed by Africa with 36% (compared to a lower, but still shocking, 23% in the rich countries). UNICEF details the practice of disfiguring women by acids: “Sulphuric acid has emerged as a cheap and easily accessible weapon to disfigure and sometimes kill women and girls for reasons as varied as family feuds, inability to meet dowry demands, and rejection of marriage proposals. In Bangladesh, it is estimated that there are over 200 acid attacks each year.” [111]. Reuters' Trust Foundation also states that in India, one bride was murdered every hour over dowry demands in 2010 according the National Crime Records Bureau. Some are “stove burnings” where in-laws pour kerosene, the commonly-used cooking fuel of poorer homes, over women and set them alight, making it appear accidental [141]. A government survey found 51% of Indian men and 54% of women justified wife beating [141]. In Afghanistan, the CNN reports that nearly 90% percent of women suffer from domestic abuse, according to the United Nations Development Fund for Women. A campaigner explains: “Their mothers are beaten by their fathers. They're beaten by their fathers, by their brothers. It’s a way of life.” [151]. As the BBC reports, 83% of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment [152]. A poll by the Thomson Reuters Foundation found that the 5 most dangerous places for women are all LED countries: Afganistan, Congo, Pakistan, India, and Somalia — with reasons that include rampant rape rates, forced marriage, high female illiteracy, male legal domination, honor killings, child marriage, girls trafficking, and female genital mutilation [114].
These maltreatments of women have a negative effect on the LED countries for two reasons: First, women make up 50% of the population. If 50% of the population suffer from discrimination that ranges from less education to physical assaults, then this constitutes a large part of the misery of the people of these countries.

Second, women’s well-being is crucial for the success of the entire society. The GEM cites a UN study saying that “When a girl in the developing world receives seven or more years of education, she marries four years later and has 2.2 fewer children.” [120]. Other research “has shown a consistent relationship between better infant and child health and higher levels of schooling among mothers.” [120]. There is also some evidence that poor women in LED countries handle money more responsibly than men. As IFAD explains, “poor women often have the best credit ratings” for microcredits [121]. They also reinvest higher percentages of their income back into the family [120].

More generally, the discrimination of women goes hand in hand with less education, earlier marriage, higher fertility rates, more male dominance, and more religiousness: the earlier women are married, the less educated they are, the more submitted they are to their husbands, the more children they have, and the less educated these children will be, and the more religious the society will be as a whole. The more educated women are, the less likely they are to marry early, the less likely they are to be dominated by their husbands, the less children they have, the more educated these children are, and the less religious the society will be as a whole.

Most countries discriminate against women in one way or another. Even in the most progressive countries, women often earn less than men for the same work. Thus, all countries are somewhere on the path towards equal rights, with varying degrees of perfection. However, the degree of inequality, suppression, and violence that women in general experience in some LED countries has no equal in Western societies. It is an abomination.

Many religious leaders or proponents say that their religion wants equal rights for men and women. In Islam, in particular, the Prophet Mohammed is sometimes presented as a front-runner for women’s rights. Modern adherents of Hinduism will readily explain that the “true Hinduism” wishes complete equality of the sexes. That may be true, or that may be false. The fact is that in most Muslim countries, and in India as well, women in general are actively discriminated against, and have a more miserable life than men.


An improvement of life conditions in LED countries would need the support of the people. The hypothesis is, however, that people in LED countries tend to accept the status quo, and do not take action to change it.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
In the US, it is hard to spend a day in a major city without being addressed by some activists. These people usually want to collect signatures for or against some law or gather support for some cause. They form part of a broader picture of lobbying and activist groups, who wish to raise attention to some political topic, or pressure politics to take or abandon some measures. This activism is not always in everybody’s interest. The contrasts between rich and poor, and conservative and liberal tend to be very pronounced in such moves, and one man’s gain may be another man’s loss. In particular, people with more money have more means to sway opinion.

Yet, this type of activism shows an interest and an engagement of the general public in politics. During my stays in LED countries, I have not encountered such activism. People do complain, but nobody I talked to had ambitions of changing something, entering a political party, or founding an activist group. On the contrary, in Egypt in 2019, 89% of people voted to change the constitution to allow the President Sisi to stay in power — with a poor track record to show for it [191].

