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World issues

Wealth and poverty

Luxury apartments and shantytowns in Rio, BrazilLuxury apartments and shantytowns in Rio, Brazil Around 85% of the world’s wealth is owned by just 10% of the world’s population, mostly in Europe, the USA and East Asia. In contrast, about half of the world’s population own just 1% of the world’s wealth. The wealthiest people have an abundance of money and property, while those living in poverty lack the money needed for basic necessities such as food and shelter. Poorer regions are often affected by poor sanitation, disease and war. The gap between the rich and the poor seems to grow ever wider. Measured by the average income earned by people in the richest and poorest fifth of the world’s nations, the gap has grown from 30 to 1 in 1960 to nearly 80 to 1 today. Within wealthy countries there are people who live in poverty; equally, there are wealthy people who live in less prosperous countries.

Gross domestic product

Gross domestic product (GDP) of countries in the worldGross domestic product (GDP) of countries in the worldThe wealth of a nation can be measured by its gross domestic product (GDP). This is defined as the value of all the goods and services produced there, including those produced by foreign-owned firms. The Group of Eight (G8) are the eight leading industrial nations of the world. These nations—the United States, Japan, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Italy, Canada and Russia—account for more than 65% of the world’s GDP. The country with the highest GDP per person in 2012 was Qatar ($100,889). In the same year, the figure for the Democratic Republic of Congo in Africa was $365. Around 1.4 billion people around the world live on less than $1.25 (75p) a day.

US soldiers unload emergency aid in AfghanistanUS soldiers unload emergency aid in Afghanistan

Aid and debt

Wealthy nations give money and supplies to developing nations, countries which have a low income per person and poor health care, education and nutritionAid is given to help their long-term development, such as by building power stations or funding education. The largest foreign aid donor in 2012 was the United States, which gave $30 billion. After a natural disaster, such as floods, emergency aid—food, water and shelter—is sent.  

Wealthy nations such as the G8 also lend money to developing countries. However, the developing countries often find that, because of their low GDP, they cannot repay the loans and a big debt burden builds up.

Shacks in a favela, or shantytown, in Manaus,  BrazilShacks in a favela, or shantytown, in Manaus, Brazil


Central and South America have some of the fastest-growing cities in the world. They include the Brazilian supercities of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, both with populations of more than 10 million. People from the countryside flock to these cities to find work, but there is nowhere for them to live. They build their own shantytowns, known locally as favelas, just outside the city by constructing shelters and shacks from any material that comes to hand. People who live in shantytowns cannot find work easily and so they are forced to work for very low wages.

Shantytowns are also commonly found on the edges of cities in developing countries in Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. 

Developed or developing?

The wealthiest countries are those that have developed industries and services which can supply their own populations with all their needs. They do this either by producing these products and services themselves, or by importing them from other countries, paying for them by exporting goods. These wealthy countries are known as developed countries.Infant mortality rates around the worldInfant mortality rates around the worldIn poorer, developing countries, people may produce only enough food to feed their families. Disease and climatic disaster may prevent even this. The population of developing nations has grown greatly in recent years. Their high birth rates means even more mouths to feed.

Consultant: Lloyd Jenkins

See also in Geography

See also in History

40% of people in Africa have no access to safe drinking water.

Afghanistan has the highest infant mortality rate, with 119 deaths per 1000 births. Monaco has the lowest rate, with 1.8 deaths per 1000 births.

One in six children aged 5–14 is in child labour. The number is particularly high in Africa, where the HIV/AIDS epidemic has orphaned many children so they need to work to support themselves and their siblings. Since the epidemic began in the 1980s, 14 million children have been orphaned in southern Africa alone.

In Tanzania, there is only one doctor for every 125,000 people in the country, the highest population per doctor rate in the world. The lowest rate is in Cuba, where there is one doctor for every 156 people.

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