As defined by the United Nations, least developed countries (LDCs) are low-income countries that face significant challenges in their efforts to develop a sustainable and self-supporting economy. There are currently 46 LDC countries, the majority of which are located in Africa, and to a lesser extent, South America and Asia/Oceania.
Least developed countries and the Human Development Index (HDI)
One of the most respected at-a-glance metrics used to measure a country's level of development is the U.N.'s Human Development Index (HDI). This global index tracks and compares more than 150 global indicators, such as life expectancy, education, and per capita income, then combines them to create a single "human development" value for more than 150 countries all over the world. HDI places each country on a scale of 0-1 (with 1.000 being the best possible score and 0.000 the worst) and categorizes them into one of four levels of human development: low human development (0-.55), medium human development (.55-.70), high human development (.70-.80), and very high human development (.80-1.0).
Least Developed Countries (United Nations 2022)
|Country||2019 HDI||Country||2019 HDI||Country||2019 HDI||Country||2019 HDI|
|Central African Republic||.397||Chad||.398||Comoros||.554||Congo (Dem. Rep.)||.480|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||.625||Senegal||.512||Sierra Leone||.452||Solomon Islands||.567|
Because their industrial and economic ecosystems are fragile and underdeveloped, LDCs are highly vulnerable to economic and environmental shocks. They also tend to have poor educational systems, which leads to a less versatile workforce. To help LDCs catch up, the United Nations offers support programs designed to foster the development of agriculture, education, industry, and other aspects of a healthy, stable nation.
Every three years, the United Nations' Committee for Development (CDP) reviews the list of LDCs and assesses each country's progress in fifteen indicators, which are then grouped into three criteria: human assets index/workforce (HAI), economic and environmental vulnerability index (EVI), and gross national income per capita (GNI). The United Nations also holds a larger conference on least developed countries roughly once per decade. Previous conferences have taken place in Paris, France (twice); Brussels, Belgium; and in Istanbul, Turkey in 2011. The 2011 conference set a goal of boosting half of the current LDCs out of the category by 2022. Due to the global COVID-19 pandemic, this goal seems unlikely to be achieved, but several countries have graduated from the program in the past, and several more are on track to elevate from Least Developed to Developing in the next few years.
Countries that have graduated from the U.N.'s least-developed countries program (or should soon):
|Country||Graduation Date||Expected Graduation|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||-||2024|
On the other hand, some countries still have far to go. According to the Human Development Index, Niger is the least developed country in the world with an HDI of .354. Niger is afflicted with widespread malnutrition and 44.1% of its people live below the poverty line. Additionally, Niger has the highest fertility rate in the world of 6.8 births per woman of childbearing age, which greatly outpaces the country's death rate. As a result, Nigeria's population continues to grow, which increases demand on the country's struggling economy and infrastructure and contributes further to widespread poverty. Droughts have stunted agricultural and economic growth, and the country is plagued by conflict with the militant Islamist group Boko Haram.
Ten Least-Developed Countries in the World by HDI (United Nations 2019 data):
- Niger — .394
- Central African Republic — .397
- Chad — .398
- Burundi — .433 (tie w/ South Sudan)
- South Sudan — .433 (tie w/ Burundi)
- Mali — .434
- Burkina Faso — .452 (tie w/ Sierra Leone)
- Sierra Leone — .452 (tie w/ Burkina Faso)
- Mozambique — .456
- Eritrea — .459