Views on Politics, compiled from [49]
This hypothesis is supported by the World Values Survey. The organization conducts regular polls to ask people what is important in life for them [49]. The organization concludes that LED countries often value survival more than self-expression, which goes along with a less activist political orientation [48]. This shows also in the 2008 survey [49]: The polls indicate that people in LED countries are less likely to attend a demonstration, even if it is lawful and peaceful (45% can imagine attending a demonstration, as opposed to 63% in the rich countries). People are less likely to sign a petition (47%, as opposed to 84% in rich countries). They are also less likely to join a boycott (28%, as opposed to 57% in rich countries). This indicates that grassroot action is indeed less prevalent in LED countries than in rich countries.

The answers to the questions of the World Value Survey can be aggregated along two main dimensions [48]:

Traditional vs Secular-rational
Personal values by country, compiled from [48]
(Click to enlarge)
Traditional values emphasize the importance of religion, parent-child ties, deference to authority and traditional family values. Secular-rational values have the opposite preferences to the traditional values.
Survival vs Self-expression
Survival values place emphasis on economic and physical security. Self-expression values give high priority to environmental protection, growing tolerance of foreigners, gays and lesbians and gender equality, and rising demands for participation in decision-making in economic and political life.
The polls show that LED countries tend to be more traditional. This goes along with more religiosity, which may itself be an impediment to progress, as I discuss below. Furthermore, people in LED countries are more survival-oriented. This makes them less available for the participation in decision-making in economic and political life. As the organization notes [48], societies hat get richer tend to move indeed first from traditional to secular, and then to self-expression-centered.
If people did indeed prefer taking a rather passive role, then this would slow down or even hamper progress. Progress needs people behind it.

If people do not get engaged in politics, in particular, the whole idea of a democracy will not work.

When a boy in Africa built a wind wheel with a dynamo, someone wrote a book about him.
People mostly told me that, anyway, it makes no sense to fight for improvements, because any improvement would quickly be stopped by forces from the top, notably by bad governance and foreign influence. This reasoning seems to be governed by the same resignation as the idea that foreign forces are responsible for all problems. This resignation may reinforce itself in a vicious circle: Those people who try to change something get quickly disappointed, nothing changes, hence even fewer people try to change something, and hence even fewer things change. Disappointment, resignation, and stagnation seem support each other.

In some cases, activism may be actively discouraged by the government. People who get active in politics may lose their job, encounter difficulties with the administration, or even get jailed. People who have made this experience (or whohave heard about it) may have less appetite for activism.

Furthermore, any type of activism requires spare time at best, and in most cases also lots of money. It is an expensive endeavor to mount a campaign, to publish news articles, or to organize a political party. The elections in the US are widely known to cost extraordinary sums of money. Smaller projects cost less, but still consume time and money. As people have enough to worry about already, they may find less time and resources to dedicate to activism. Thus, poverty and lack of activism seem support each other in both directions.

Apart from that, a large proportion of people in LED countries is of the opinion that life is mainly determined by fate, and not by their own actions. In the World Values Survey [49], 43% of respondents think that fate plays a larger role in life than their decisions (as opposed to 26% in rich countries and 37% in transition countries). This belief in fate may be the consequence of a general feeling of helplessness: People in LED countries have less control over their life than people in self-expression-oriented countries. Thus, they believe that fate plays a larger role. On the other hand, people who believe that their own actions have only small effect have less incentive to act. Thus, it seems as if lack of control and the impression of lack of control reinforced each other.

The picture is not entirely dire. The vast majority of all people interviewed by the World Values Survey [49] (91%) find that democracy is good — and this holds independently of whether the interviewee lives in an LED country, in the rich world, or in a country that is in transition from socialism to capitalism. People in LED countries find politics as important (47%) as people in the rich world (45%). They are as likely as people in rich countries to be an active member of a labor union, a political party, or a charity (20%, compared to 21% in the rich world, and just 11% in the transition countries). These numbers suggest that there is solid awareness of politics in the LED countries.

