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Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.

Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.

W hy are some countries stu-
pendously rich and others
horrendously poor? So-
cial theorists have been captivated by
this question since the late 18th century,
research methods, suggest otherwise.
We have found strong evidence that ge-
ography plays an important role in shap-
ing the distribution of world income and
economic growth.
ignored them. In the past decade the vast
majority of papers on economic devel-
opment have neglected even the most
obvious geographical realities. Third, if
our findings are true, the policy impli-
when Scottish economist Adam Smith Coastal regions and those near navi- cations are significant. Aid programs
addressed the issue in his magisterial gable waterways are indeed far richer for developing countries will have to be
work The Wealth of Nations. Smith ar- and more densely settled than interior revamped to specifically address the
gued that the best prescription for pros- regions, just as Smith predicted. More- problems imposed by geography. In
perity is a free-market economy in which over, an area’s climate can also affect its particular, we have tried to formulate
the government allows businesses sub- economic development. Nations in trop- new strategies that would help nations
stantial freedom to pursue profits. Over ical climate zones generally face higher in tropical zones raise their agricultural
the past two centuries, Smith’s hypothe- rates of infectious disease and lower productivity and reduce the prevalence
sis has been vindicated by the striking agricultural productivity (especially for of diseases such as malaria.
success of capitalist economies in North staple foods) than do nations in temper-
America, western Europe and East Asia ate zones. Similar burdens apply to the The Geographical Divide
and by the dismal failure of socialist desert zones. The very poorest regions in
planning in eastern Europe and the for-
mer Soviet Union.
Smith, however, made a second no-
the world are those saddled with both
handicaps: distance from sea trade and a
tropical or desert ecology.
T he best single indicator of prosperi-
ty is gross national product (GNP)
per capita— the total value of a coun-
table hypothesis: that the physical geog- A skeptical reader with a basic un- try’s economic output, divided by its
raphy of a region can influence its eco- derstanding of geography might com- population. A map showing the world
nomic performance. He contended that ment at this point, “Fine, but isn’t all of distribution of GNP per capita immedi-
the economies of coastal regions, with this familiar?” We have three respons- ately reveals the vast gap between rich
their easy access to sea trade, usually out- es. First, we go far beyond the basics by and poor nations [see map on page 74].
perform the economies of inland areas. systematically quantifying the contribu- Notice that the great majority of the
Although most economists today follow tions of geography, economic policy poorest countries lie in the geographical
Smith in linking prosperity with free and other factors in determining a na- tropics— the area between the tropic of

R. JANKE Argus Fotoarchiv/Peter Arnold, Inc.

markets, they have tended to neglect the tion’s performance. We have combined Cancer and the tropic of Capricorn. In
role of geography. They implicitly as- the research tools used by geograph- contrast, most of the richest countries lie
sume that all parts of the world have the ers— including new software that can in the temperate zones.
same prospects for economic growth create detailed maps of global popula- A more precise picture of this geo-
and long-term development and that tion density— with the techniques and graphical divide can be obtained by
differences in performance are the result equations of macroeconomics. Second, defining tropical regions by climate
of differences in institutions. Our find- the basic lessons of geography are worth rather than by latitude. The map on
ings, based on newly available data and repeating, because most economists have page 75 divides the world into five

Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.

