Underdeveloped countries: what they are and examples

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Underdeveloped countriesare those with low performance in social and income indicators. They are also characterized by an economy that is highly dependent on the primary and tertiary sectors, with a industry poorly developed.

Social inequalities are quite accentuated in underdeveloped countries, which is reflected in the three criteria determined by the UN for the identification of these countries. Such criteria are per capita income, human capital and economic and environmental vulnerability. Located in Africa, Niger is currently the country with the lowest development rate in the world.

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Topics in this article

  • 1 - Summary on underdeveloped countries
  • 2 - What are the characteristics of underdeveloped countries?
  • 3 - Criteria for the classification of underdeveloped countries
  • 4 - Which are the most underdeveloped countries in the world?
  • 5 - Underdeveloped countries in America
  • 6 - Underdeveloped countries x developed countries
  • 7 - Is Brazil underdeveloped?
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Summary on underdeveloped countries

  • Underdeveloped countries are characterized by incipient industrialization, poor income distribution and high socio-environmental vulnerability to which they are subject.

  • Its economy is based on the sectors primary and tertiary. In addition, they are highly dependent on foreigners, that is, on other countries.

  • They have a low human development index.

  • They are also called “least developed countries” by the UN.

  • The UN established three criteria for the identification of underdeveloped countries: per capita income, human capital index and economic and environmental vulnerability.

  • The HDI is also used to determine a country's development.

  • Niger is the most underdeveloped country in the world according to the HDI.

  • In the Americas, Haiti is the country with the lowest development rate.

  • Brazil has some characteristics of underdeveloped countries (poor income distribution, high poverty, hunger), while in some respects its classification is closer to that of developed countries (HDI, industrialization well developed). It is considered a developing country.

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What are the characteristics of underdeveloped countries?

Underdeveloped countries, which are called least developed countries in the United Nations (UN) classification, are characterized by low economic development and high social, economic and environmental vulnerability to which they are subject.

It is a group of nations that has a deep social inequality and very unequal income distribution, marked by the large number of people living below the poverty line. Industrialization in underdeveloped countries is incipient, and the technology used in secondary sector is limited. The economy of these territories is based on agricultural and livestock activities and resource exploitation. natural resources, therefore from the primary sector, as well as commerce and services, which make up the sector tertiary.

Therefore, these countries are very dependent on developed countries and in development to obtain certain resources and goods. Dependence in some of these territories also appears in the form of humanitarian aid from specialized agencies of the United Nations and other non-governmental organizations and bodies operating in the International.

Another characteristic of underdeveloped countries is the low human development index, which is the result of aspects such as infant and general mortality at levels above the world average, rapid population growth, low life expectancy and problems in strategic sectors such as education.

In addition to the social fragility and economic vulnerability in which they find themselves, underdeveloped countries are also highly vulnerable to the environment., which can be understood through different prisms, such as the highly populated areas that contrast with the scarcity of arable land, the frequent occurrence of natural disasters that affect the population and the infrastructure territory and the large number of people living in areas with extreme climates, for example.

Read too: The 20 biggest countries in the world

Criteria for the classification of underdeveloped countries

The UN classification is the main one used to determine the level of development of countries. To place a country in the category of underdevelopment, three criteria are taken into account.: per capita income, human capital index and economic and environmental vulnerability.

  • Per capita income: it is a widely used criterion for classifying the development of a country. According to the UN, which follows the parameters of the world Bank, are considered underdeveloped countries in which the per capita income is below the limit of 1,018 dollars per year, according to values ​​updated in the year 2021.

  • Human capital index: a country's human capital is assessed through six indicators, which fall into two broad areas, which are health and education. The first are under-five mortality, malnutrition and maternal mortality. The second takes into account the adult literacy rate, those enrolled in secondary education and gender parity at this stage of education.