Religious Beliefs

Many LED countries are deeply religious. The hypothesis is that religious beliefs cause or strengthen some of the social factors for poverty.
Reasons for this Hypothesis
Religiosity [72]
The poorer a country is, the more religious it is usually. Gallup Polls in 143 countries reveal that among countries where average annual incomes are 2,000 USD or less, 92% of residents say religion is an important part of their daily lives, whereas that figure is only 44% for the richer countries [140]. I have argued that it is not necessarily the religion that makes countries poor. Rather, poverty and insecurity that make people more religious [3 / Better Society].

However, some factors for poverty can be aggravated by religious beliefs:

High fertility rates are a problem mainly in Africa. As I have argued elsewhere [3 / Baby Boom], the two major religions on that continent, Islam and Catholicism, both contribute to that high fertility rate. Catholicism, for its part, denounces contraception as evil. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “every action which [..] proposes [...] to render procreation impossible is intrinsically evil” [73]. As the Economist explains [190], the Catholic church stifles discussion about sexuality in Latin America. In Honduras, Catholic and Evangelical churches opposed the use of sex-education textbook in 2018 — thereby fuelling the extraordinarily high rate of teenage pregnancies in the region: Almost a third of Latin American women can expect to have a baby before reaching the age of 20.
Mainstream interpretations of Islam do not prohibit contraception, but, likewise, encourage procreation. The Prophet Mohammed reportedly said “Marry those who are loving and fertile, for I will be proud of your great numbers before the other nations.” [77]. Sharia law agrees [87 / m1.0]. There is no official document on this interpretation, because Islam does not have a central religious authoritative organization, but the BBC summarizes the prevalent view as: “Islam is strongly pro-family and regards children as a gift from God” [74].
Thereby, the religious beliefs of Catholics and Muslims further fuel the high fertility rates.
The case of India is different: As Dawn Stacey explains, Hinduism also encourages large families [113]. However, family planning is seen as ethically good, and there is no opposition against contraception. Indeed, birth rates in India are lower than in most African nations.
We have seen before that wars and civil wars tend to run along religious lines. Richard Dawkins hypothesizes that this is no coincidence: religion is maybe not the motivation for wars, murders and terrorist attacks, but it is the principal label by which a “they” as opposed to a “we” can be identified at all. I have elaborated on this phenomenon elsewhere [3 / Conflict]. It is particularly visible for the case of Islam. People who justify violence with Islam [123] can draw upon an article of Sharia law that prescribes a violent form of Jihad [87 / o9.0], as well as from a wide array of Quran verses that encourage fighting [150 / 2:193, 216, 244; 4:74, 76, 95; 8:39, 59, 65; 9:111, 123, 14, 20 29, 33, 88, 25:52; 47:35; 48:28, 29; 61:4, 9; 66:9], ridicule disbelievers, or discourage contact with them [150 / 2:254, 64, 91, 98, 99, 99; 3:28; 4:52, 61, 76, 89; 5:45, 51, 57, 58, 80; 6:106, 39; 7:166; 8:55; 9:125, 28; 16:27; 24:55; 25:55; 56:92; 60:10; 63:4; 80:42; 98:6]. These are not just some hand-picked verses that can be excused by a particular historical context, but part of a bigger picture: Roughly one third of the Quran verses is concerned with arguing against, ridiculing, condemning, or calling for war against those who do not follow the word of Allah. This goes hand in hand with the fact that Islam spread by conquest in its early centuries, as the Economist explains [155]. This is the time that many Muslims idealize.
Several incidents show how an “us versus them” feeling can still be generated today: In 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed. Thousands of Muslims protested, embassies were set on fire, and in total over 100 people died [126]. In his lecture in Regensburg in 2006, the pope cited a Byzantine emperor who said that the Prophet Mohammed brought only evil. In the subsequent protests in Muslim countries, churches were attacked and several Christians killed [125] — thereby lending weight to the emperor’s claim. In 2010, Terry Jones, a Christian pastor, threatened to burn copies of the Quran. Protests in Muslim countries led to over 30 deaths. In 2012, an Egyptian-American Coptic Christian released the preview of a movie that portrays the Prophet Mohammed as a bloodthirsty leader whose men enjoy killing. Violent mobs protested against this view by killing several Americans [127]. In all of these cases, people were most likely incited by religious leaders (people protested to the cartoons only the 4 months later; the Regensburg lecture was held in German; the movie was only available as preview). However, religious beliefs are always incited by religious leaders, as there is no other known source for them. In all fairness, large crowds went to demonstrate against religious extremism in Libya after the 2012 incident, as reported by the Guardian [132]. Yet, these incidents show how easily religious feelings can lead to an “us against them” view and violence against unrelated people. Indeed, press reports generally report an increase in violence after Friday prayers, suggesting that these were used not to calm people, but to stir them up (see [156] for examples).
