Across Southeast Asia, more than 1 billion people live on less than $2 US per day. At first glance, it seems surprising that Southeast Asia would suffer from so much poverty. After all, the region is blessed with a lengthy growing season, increasing manufacturing and trade as Chinese goods become more expensive, and booming tourism thanks to abundant natural beauty and outstanding cultural sites.
Some nations in the region, Malaysia and Singapore in particular, have healthy economies and low poverty rates. Others, such as Thailand and the Philippines, are well on their way to recovery after severe set-backs during the disastrous Asian Financial Crisis of 1998. Nations such as Cambodia, Laos, Burma, and East Timor, however, rank near the bottom of global development lists.
According to the World Bank, 37% of Southeast Asia's population lives in direst poverty, surviving on less than $1 a day. Southeast Asia is second only to sub-Saharan Africa in the percentage of its people who live in poverty, and, with its larger total population, the number of impoverished people is actually higher than Africa's.
Why are so many Southeast Asians in poverty, despite recent development gains? A number of factors contribute to this situation.
UNEVEN DISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH
As Southeast Asian economies have risen and produced unprecedented amounts of wealth, poverty rates have not declined as much as expected. In large part this is due to the uneven distribution of that wealth.
Much of the disparity is between rich city folk and poor country dwellers, although there are poverty-stricken people in city slums as well. For example, the average resident of Bangkok, Thailand makes twenty times as much money as their counterpart in the rural north-east of the country.
The inequality of development often has an ethnic overtone, as well. Members of disadvantaged groups, such as the "hill tribes" peoples of Thailand, Burma, and Vietnam, are far more likely to be living in poverty than ethnic Thais, Burmese, and Vietnamese are.
WAR AND POOR GOVERNANCE
Armed conflict and disastrous governmental policies are two related causes of poverty in some of the poorest countries in the region. In Burma (sometimes called "Myanmar"), the ruling junta spends 40% of its budget on the armed forces, despite the fact that more than 90% of the population lives in abject poverty. The Burmese junta uses its well-equipped army to crush protests over the high cost of food.
East Timor, which finally broke free from Indonesia in 2002 after a prolonged and bloody independence struggle, has one of the lowest per capita GDPs in the world, at about $800 US per year.
Cambodia is still struggling to recover from the rule of the murderous Khmer Rouge in the 1970s and 80s, which left as many as 3 million Cambodians dead (including nearly all of the educated people). The nation's economic, cultural, and social lives were utterly shattered by the insane policies of the Khmer Rouge. As a result, the country has a poverty rate of around 40%.
When it comes to natural disasters, few areas of the world have as many threats as Southeast Asia. Positioned along both the seismically active Pacific Ring of Fire, and the deadly Pacific Typhoon Alley, Southeast Asia gets more than its fair share of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, typhoons, tsunamis, landslides, and floods.
Everyone remembers the Southeast Asian Earthquake and Tsunami of December 26, 2004, which left about 130,000 people dead and destroyed the livelihoods of hundreds of thousands more. In terms of economic impact, however, this particular disaster probably did not impoverish as many people as less-famous disasters. The outpouring of financial help from around the world off-set much of the financial damage done by the tsunami.
Other disasters, smaller in scope and thus less likely to provoke major aid efforts, have had a much more lasting impact on poverty rates. These include the magnitude 8.7 earthquake in Nias, Indonesia in 2005 that killed about 1,000 people, the typhoon-induced landslides of 2006 in the Philippines that killed 1,800 people and carried away whole villages, and earthquake and tsunami in Java that same year that killed 4,830 people Plus various floods, droughts, wildfires, etc.
The economic impact of all these disasters on affected villages can be devastating. Survivors who once made comfortable livings from their farms or small shops often lose everything, and don't have insurance or sufficient savings to start over.
In the 50 years since the end of colonialism in Southeast Asia, the region has suffered through civil wars, military coups, the Asian Financial Crisis of 1998, and one natural disaster after another. Despite all of this, many of the countries in the region have made significant progress in their quest to raise their citizens out of poverty. Hopefully, the next 50 years will see poverty levels continue to drop, and better governance in places like Burma and Laos.