  • Economic and environmental vulnerability: This criterion assesses the impacts of economic and environmental shocks, such as natural disasters, on the infrastructure and for the country's population, in addition to the correlation between the availability of resources and the population. In the case of underdeveloped countries, imbalances in the economy and natural disasters generate more serious and lasting consequences due to social and infrastructure fragility.

OHuman development Index (HDI) is also a criterion used to classify developed or underdeveloped countries. Underdeveloped countries are those whose HDI value is closest to 0, commonly below 0.550.

What are the most underdeveloped countries in the world?

The UN maintains a list of underdeveloped countries currently composed of 46 nations. Based on this relationship, we present below the ten least developed countries in the world, indicating the most recent value of their HDI|1| and also the per capita income of each of them|2|.



GDP per capita (in dollars)




Central African Republic






Southern Sudan









Sierra Leone












Underdeveloped countries in America

Urban landscape in the commune of Cap-Haïtien, in Haiti, the least developed country on the American continent. [2]
Urban landscape in the commune of Cap-Haïtien, in Haiti, the least developed country on the American continent. [2]

OHaiti is the country with O lower development rate of American continent. Located in Central America, the Haitian territory is bathed by the Caribbean Sea and borders another country that is also considered underdeveloped, the Dominican Republic.

Your HDI is 0.510, occupying the position of number 170 in the world ranking. The Haitian per capita income corresponds to 1,670 dollars. Despite having higher income than part of the underdeveloped countries, Haiti is characterized by deep income inequality between the richest and poorest part of their population. Recent data indicate that almost 60% of Haitians live below the poverty line.

The country has a history of dozens of military coups and profound political instability that directly affect its socioeconomic structure. Added to this is the fact that it is located in a region very affected by earthquakes and climatic and atmospheric phenomena such as hurricanes, which are responsible for the destruction of part of the country's infrastructure and cause thousands of victims when they occur, deepening the existing problems.

Read too: World hunger — problem that affects more than 800 million people around the planet

Underdeveloped countries vs developed countries

Underdeveloped countries and developed countries have contrasting characteristics. As we have studied so far, the first group of countries is characterized by low development and poor distribution of income among its population, which tends to present a majority living below the line of poverty. In developed countries, the average income is high, and the distribution happens more evenly.

Unlike underdeveloped countries, the industry is well established in developed countries, employing a high level of technology in the production processes. In the most developed economies of the world, the basis of national income lies in the tertiary sectors and quaternary, which comprises activities associated with research, technology, information and development.

You developed countries set the pace of the international economy, being in a position of greater influence in the world economic and financial system. In addition, they have good social indicators, which is partly reflected in their HDI, with values ​​closer to 1, unlike underdeveloped countries, whose values ​​are close to 0. Examples of developed countries and territories are:

  • Norway;

  • Ireland;

  • Switzerland;

  • Iceland;

  • Hong Kong.

Is Brazil underdeveloped?

There are several ways to assess a country's level of development, taking into account very different criteria that do not always reach the same conclusions. O Brazilis often classified as an underdeveloped country. This is due to some of the characteristics similar to aspects of this group of countries, such as the unequal distribution of income among the population, the increase in poverty and hunger and the large participation of the primary and tertiary sectors in the economy.

However, Brazil It is also an industrialized country, with a highly diversified secondary sector in the process of expansion, still showing great regional economic influence, notably in the South America and among the countries of the so-called Global South.

Brazilian socioeconomic indicators are at medium levels, namely:

  • HDI: 0.765, in 84th place worldwide.

  • per capita GDP: 8,570 dollars.

Thus, Brazil is framed in the category of developing countries, also called emerging countries, alongside names like China, Russia, India, Mexico, Argentina, Chile and South Africa.


|1| UNDP Human Development Reports: Human Development Insights, 2020. Available here.

|2| MFI Data mapper: GDP, current prices. IMF, 2022. Available here.

image credits

[1] catay / shutterstock

[1] Rotorhead 30A Productions / shutterstock

By Paloma Guitarrara
Geography teacher

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