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Poorest Countries in South America 2024

Snapshot

  • Currently the poorest in Latin America, Bolivia has shown significant progress in recent years, reducing its extreme poverty rate from 38.2% in 2006 to 15.2% in 2019.

  • Many of the poorest nations in South America depend heavily on one or a few key commodities, which makes their economies vulnerable to global price fluctuations. Examples are Bolivia with minerals and Venezuela with oil.

  • A vast income disparity plagues such countries as Suriname, Venezuela, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

One of the quickest ways to get an idea of the overall quality of life in a given country is to examine its national income. This can be done on a national level using statistics such as total gross domestic product (GDP), gross national product (GNP), or gross national income (GNI) per country. However, it is arguably more insightful to examine income on a per-person level using indicators such as GDP per capita and GNI per capita. Overall, high-income countries tend to be the most developed and have the highest standards of living, while middle-income and low-income countries tend to be developing and least-developed countries. Even the richest countries in South America are considered part of the global south, though the poorest countries in South America are often still wealthier than the poorest countries in Africa or the world.

Countries in South America from Poorest to Wealthiest by GNI per capita, Atlas method (current US$):*

Country
Atlas Method
Bolivia$3,450
Suriname$4,880
Paraguay$5,920
Ecuador$6,310
Colombia$6,510
Peru$6,770
Brazil$8,140
Argentina$11,620
Guyana$15,050
Chile$15,360
Uruguay$18,030

*Notes: As South America includes 11 countries total, the charts shown include the entire continent, from the poorest countries in South America to the wealthiest. All data are from 2021 with the exception of Venezuela, whose data ranges from 2011-2014.

Countries in South America from Poorest to Wealthiest by GNI per capita, PPP (current international $):

Country
PPP (int)
Bolivia$9,400
Ecuador$12,630
Peru$14,080
Paraguay$15,540
Suriname$16,080
Brazil$17,260
Colombia$19,490
Argentina$26,030
Uruguay$26,290
Chile$28,550
Guyana$37,710

Profiles of South America's poorest countries

Bolivia

Bolivia is the poorest nation in Latin America by any measure. High unemployment and underemployment are rampant in Bolivia, and more than 80% of the nation’s population lives in poverty. However, Bolivia is improving. In 2006, a full 38.2% of the population was considered to be living in extreme poverty, in contrast to 15.2% as of 2019. Bolivia's overall poverty rate is already lower than that of Mexico. The nation has also achieved the highest economic growth, fiscal stability, and foreign reserves in all of Latin America over the past several years. As a result of these trends, there exists a reasonable expectation that the country will one day give up its last-place status.

Suriname

The smallest independent country in South America, Suriname has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, which indicates a very large degree of income inequality. In 2002, the CIA estimated that 70% of the country's population lived below the poverty line. Suriname's main exports are aluminum oxide and gold (the latter of which made up nearly 80% of the country's total exports in 2019), which renders the country highly vulnerable to market fluctuations in the mineral market. Other exports include oil, lumber, bananas, rice, and shrimp. According to the World Bank, 26% of people in Suriname live on less than US$5.50 per day. Roughly 5% live in extreme poverty on less than US$1.90 per day.

Venezuela

A 2020-21 survey made headlines with the finding that 76.6% of Venezuelans lived in extreme poverty. While that percentage improved to 50.5% by 2022, Venezuela remains mired in significant poverty. The main causes of poverty in Venezuela include political corruption and dysfunction, poor policy decisions, and a high dependence on oil exports, which ties the economy's stability too closely to the fluctuating price of oil. Venezuela is also beset by hyperinflation, political unrest, and one of the highest crime rates in the world.

Paraguay

Paraguay faces high income inequality, with a Gini coefficient in the 45-46 range. According to the Borgen Project, the richest 10% of people in Paraguay earn 37.1% of the income, while the poorest 40% of people earn a total of 12.5% of the income. Part of this imbalance is due to the agricultural sector, in which 90% of the land is owned by only 5% of the people. Production is dominated by large corporate farms that funnel wealth to only a few people, as opposed to smaller independent farms that spread the profits more evenly. Moreover, 94% of the land is used to grow crops for export, with only 6% used for the production of domestic food, which puts stress on the food supply chain. Fewer than 40% of Paraguayans complete their secondary education, and indigenous Paraguayans are particularly prone to poverty and malnutrition. On a positive note, by 2017, 94% of rural Paraguayans had access to safe drinking water, a major improvement from the 2000 percentage of just 51.6%.

Ecuador

Like the economies of many poor South American countries, Ecuador's economy relies heavily on the export of crude oil, which makes up 30-40% of the country's annual exports. The faltering of global oil prices in the mid-2010s is credited with triggering a national recession in Ecuador in 2016. Ecuador's agricultural sector is another major economic contributor thanks to crops including cocoa, flowers, and bananas, but agricultural workers earn less and are more likely to enter into poverty than workers in most other sectors. Ecuador stabilized its inflation-ridden economy in 2000 by retiring its own currency, the sucre, and adopting the US dollar as its official currency. The stability this move enabled is credited for dropping Ecuador's poverty rate from 72.7% in 2000 to a low of 23.3% in 2017.

Peru

Poverty in Peru has decreased significantly in the past 15+ years, falling from 58.7% in 2004 to 20.2% in 2019. The country has numerous trade agreements with such nations and political entities as China, Brazil, the EU, and the United States. Peru exports a wide variety of goods and services including copper, silver, gold, zinc, medicines, chemicals, machinery, avocadoes, blueberries, asparagus, and fish as well as fish meal. The country has also adopted economic policies that make it attractive to foreign investors. Income inequality is still a concern, and Peru's economy and people were among those hit hardest by the COVID-19 pandemic. The loss of life and employment caused by the health crisis contributed to an uptick in poverty in 2020 (from 20.6% to 32.9%) from which the country had not yet fully recovered as of late 2022.

Source

The main source of data used in this article - the World Bank - provides comprehensive yet not exhaustive or definitive data on South American countries. Thus, reports on some countries must rely on expert estimates.

  • GNI per capita is gross national income (GNI) divided by mid-year population. GNI is the gross domestic product (GDP) plus net primary income from abroad. GDP is the sum of the value of all goods and services rendered by a country's residents.
  • PPP GNI is gross national income converted to international dollars using purchasing power parity rates. An international dollar is a theoretical monetary unit that has the same purchasing power over GNI as a U.S. dollar in the United States.

Download Table Data

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Country
Per Capita (IMF '24)
Per Capita (UN '21)
PPP (int)
Atlas Method
Venezuela$3,481$4,399
Bolivia$3,926$3,502$9,400$3,450
Paraguay$6,595$6,006$15,540$5,920
Ecuador$6,616$6,260$12,630$6,310
Suriname$6,897$5,759$16,080$4,880
Colombia$7,376$6,571$19,490$6,510
Peru$8,144$6,996$14,080$6,770
Brazil$10,712$8,822$17,260$8,140
Argentina$13,120$13,703$26,030$11,620
Chile$16,978$15,295$28,550$15,360
Uruguay$24,130$20,790$26,290$18,030
Guyana$25,840$17,958$37,710$15,050

What is the poorest country in South America?

Bolivia currently ranks as South America's poorest country. Approximately 80% of the population of Bolivia lives in poverty.

Frequently Asked Questions

Sources