Skip to content

Uneven post-pandemic recovery widens gap between rich and poor

Europe dominates the top rankings as development in half of the world’s poorest nations falls below pre-pandemic levels.

Three tech firms are each valued more than 90% of nations' GDPs.
Three tech firms are each valued more than 90% of nations' GDPs. (AN/Ali Arif Soydaş/Unsplash)

The poorest nations are getting further left behind as the wealthiest ones recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, a new U.N. report finds.

Almost 40% of global trade is concentrated in the richest three or four countries, while Amazon, Apple and Microsoft, the three largest technology companies in 2021, each had a stock market value greater than the GDP of more than 90% of the United Nations' 193 member nations that year, the U.N. Development Program reported on Wednesday.

The report puts Switzerland, Norway and Iceland at the top of the rankings, and Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia at the bottom. Yemen was the only non-African nation in the 10 lowest rankings. UNDP's annual index is meant to show how people are developing – their health, education and standards of living – not just their economies.

"Polarization and distrust are on a collision course with an ailing planet," UNDP's flagship 324-page report says. "Insecurity and inequalities have a lot to do with it. So does a constellation of disempowering narratives that engender defensive fatalism and catastrophic inertia — all circumscribed and, in some sense fueled by, dizzying political polarization."

The widening gap reverses two decades of steadily reducing inequalities between wealthy and poor nations, UNDP chief Achim Steiner says. Finding a solution will depend on international coooperation, he says, particularly in areas like climate, pandemics and artificial intelligence.

“We must leverage our interdependence as well as our capacities to address our shared and existential challenges and ensure people’s aspirations are met,” he says.

The widening gap

The report says half of the people surveyed feel they lack enough control over their lives, and two-thirds believe they have little influence over government decisions.

Nine-in-10 people globally endorse democracy, but more than half show support for leaders that may undermine it. Nations with populist governments have lower GDP growth rates; some 15 years after a populist government takes office, the per-capita GDP per capita falls 10%.

All 38 countries that belong to the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's mostly wealthy and industrialized member nations have higher scores than before the pandemic.

By contrast, 18 of the 35 least developed countries that declined in the index last year have not yet recovered to their pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

The effects of war and long-term conflict also are evident. The report shows, for instance, that Afghanistan has been set back by a decade of development, while Ukraine has dropped to its lowest level since 2004.

UNDP'S report also calls for more spending on global public goods that benefit all of humanity by helping to keep the planet from overheating, sharing new beneficial technologies and making the global financial system fairer for everyone.

The top 10 rankings were for Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Sweden, Germany and Ireland (tied for seventh), Singapore, and Australia and the Netherlands (tied for 10th place).

The bottom 10 rankings were for Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso, Yemen, Burundi, Mali, Chad, Niger, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Somalia.