R. GILING Lineair/Peter Arnold, Inc.
ECONOMIC DISPARITIES can be partly attrib- The importance of access to sea trade patterns. Global production is highly
uted to geography.Coastal temperate-zone is also evident in the world map of GNP concentrated in the coastal regions of
countries such as Germany (opposite page) per capita. Regions far from the sea, temperate climate zones. Regions in the
have lower transportation costs and higher such as the landlocked countries of “temperate-near” category constitute a
farm productivity than landlocked tropical- South America, Africa and Asia, tend to mere 8.4 percent of the world’s inhabited
zone countries such as Uganda (above). be considerably poorer than their coastal land area, but they hold 22.8 percent of
counterparts. The differences between the world’s population and produce 52.9
broad climate zones based on a classifi- coastal and interior areas show up even percent of the world’s GNP. Per capita
cation scheme developed by German cli- more strongly in a world map delineat- income in these regions is 2.3 times
matologists Wladimir P. Köppen and ing GNP density— that is, the amount of greater than the global average, and
Rudolph Geiger. The five zones are trop- economic output per square kilometer population density is 2.7 times greater.
ical-subtropical (hereafter referred to as [see illustration on pages 70 and 71]. In contrast, the “tropical-far” category is
tropical), desert-steppe (desert), temper- This map is based on a detailed survey the poorest, with a per capita GNP only
ate-snow (temperate), highland and po- of global population densities in 1994. about one third of the world average.
lar. The zones are defined by measure- Geographic information system soft-
ments of temperature and precipitation. ware is used to divide the world’s land Interpreting the Patterns
We excluded the polar zone from our area into five-minute-by-five-minute sec-
analysis because it is largely uninhabited.
Among the 28 economies categorized
as high income by the World Bank (with
tions (about 100 square kilometers at
the equator). One can estimate the GNP
density for each section by multiplying
I n our research we have examined three
major ways in which geography af-
fects economic development. First, as
populations of at least one million), its population density and its GNP per Adam Smith noted, economies differ in
only Hong Kong, Singapore and part of capita. Researchers must use national their ease of transporting goods, people
Taiwan are in the tropical zone, repre- averages of GNP per capita when re- and ideas. Because sea trade is less cost-
senting a mere 2 percent of the combined gional estimates are not available. ly than land- or air-based trade, econo-
population of the high-income regions. To make sense of the data, we have mies near coastlines have a great advan-
Almost all the temperate-zone countries classified the world’s regions in broad tage over hinterland economies. The
have either high-income economies (as categories defined by climate and prox- per-kilometer costs of overland trade
in the cases of North America, western imity to the sea. We call a region “near” within Africa, for example, are often an
Europe, Korea and Japan) or middle- if it lies within 100 kilometers of a sea- order of magnitude greater than the
income economies burdened by social- coast or a sea-navigable waterway (a riv- costs of sea trade to an African port.
ist policies in the past (as in the cases of er, lake or canal in which oceangoing Here are some figures we found recent-
eastern Europe, the former Soviet Union vessels can operate) and “far” otherwise. ly: The cost of shipping a six-meter-long
and China). In addition, there is a Regions in each of the four climate zones container from Rotterdam, the Nether-
strong temperate-tropical divide within we analyzed can be either near or far, re- lands, to Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania— an
countries that straddle both types of cli- sulting in a total of eight categories. The air distance of 7,300 kilometers— was
mates. Most of Brazil, for example, lies table on the next page shows how the about $1,400. But transporting the
within the tropical zone, but the richest world’s population, income and land same container overland from Dar-es-
part of the nation— the southernmost area are divided among these regions. Salaam to Kigali, Rwanda— a distance
states— is in the temperate zone. The breakdown reveals some striking of 1,280 kilometers by road— cost Scientific American March 2001 73

Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.
GNP per Capita


inextricably linked. By com-
paring world maps show-
ing GNP per capita (right) Tropic of Cancer

and climate zones (opposite

page),one notices that tem-
perate-zone countries are
generally much more pros-
Data for 1995
perous than tropical-zone
$465 – $1,999
nations.And in each climate Tropic of Capricorn
$2,000 – $4,999
zone, the regions near sea-
$5,000 – $9,999
coasts and waterways are
$10,000 – $15,999
richer than the hinterlands
$16,000 – $44,000
(table below). No data

