Asia is the largest continent on Earth. Spanning over 17.2 million square miles (44.58 square kilometers), Asia comprises about 30% of Earth's total land area and 8.7% of Earth's total surface area. It also serves as home to more than 4.6 billion people as of June 2019. Asia contains 49 countries—though that number is open to interpretation—as well as a handful of sovereign territories and special administrative regions.
Many of Asia's countries are influential global figures, including China, India, Japan, and South Korea. China and India have the world's largest populations, with 1.44 billion and 1.39 billion people, respectively. They also boast two of the largest economies in the world. China's economy is the largest in Asia and second-largest globally, while India's ranks second-largest in Asia and fifth-largest globally. Other countries in Asia are notably less prosperous. There are several metrics that can be used to measure the financial health of a given country, including GDP per capita, GDP per capita (PPP), and GNI per capita. While each method is slightly different, their results are remarkably consistent. While the order may change, every method pinpoints the same 12 countries as the poorest countries in Asia.
Top 13 poorest countries in Asia (World Bank, by 2020 GDP per capita, current US$)*
*For comparison: United States ($63,543.60)
Top 13 poorest countries in Asia (by 2020 GNI per capita, Atlas Method)
- Afghanistan ($500)
- Yemen ($940 [estimated])
- Tajikistan ($1060)
- Kyrgyzstan ($1160)
- Nepal ($1190)
- Myanmar ($1260)
- Pakistan ($1280)
- North Korea ($1286 [estimated])
- Cambodia ($1490)
- Uzbekistan ($1670)
- Syria ($1820 [estimated])
- Timor-Leste ($1830)
- India ($1900)
*For comparison: United States ($65,910.00)
While their relative positions vary, the countries included do not.
Profiles: The poorest countries in Asia
This mountainous nation is burdened by ongoing armed conflict, government corruption, and prolific income inequality. After the United States and United Nations withdrew their troops in mid-2021, the Taliban retook control of Afghanistan's government. While the long-term impact of this change on Afghanistan's economic situation has yet to be seen, the Taliban's ongoing conflicts with ISIL, as well as its forcible shuttering of female-owned businesses and refusal to allow girls to attend school, are widely viewed as conditions unlikely to lead to a more robust and stable economy.
North Korea may actually be the poorest country in Asia, but the nation's notoriously secretive government rarely shares its data, so economists much rely upon expert estimates. Poverty in North Korea is attributed to poor governance by the totalitarian regime. The free market is nearly non-existent in North Korea. As of 2020, it is estimated that some 60% of North Korea's population lives below the poverty line.
Nepal's poverty is due to political instability and corruption, a lack of industry, and its dependence on agriculture. Despite being rich in natural resources, Nepal has not utilized and capitalized on its resources by exporting them to other countries.
By most any measure, Tajikistan consistently ranks as the second- or third-poorest country in Asia. A lack of infrastructure stagnates Tajikistan's economy. Many skilled people leave the country to search for better work opportunities, leaving Tajikistan with one of the world's largest remittance economies. Additionally, Tajikistan's civil war during the 1990s destroyed approximately one-fifth of schools in the country, taking away children's ability to receive an education, one of the largest factors in reducing poverty.
Yemen is ranked 168th out of 177 countries on the United Nations' Human Development Index (HDI), which indicates that Yemen is one of the world's least-developed nations. Yemen's poverty stems from its ongoing civil war, corruption, and economic mismanagement. Because of the civil war, more and more Yemen residents are falling below the poverty line. About 79% of the population lives under the poverty line, and 65% classify as extremely poor.
Ranked by GDP per capita (current US$), Kyrgyzstan is the fifth-poorest country in Asia. About 32% of Kyrgyzstan's population lives below the poverty line. The largest causes of poverty in Kyrgyzstan are its dependence on agriculture and the gaps in knowledge and resources among its people. Kyrgyzstan also has few natural resources that are desirable to the rest of the world, and can only export cotton and tobacco. Additionally, many areas of Kyrgyzstan lack adequate banking and financial services, which prevents people from investing and hinders economic growth.
Cambodia has very few human resources and widespread income inequality. Despite recent economic achievements, the country continues to struggle with poverty, and the government has done little to build the necessary infrastructure required to lift millions of its people out of impoverishment.
About 26% of Myanmar's population lives in poverty, particularly in rural areas, where about 70% of the population lives. The main factors contributing to slow economic growth are poor government planning, internal unrest, the lack of foreign investment, a large trade deficit, and inadequate infrastructure and know-how to take advantage of the country's natural resources.
Syria rarely shares official economic data, so economists must rely on their best estimates—which paint a bleak picture. About 80% of Syrians lived at or below the poverty level as of 2017, a 45% increase since 2007. The main cause of the sharp rise in poverty is the Syrian Civil War, which has destroyed health care infrastructure and educational facilities. Education is one of the best ways out of poverty, and roughly 50% of Syrian children no longer attend school because of the conflict. In recent years, Syria has also experienced very high levels of inflation, reaching its highest level of 121.29% in 2014.
Although Pakistan is very rich in natural resources, some 40% of its population lives in extreme poverty. Reasons for this dysfunction include governmental corruption and elitism, religious and secular conflict, and a lack of democratic ideals. The country also spends the largest part of its national expenditures on defense, spending only 2.6% of its total GDP on education. As a result, roughly half of Pakistan's people are uneducated.
Despite having the fifth-largest economy globally in terms of GDP, about 21% of India's population (269 million people) lives below the poverty line. Causes for poverty in India include illiteracy, gender discrimination, unequal distribution of wealth, and the countries ever-increasing population.
A former member of the Soviet Union, Uzbekistan is an up-and-coming producer of commodities including gold, copper, uranium, petroleum gas, cotton, and grapes. However, thanks to rampant bureaucratic corruption, the profits from these industries are largely going into the pockets of a small subset of citizens. This corruption, along with the income inequality it engenders, is considered by economists to be a major obstacle in the country's journey out of poverty.
Having just become independent from Indonesia in 2002, this half-island nation in the South Pacific (which could easily be considered part of Oceania rather than Asia) is still developing. While Timor-Leste (also called East Timor) exports substantial amounts of coffee, as well as marble, sandalwood, and a growing amount of oil and gas, many of its citizens still rely upon subsistence farming. A rudimentary legal system, low-but-improving adult literacy rate, and particularly poor telecommunications infrastructure are often cited as additional impediments to economic growth.