Digital Guyana

Some thoughts on Guyana and poverty

Posted on: July 29, 2009

One thing that has struck me since I arrived in Guyana is the low levels of visible poverty compared to other developing countries I’ve been to. Georgetown doesn’t have the seemingly endless slums of Nairobi, Mumbai or Johannesburg. There are no glue-sniffing street children, no smoldering piles of rubbish and no pot holes in the streets.

But Guyana is a poor country, isn’t it?

Looking up countries by GDP per capita (according to the IMF), I see that Guyana is in 126st place, behind war-torn countries such as Sudan, Sri Lanka and Iraq and just one ahead of India. Even adjusted for purchasing power parity (GDP based on what you can actually buy, as living on a dollar a day is very different in, for example, Sri Lanka and the United States), Guyana is only two places ahead of Congo and far behind countries such as Angola and Swaziland.

Something doesn’t seem right here. Is Guyana poorer than Sudan? Are income levels really a good poverty indicator?

To get a better idea, I decided to have a look at the United Nations’ Human Development Index (HDI). The index, which is published every year, takes into account a range of factors other than income, such as life expectancy at birth, school enrolment, literacy, access to clean water and so on.

In the most recent Human Development Index, Guyana has a higher ranking for every single other indicator than it does for GDP per capita.

In terms of Human Poverty, Guyana is in 52nd place, in terms of access to clean water 32nd place, in terms of life expectancy at birth 37nd place and in terms of school enrolment 75th place. Its got an adult litercy rate of 99.5%, which is the same as Italy and higher than Spain, Portugal and Hungary.

Compare this with Sudan who comes in 101st place in terms of Human Poverty, in 89th place on access to clean water, 144th place on life expectancy and 168th place on school enrolment. In addition, its level of adult literacy is only 39.9%.

So Guyana is clearly doing much better than countries that had a higher GDP per capita such as Sudan. But what could cause a country to have a high GDP per capita, but score badly on a range of development indicators?

A plausible explanation could be that it has a high level of inequality – a small number of people with an extremely high income and a large number of poor people with a small income. This would be the case in oil-rich Sudan which has experienced many years of devastating civil war.

To test this, I had a look at a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient. In this, Guyana comes in 89th place, 7 places ahead of the United States and ahead of most other South American and Latin American countries.

So Guyana is doing fairly well on a range of development indicators and also has quite an equal society (well, more equal than the US, at least). But is all well?

Unfortunately not. Despite doing well, compared to some other developing countries, in areas such as literacy, school enrolment, access to clean water and life expectancy, there is a lot of poverty in the country. This is particularly true if you look at poverty as a relative measure (it’s not the same to be poor in the UK as it is to be poor in Zambia).

According to the World Bank, 47% of the population is classified as poor (having an income of less than 47,500 Guyanese dollars a month – eight times the  international poverty line of a US dollar a day) with 29% classified as ‘extremely poor’.

Most of Guyana’s poor live in rural areas, with the majority of the ‘extremely poor’ living in the interior. I guess that would be why I’ve not seen that much of it – we’ve spent most of our time in Georgetown. But  it’s also true that the 47% ofthe population living below the Guyanese poverty line of $8 a day are not as poor in absolute terms as the slum dwellers of India or East Africa living below $1 a day with no education or access to clean water.

Compared to many African countries  Guyana is far ahead. And hopefully with higher level skills projects such as the one we are doing, we can help it even further along.


10 Responses to "Some thoughts on Guyana and poverty"

Hey Pontus,

This is really good stuff- equivalent to an economist analysis of Guyana. One explanation for the difference in income versus other development indicators has to do with Guyana’s mastery of producing low GDPs so as to appear poorer since there are incentives to be had. I guess to get a better picture of income in Guyana you should look up the us country report on Guyana.I understand they have estimated our GDP to be higher than our Bureau of stats has declared.

Thanks Wayne. Interesting thoughts.