This can go as far as terrorism: The Islamist attacks in Paris, Nice, Berlin, and other cities in Europe of the 2010’s are high-profile examples, but the case is also supported by the statistics. The US National Counterterrorism Center reports 12,533 terrorism-related deaths worldwide in 2011, 70% of which were perpetrated by Sunni extremists, 15% by secular/political/anarchist groups, and the rest by unknown, other, and Neo-Nazi groups [154]. The vast majority of these terrorist acts are directed against fellow Muslims (82% and 97% of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years were Muslims). As WikiIslam, an Islam-critical Website, summarizes: Modern Muslims have religious conflicts with Hindus in Kashmir; Christians in Nigeria, Egypt, and Bosnia; Bahais in Iran; Animists in Darfur; Buddhists in Thailand; each other in Iraq, Pakistan, Somalia, and Yemen; Jews in Israel. Thereby, WikiIslam opinions, Islam is the only religion in conflict with every single one of today’s major world religions [156]. The high correlation of violence with religious extremism, the role of the Friday prayers, the statements of some scholars, the wars along religious borders, and the justifications for violence brought forward from Sharia and the Quran all imply that religious beliefs play a major role in the violent acts that shake LED countries.
Women’s rights
Discrimination against women is a major problem in LED countries. As I have argued elsewhere [3 / Women’s rights], the scriptures of nearly all major religions support this discrimination. The religions that are prevalent in LED countries (Islam, Christianity, and Hinduism) are no exception.
As for Christianity, old interpretations required a rape victim to marry her rapist. As a Christian Web site [90] explains, this interpretation was based on a Bible verse, which reads “He must marry the girl, for he has violated her” [155 / Deuteronomy 22:28–29]. This procedure was indeed the law in 12 Latin American countries until 1997 [95].
As for Hinduism, the Laws of Manu say that “Day and night woman must be kept in dependence by the males (of) their (families), and, if they attach themselves to sensual enjoyments, they must be kept under one’s control. Her father protects (her) in childhood, her husband protects (her) in youth, and her sons protect (her) in old age; a woman is never fit for independence.” [115 / 9.3]. This view of women is echoed on the Hinduism Web site [116], adding that sons are generally preferred over daughters for several reasons [119]. No matter whether people adhere to this interpretation of Hinduism or not, the general culture in India is traditionally mysogenic: there is a “deep-rooted mindset that women are inferior” in India, according to the Thomson Reuters Foundation [141]. As a local opinions: “It is a miracle if a woman survives [at all]. Even before she is born, she is at risk of being aborted due to [the] obsession for sons. As a child, she faces abuse, rape and early marriage and even when she marries, she is killed for dowry. If she survives all of this, as a widow she is discriminated against and given no rights over inheritance or property.”. Such a mindset contributes to the misery of women in India.
As for Islam, Sharia law [87] allows fathers to marry their daughters to someone without her permission (m3.13 (2)) irrespective of age (m4.4), gives a husband full rights over his wife (m5.4, m10.11), including the right to force sex on her (m5.1, also Fatwa [88]), prohibits women from traveling (m10.3, also Fatwa [79]), requires female genital mutilation (as well as male, e4.3, also Fatwa [122]), claims only half the indemnity if the victim of a murder is a woman (o4.9), requires women to cover their body except face and hands (f5.3; also Fatwa [102]), requires a victim to bring 4 witnesses for a rape (o13.1), and punishes people who claim having been raped without witnesses (m13.1). It also allows parents to kill their children (o1.2 (4)) and non-Muslims (o1.2 (2)). For the Sharia, rape falls under adultery, which is a symmetric crime [87]. Saudi Arabia’s grand mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Al-Sheikh finds that “a girl aged 10 or 12 can be married”, as cited by CNN [148]. Since Islam has no central religious authority, these comments, this version of Sharia, and these fatwas are not shared by all Muslims. They represent just a particular interpretation of Islam. However, the Quran [150] is widely accepted. Quran verses say that men should remain with their wives in kindness (2:229, 2:231), envisions spousal equality (2:233), and describes husband and wife as protecting garments for one another (2:187). Other verses, however, imply that men are permitted to have have pre-marital/extra-marital sex with slaves and prisoners of war (23:1-11; 70:29-30), while women are not; men can have 4 wives, and women one husband (4:3); women are not permitted to beat their marital partners, while men are (4:34); a male inherits twice that of a female (4:11); a man may marry a non-Muslim person, while a woman may not (5:5); the testimony of a women in court is worth half that of a man’s testimony (2:282); and child marriages are OK (65:4). Not all Muslims agree on all of these rules. And yet, these rules are actually what happens de facto in many Muslim countries: women suffer from legal discrimination, high rates of child marriage, honor killings, genital mutilation, domestic violence, and social or legal punishment when they are raped.
In summary, no matter the religion, UNICEF argues that “many men who abuse women justify such behaviour on a religious basis, and many cultural practices that abuse and violate women are justified in the name of religion.” [111].
I have argued that people have to take responsibility for their own actions, and that this concept is less well developed in some LED countries. When it comes to responsibility for sexual aggression, this attitude finds its justification in Islamic sources: No Quran verse condemns forced sex (see Fatwa [80], which does not refer to the Quran when condemning rape). The Quran does not tell men not to sexually aggress women. Rather, the Quran tells women to veil themselves in order to avoid sexual aggression (33:59). Thereby, the Quran heaps the blame on the victim. Here are some examples of contemporary interpretations:
  • “If you take out uncovered meat and place it outside on the street, or in the garden or in the park, or in the backyard without a cover, and the cats come and eat it ... whose fault is it, the cats’ or the uncovered meat? The uncovered meat is the problem. If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred. [...] It is said in the state of zina (adultery), the responsibility falls 90 per cent of the time on the woman. Why? Because she possesses the weapon of enticement (igraa)” (Taj El-Din Hilaly, Mufti of Australia, as cited in The Australian [75]).