about $2,500, or nearly twice as much. will therefore constitute a large propor- dry seasons— such as the African savan-
Second, geography affects the preva- tion of that country’s population. With na— farmers must contend with the rap-
lence of disease. Many kinds of infec- so many children, poor families cannot id loss of soil moisture resulting from
tious diseases are endemic to the tropi- invest much in each child’s education. high temperatures, the great variability
cal and subtropical zones. This tends to High fertility also constrains the role of of precipitation, and the ever present
be true of diseases in which the patho- women in society, because child rearing risk of drought. Moreover, tropical envi-
gen spends part of its life cycle outside takes up so much of their adult lives. ronments are plagued with diverse infes-
the human host: for instance, malaria Third, geography affects agricultural tations of pests and parasites that can
(carried by mosquitoes) and helminthic productivity. Of the major food grains— devastate both crops and livestock.
infections (caused by parasitic worms). wheat, maize and rice— wheat grows Many of the efforts to improve food
Although epidemics of malaria have oc- only in temperate climates, and maize output in tropical regions— attempted
curred sporadically as far north as and rice crops are generally more pro- first by the colonial powers and then in
Boston in the past century, the disease ductive in temperate and subtropical cli- recent decades by donor agencies— have
has never gained a lasting foothold in mates than in tropical zones. On aver- ended in failure. Typically the agricultur-
the temperate zones, because the cold age, a hectare of land in the tropics al experts blithely tried to transfer tem-
winters naturally control the mosquito- yields 2.3 metric tons of maize, whereas perate-zone farming practices to the trop-
based transmission of the disease. (Win- a hectare in the temperate zone yields ics, only to watch livestock and crops
ter could be considered the world’s most 6.4 tons. Farming in tropical rain-forest succumb to pests, disease and climate
effective public health intervention.) It is environments is hampered by the fragili- barriers. What makes the problem even
much more difficult to control malaria ty of the soil: high temperatures mineral- more complex is that food productivity
in tropical regions, where transmission ize the organic materials, and the intense in tropical regions is also influenced by
takes place year-round and affects a rainfall leaches them out of the soil. In geologic and topographic conditions that
large part of the population. tropical environments that have wet and vary greatly from place to place. The is-

According to the World Health Orga- land of Java, for example, can support
nization, 300 million to 500 million new highly productive farms because the vol-
cases of malaria occur every year, almost The Wealth of Regions canic soil there suffers less nutrient de-
entirely concentrated in the tropics. The Climate Zone (percent of world total) Near* Far* pletion than the nonvolcanic soil of the
disease is so common in these areas that Tropical neighboring islands of Indonesia.
no one really knows how many people it Land area 19.9% 5.5% 14.4% Moderate advantages or disadvan-
kills annually— at least one million and Population 40.3% 21.8% 18.5% tages in geography can lead to big dif-
perhaps as many as 2.3 million. Wide- GNP 17.4% 10.5% 6.9% ferences in long-term economic per-
spread illness and early deaths obviously Desert formance. For example, favorable agri-
hold back a nation’s economic perform- Land area 29.6% 3.0% 26.6% cultural or health conditions may boost
ance by significantly reducing worker Population 18.0% 4.4% 13.6% per capita income in temperate-zone na-
productivity. But there are also long- GNP 10.1% 3.2% 6.8% tions and hence increase the size of their
term effects that may be amplified over Highland economies. This growth encourages in-
time through various social feedbacks. Land area 7.3% 0.4% 6.9% ventors in those nations to create prod-

For example, a high incidence of dis- Population 6.8% 0.9% 5.9% ucts and services to sell into the larger
GNP 5.3% 0.9% 4.4%
ease can alter the age structure of a coun- and richer markets. The resulting inven-
try’s population. Societies with high lev- Temperate tions further raise economic output,
Land area 39.2% 8.4% 30.9%
els of child mortality tend to have high spurring yet more inventive activity. The
Population 34.9% 22.8% 12.1%
levels of fertility: mothers bear many chil- moderate geographical advantage is
GNP 67.2% 52.9% 14.3%
dren to guarantee that at least some will thus amplified through innovation.
survive to adulthood. Young children * ”Near”means within 100 kilometers of seacoast or
sea-navigable waterway;“far”means otherwise. In contrast, the low food output per

