The Worst Countries In The World

We live in fortunate times. At first glance our age would seem to be characterized by an inexorable, if not unbroken, march toward ever greater freedom and prosperity. More people live in free or liberalizing societies than ever before. More parents can reasonably expect their children to live better lives than they have. More kids can read. More women can work. More countries believe they have a stake in an expanding economic pie.

Yet some nations remain stubbornly out of step with this triumphal global advance. We tend to dismiss them as basket cases--places like Sierra Leone and Afghanistan, Somalia and North Korea. Their problems are so dire, their lots so abysmal, that they seem almost freakish--failed states with little or no relation to the rest of us. These lands penetrate our consciousness only through some astounding statistic--say, the fact that nearly three out of four people in Mali subsist on less than $1 a day--or when some particularly gruesome disaster strikes. Only then do we ask, mostly rhetorically, what can they do to save themselves, and what can the world do to help?

We--and they--need to get serious. In an increasingly interconnected world, many of the problems that plague the earth's worst-off countries threaten us all. Wars, AIDS and other epidemics easily flow--like capital and human beings--across international borders. Even these nations' fundamental woes are simply grotesque forms of the challenges that face all societies to-day. The gap between rich and poor, which has spawned a kidnapping cottage industry in Colombia, is widening in the United States as well. The plight of women in Afghanistan mirrors their struggle in so many countries, from Saudi Arabia to Sudan. Those farmers in Madagascar who raze their own teeming forests in order to grow crops are acting out a debate between development and environmental preservation that is taking place in most every country on earth.

These nations are not lost causes. The weight of history often makes their problems seem insoluble. Africa--not surprisingly, the most represented continent in our list--labors under the legacy of slavery and colonialism, economic backwardness, brutal geography and an unforgiving climate. Indonesia seems doomed to instability because of its artificiality as a nation, pasted together as it is out of dozens of ethnicities and thousands of islands. Yet here and elsewhere much current misery can be traced to specific, identifiable culprits--oppressive leaders, mainly, but also corrupt businessmen, apathetic or irresponsible citizens, fiscal mismanagement.

And that, ironically, is the silver lining. Wherever human agency is to blame for these problems, they can be solved. The cures will vary from place to place. Individuals must be permitted to take charge of their own economic fate. They must be allowed the freedom to express themselves. The rule of law must be established and applied to all, rich and poor, ruler and ruled. Corruption must be stamped out, or at least curbed. Governments must recognize that their most valuable resources are their populace and direct investments in basic education and health care. This is not simply economically wise. It is morally necessary.

Certainly, none of these tasks is easy, or manageable in a short time. In cases like North Korea, the one actor that can alleviate the situation, the state, poses the greatest obstacle to change. But even recent history is full of examples of countries that have been able to turn themselves around: decades ago Uganda, apartheid South Africa and Cambodia would have made our list. No longer. Committed leaders and citizens, aided by an engaged world, can and do work miracles. We look forward to seeing this list grow shorter with each passing year.

... AND THE BOTTOM 10 Benighted nations that plumb the depths of state oppression, poverty and all-round misery 1. NORTH KOREA
A vast gulag where citizens are forced to worship their 'Great Leader,' who lets them die like flies

2. AFGHANISTAN
As if an endless civil war and psychotic regime were not enough, a punishing drought is starving millions

3. SIERRA LEONE
Africa's most brutal war has taken life and limb, literally, from thousands of children

4. SUDAN
Ethnic and religious enmities have so riven the country that it hardly qualifies as a nation at all

5. ANGOLA
A quarter century of civil war--and the rich, feeding off oil profits, are still getting richer

6. TAJIKISTAN
The poorest of the former Soviet republics is torn between a two-bit dictator and disgruntled warlords

7. DEM. REP. OF CONGO
Plagued by every ill of our times: greed, ethnic tension, civil war, foreign aggression, AIDS, poverty

8. ALBANIA
Smuggling is the biggest foreign-exchange earner, and criminal gangs hold more sway than the state

9. HAITI
Misrule and international donor fatigue continue to make a potential Caribbean paradise a hell on earth

10. IRAQ
The worst of both worlds--sanctions have ravaged the economy and Saddam's boot is as heavy as ever