  • “The reason why these sex attacks are continuously happening is because the Canadian laws, which gives too much freedom to women, are the cause of these sex attacks” (Al-Haashim Kamena Atangana, a Canadian Street Cleric, in the Toronto Sun [78])
  • ”Women taking part in protests bear the responsibility of being sexually harassed. [...] They know they are among thugs. They should protect themselves before requesting that the Interior Ministry does so. By getting herself involved in such circumstances, the woman has 100 percent responsibility.” (Shura Council’s human rights committee, according to Egypt Independent [163])
  • “What you see of loss of honour and transgression against women in the form of assault and rape is only because of the bad conduct of men who have lost all mercy and compassion, and who have lost all sense that Allah is always watching them; it is also because of women showing their adornments and being heedless about mixing, shaking hands, working and corresponding with men. If women adhered to the laws of Allah in their clothing and by not mixing with men or travelling alone, and if they adhered to Islamic guidelines on talking to men and looking at them, a great deal of evil and mischief in society would come to an end. [...] mixing of men with women is a cause of many immoral actions and zina [unlawful sexual intercourse]” (a fatwa [79])
Since Islam has no central religious authority organization, these views are not universally shared. However, as the BBC reports, 83% of Egyptian women experience sexual harassment, and 53% of Egyptian men blame women for “bringing it on” [152]. These statistics, the public voices cited above, and also personal conversations in LED countries show that certain Muslims think their attitude is justified by Islam. This attitude is problematic, because it portrays men as uncontrolled animals — rather than as beings who are responsible for their own actions.
Countries with death penalties for atheism [158159]
I have argued that LED countries need (among other things) activism and personal commitment in order to rise from poverty. Unfortunately, the religious culture in these countries may often be an obstacle to such commitment.
In traditional Hinduism, the caste system puts people into social layers by their birth [76]. These layers determine the professions, the social esteem, and the marriage rights. As the Hindu Website opinions, this system “did much greater damage for a much longer period to a great many people than the slave system of the western world or the witch-hunting practices of medieval Europe.” [117]. Today, this system is being challenged, and India actively tries to abolish it. However, 100 years after the British installed the first positive discrimination laws, the system still sticks. This is problematic, not just for the lower castes, but also for the country: The concept of being born into a specific situation from which one may not move is exactly the opposite of what India needs.
In traditional Islam, any thinking that deviates from the religious mainstream is shunned. As the Economist summarizes, all four schools of Sunni Islamic law teach that male apostates should be put to death [157]. Consequently, people who want to quit Islam suffer widespread social discrimination in the Islamic world, up to beatings or beheadings [157]. 84% of Muslims in Egypt and 86% in Jordan backed the death penalty for apostates, as do 51% in Nigeria and 30% in Indonesia [157]. The IHEU noted that, indeed, many Muslim countries have death penalties for people who become atheists [158] (summarized by the Washington Post [159]). Criticizing and abandoning the official belief is shunned, persecuted, and illegal. However, if LED countries are to rise form poverty, then people need to criticise the status quo — and in particularly also religious values. When the religion discourages such thinking, it becomes an obstacle. On a more general note, the European Court of Human Rights found that the Islamic Sharia was incompatible with the fundamental principles of democracy, pluralism in the political sphere, the constant evolution of public freedoms, women’s rights, and the human rights [160] (a fatwa agrees [161]).
Abuse of Power
As I have argued elsewhere [5 / Underperformance], religion has a huge impact on people: A religious person is confronted every week, if not every day, or even several times a day, with a religious message. These messages have enormous power: They tell people what to wear, whom to marry, what to eat, what to read, and what to believe. And yet, those messages are for the most part not in any way practically conductive to human well-being. If, instead of proclaiming the greatness of some god, the religion proclaimed that people should wash their hands after using the restroom, this would counteract some of the most contagious deseases. These deseases currently kill people by the millions — literally. If, instead of telling people to eat some type of meat or not, the religion told people to treat diarrhoea with filtered water with added salt and sugar, this could save thousands of lives. But no religion does. They thus abuse their power. Worse, since they emphasize their own importance, they leave less room for (or even discredit) the truly useful messages, and prevent them from getting accepted.
If a religious belief supports a particular attitude or behavior, then it is more difficult to abandon this behavior. This is because the behavior is seen as something that comes from an authority that is higher than humans.
Different believers of the same religion may hold different beliefs. This means that some people think a certain belief belongs to a certain religion, while others think it does not. For example, people debate whether Islam wants women to go veiled or not, whether Islam requires a rape victim to bring four witnesses or not, or whether or when Christianity allows contraception.