Guyana’s GDP per capita (PPP that is) estimated by the CIA is $3,900 ( which is actually lower than the one estimated by the IMF of $4,035 (the figure I was using –

The Guyanese government doesn’t seem to publish GDP per capita (PPP) but in terms of nominal GDP per capita, they say it’s $1,233, which is, as you say, less than the IMF figure of $1,480.

[…] the misfortune of having to search one of them was when I used the Human Development Index to write a post on poverty in Guyana a couple of months ago. It was a […]

You report “no smoldering piles of rubbish and no pot holes in the streets” — are you kidding? To those (first observed when walking along the Lamaha “canal” and High streets), add constantly overflowing rubbish bins (including along the street in front of the president’s house and throughout the Botanical Garden) and trash strewn along roadsides (sidewalks are few and far between), open sewers with a stench that wafts over the city when the wind is off the Atlantic (frequently), and dirt continually swirling through the air. To these add horrific, constantly honking traffic and you have a multi-sensory experience (witnessed first-hand 28, 29, 30 Dec 2009 and again 16, 17 Jan 2010) that will not soon be forgotten. Time for you to reassess the city of Georgetown!

I am from Guyana and i completely agree with you.The open sewers throughout the city and even in the so-called best neighborhoods are disgusting and breeds all kinds of diseases and mosquitoes.I can understand trying to preserve the architecture of the country but the World Health Organization should step in and request that the government of Guyana install covered drains and eliminate all open sewers.The honking traffic is ridiculously out of control and the mini bus drivers have little regard for human life.Guyanese are not the kind of people to get together and get things done.As long as they get what they want they couldn’t care less about the rest of the country.I am speaking as a Guyanese and it;s shameful.Crime is out of control and yet the government is promoting tourism.Make the country safe and then encourage business and tourism.Not to mention a country with water everywhere but none good enough to drink.The water supply system was better in the 60’s than it is now.Priorities do not exist and neither the government nor the people are willing to sacrifice the years it will take to improve the quality of life in Guyana.A new hotel or restaurant is no substitute for clean drinking water and more policemen on the streets.I could go on and on but i am sure you get the terrible picture by now.Just recently an elderly couple came home to Guyana from the U.S.A for the first time in 20 years were robbed at gunpoint of all of their luggage,money and jewellery even befor they exited the taxi at their destination.Yes the poverty is there.But because of their pride you do not know it unless you ask.

i agree with ur comment 100% and i havent been there since 2007.. but i am going again in 2009 to do research on Guyanese perspectives on how these things contribute to the frequent flooding of the Georgetown…

There are glue/gasoline sniffing children, but they are off the beaten path along with the crack users, they tend to be less visible, because the police clamp down heavy on users, more than the drug lords. Drug abuse is an escalating problem in Guyana. Guyana is quickly moving from being just into trafficking drugs, to a consumer of drugs.

You all need to stand back and assess the situation as the writer did. I am also a Guyanese and honestly speaking i have to agree with some of the comments you all made but to be so sensitive is not worth the effort. Read the article again and try to find the marrow of the story. This brings me to say that one reason why Guyana is such a mess is the illiterate inhabitants like some of the responses here.

Amen such a good response….ignorant is not a bliss and pure narrow mindedness of some of the response from the Guyanese are shameful …maybe if they travelled out of Guyana and see some of the world’s poorest then they will appreciate what they have,,,and yes I have been to Guyana and other parts of the word so I wholly appreciate what the author said and his honest observation it was my sentiment also when I visited.

One thing that has struck me since I arrived in Guyana is the low levels of visible poverty compared to other developing countries I’ve been to. Georgetown doesn’t have the seemingly endless slums of Nairobi, Mumbai or Johannesburg. There are no glue-sniffing street children, no smoldering piles of rubbish and no pot holes in the streets.

But Guyana is a poor country, isn’t it?

…Guyana? our Guyana? definitely not the Guyana i live in…no glue-sniffing street children, no smoldering piles of rubbish and no pot holes in the streets. Nice try.

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