74 Scientific American March 2001 The Geography of Poverty and Wealth

Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.
Climate Zones
tion— than on the technologies needed to
fight tropical diseases and low agricul-
tural productivity. One formidable ob-
stacle is that pharmaceutical companies
have no market incentive to address the
health problems of the world’s poor.
Therefore, wealthier nations should
adopt policies to increase the companies’
motivation to work on vaccines for trop-
ical diseases. In one of our own initia-
tives, we called on the govern-
ments of wealthy nations to foster
greater research and development
Polar by pledging to buy vaccines for
Temperate-snow malaria, HIV/AIDS and tuber-
Desert-steppe culosis from the pharmaceuti-
Tropical-subtropical cal companies at a reasonable
Highland price. Similarly, biotechnology
and agricultural research companies
farm worker in tropical regions tends to tivity and high transportation costs. For need more incentive to study how to im-
diminish the size of cities, which depend example, tropical economies should prove farm output in tropical regions.
on the agricultural hinterland for their strive to diversify production into man- The poorest countries in the world
sustenance. With a smaller proportion ufacturing and service sectors that are surely lack the resources to relieve their
of the population in urban areas, the not hindered by climate conditions. The geographical burdens on their own.
rate of technological advance is usually successful countries of tropical South- Sub-Saharan African countries have per
slower. The tropical regions therefore east Asia, most notably Malaysia, have capita income levels of around $1 a day.
remain more rural than the temperate achieved stunning advances in the past Even when such countries invest as
regions, with most of their economic ac- 30 years, in part by addressing public much as 3 or 4 percent of their GNP in
tivity concentrated in low-technology health problems and in part by moving public health— a large proportion of na-
agriculture rather than in high-technolo- their economies away from climate-de- tional income for a very poor country—
gy manufacturing and services. pendent commodity exports (rubber, the result is only about $10 to $15 per
We must stress, however, that geo- palm oil and so on) to electronics, semi- year per person. This is certainly not
graphical factors are only part of the sto- conductors and other industrial sectors. enough to control endemic malaria,
ry. Social and economic institutions are They were helped by the high concen- much less to fight other rampant dis-
critical to long-term economic perform- tration of their populations in coastal eases such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis
ance. It is particularly instructive to com- areas near international sea lanes and and helminthic infections.
pare the post–World War II performance by the relatively tractable conditions A serious effort at global development
of free-market and socialist economies for the control of malaria and other will require not just better economic
in neighboring countries that share the tropical diseases. Sub-Saharan Africa is policies in the poor countries but far
same geographical characteristics: North not so fortunate: most of its population more financial support from the rich
and South Korea, East and West Ger- is located far from the coasts, and its countries to help overcome the special
many, the Czech Republic and Austria, ecological conditions are harsher on problems imposed by geography. A pre-
and Estonia and Finland. In each case human health and agriculture. liminary estimate suggests that even a
we find that free-market institutions The World Bank and the International modest increase in donor financing of
vastly outperformed socialist ones. Monetary Fund, the two international about $25 billion per year— only 0.1
The main implication of our findings agencies that are most influential in ad- percent of the total GNP of the wealthy
is that policymakers should pay more vising developing countries, currently nations, or about $28 per person—could
attention to the developmental barriers place more emphasis on institutional re- make a tremendous difference in reduc-
associated with geography— specifically, forms— for instance, overhauling a na- ing disease and increasing food produc-
poor health, low agricultural produc- tion’s civil service or its tax administra- tivity in the world’s poorest countries. SA

The Authors Further Information

JEFFREY D. SACHS, ANDREW D. MELLINGER and JOHN L. An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth
GALLUP conducted the research for this article under the auspices of Har- of Nations. Adam Smith. Reprint. Modern Library, 1994.
vard University’s Center for International Development (CID). Sachs is CID’s Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies.
director and serves as an economic adviser to governments in eastern Europe, Jared Diamond. W. W. Norton, 1997.
the former Soviet Union, Latin America, Africa and Asia. Mellinger is a re- The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some Are
search associate at CID specializing in the multidisciplinary application of So Rich and Some So Poor. David S. Landes. W. W. Nor-
geographic information systems. Gallup is founder of, which ton, 1998.
provides free technical support for information technology users and e-com- Additional data and research papers are available at www.cid.
merce in developing countries, and was recently a research fellow at CID. and on the Web. Scientific American March 2001 75

Copyright 2001 Scientific American, Inc.