For the purpose of analyzing poverty, however, it does not matter whether a certain belief is “the right belief of a certain religion” or not. For example, it does not matter whether “the true Islam” requires four witnesses for a rape or not. What matters for the problem of poverty is that many people adhere to this belief, and that it is a harmful belief. It is futile to engage in an argument about what the true Islam is or is not. 1400 years of Muslim existence have not solved this riddle (but have on the contrary nurtured countless conflicts about it). The question of the “true Islam” is a question of theology in which this essay has no say. If one wants to fight poverty, the problem is not theological, but very practical: We have to acknowledge that different religious beliefs exist, and that some of them are harmful.

Religion does not have only harmful effects. The Gallup poll finds that in poor countries, religion makes people happier [140]. Furthermore, it is wrong to say that religions would, in general, make people poor. Some religions are, on the contrary, associated with a higher socio-economic status. Protestant, Anglican, and Calvinist countries, e.g., are among the richest in the world. Max Weber has linked this to the Protestant Work Ethic, noting that Protestantism sees hard work, frugality and prosperity as a display of a person’s salvation in the Christian faith [135]. The Economist adds that, since Protestantism emphasizes people’s direct access to the Bible, the Protestant Church was instrumental in teaching peasants to read [162]. Protestantism also reduced the Church to a helpmate [162], thereby possibly emphasizing each person’s own responsibility. Jains, too, are perceived as rich. The International School for Jain Studies explains that, according to the 2001 Census in India, only 18.3% of the Jain population was engaged in "working class" jobs. The rest were in commercial activities and the modern education-based professions such as teaching, engineering, medicine, law, accountancy, management, and information technology. This has contributed to a relatively wealthy socio-economic status of Jains [134]. Judaism, too, is stereotypically associated with wealth. Israel is the richest country in the region. The Jewish Federations of North America provide numbers for relative Jewish wealth in the US, noting, e.g., that 34% of Jewish households report income over 75,000 USD, compared to 17% of all U.S. households [137]. 20% of Nobel Prize Winners are Jews, even though they represent only 0.2% of the world population [138]. A blogger summarizes possible reasons in an unscientific, but illustrating way [136]: First, in the Middle Ages, money-lending was prohibited for Christians, pushing Jews into the business. Second, Jews had an ancient tradition for investing in our children’s education. Third, in the Middle Ages in Christian Europe, the smartest minds of each generation went into the Church — and hence produced no offspring. The smartest minds in Judaism, in contrast, tended to become scholars and thus produced more offspring than average. Still, there are poor Jains, as there are poor Jews or Protestants. The most religious Jews, e.g., the Haredim, are amongst the poorest, least educated, and least employed in Israel [139]. The Protestant (rich) countries are among the least religious in the world [72].

