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A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

‘Second Poorest’ Nation?

In a September 10 press conference, President Barack Obama characterized Afghanistan as "the second poorest country in the world." It’s an impoverished country indeed, but second poorest? The CIA World Factbook doesn’t think so.

It lists Afghanistan as number 210 of 227, with a per capita gross domestic product of $1,000 in 2009. That’s orders of magnitude lower than the richest country, Liechtenstein, with a GDP of $122,100 per person — but it’s much higher than the per capita GDP of the actual second poorest country, Burundi, with $300. The Democratic Republic of the Congo ranks last. The International Monetary Fund puts Afghanistan at 170 of 183 nations based on purchasing power parity per capita GDP. (PPP takes into account not only how much money a country makes, but what that money can buy.)

So what gives? The White House tells us that the president was referring to the United Nations’ 2009 Human Development Report, which lists Afghanistan as number 181 of 182 in terms of human development. But the United Nations Development Programme, which compiles the report, is very clear that it’s not just measuring poverty:

HDR website: Human Development is a development paradigm that is about much more than the rise or fall of national incomes. It is about creating an environment in which people can develop their full potential and lead productive, creative lives in accord with their needs and interests. People are the real wealth of nations. Development is thus about expanding the choices people have to lead lives that they value. And it is thus about much more than economic growth, which is only a means — if a very important one — of enlarging people’s choices.

The HDR ranking takes into account educational and life expectancy indicators, as well as income. It’s a more complex way of measuring a country’s advancement than GDP or PPP, but it’s not accurate to call it a measure of how poor a country is. If Obama had called Afghanistan the "second least-developed country," we wouldn’t have had a quibble — that accurately reflects what the HDR is measuring. Calling it the "second poorest" does not.