In general, the more religious a country is, the poorer it is. While that does not mean that one causes the other, the link deserves critical analysis.

Other Factors

This essay is an incomplete list of factors. Many more components may play a role for the current situation of LED countries. Prominent factors that deserve more analysis are
The situation of the middle class
If the political elite is to be renewed, then the middle class is the most likely replacement candidate. One would have to understand better what its current role and position is.
Climate change
LED countries are more affected than other countries by global warming. Since LED countries depend more than rich countries on agriculture, this affects them disproportionally. It has also been argued that LED countries lie in more difficult climate zones [124]. Climate affects water, and water plays a role in the control of diseases, land competition, and hostilities.
LED countries have a less developed infrastructure (in terms of administration, transport, and social services) — quite possibly due to a self-interested political elite and corruption. This lack of infrastructure inhibits the local economy and the functioning of the state.
There are easily more factors that play a role.


In this essay, we have explored a number of possible reasons for poverty — both at the national and international level and at the level of the society. It seems to me that the situation in the LED countries is a system in which every component supports the other. Bad governance, corruption, poor living standards, land grabbing by foreign companies, and economical problems all seem to lead to each other — and be entailed by each other. This gives a very complex picture of the dynamics of LED countries, where a multitude of factors plays a role. This tells us that we should not lay the blame for poverty on a single reason.

Are we making progress towards eliminating poverty? That is hard to judge. Yet, as Hans Rosling observes in another interesting TED talk [131], Africa has made huge steps ahead. In 50 years, its life standard has advanced from pre-medieval to that of Europe in the 1900's. People also have more time to benefit from that life standard: life expectancy is on the rise everywhere, and poor countries are no exception. In Kenya, for example, life expectancy increased by almost 10 years between 2003 and 2013. As the historian Johan Norberg points out, this means that after having lived, loved, and struggled for a whole decade, the average person in Kenya had not lost a single year of their remaining life time [192]. That, for one, is an astonishing achievement.



I would like to thank the people who took the time to read this essay and to give me their feedback. Their opinion has helped me see different facets of the issues discussed in this text.


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