Why do most hot countries remain poor?

In my first post in this thread, Pakistan is Never Boring, I introduced the key role that engineers have in economic development. In this series, I will explain how my research journey has led me to an understanding on what seems to be preventing economic and social development in countries like Pakistan and how engineers might remove most of the impediments. Pakistan is one of many countries experiencing an extremely hot climate, possibly the hottest on the planet, for several months every year. It also has cold winter months too.

Have you ever wondered why hot countries tend to be less prosperous, with some notable exceptions?  

Think of India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia with more than a quarter of the world’s population. Then think of countries in Africa such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Ghana, North and South Sudan, Kenya, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and many others.

There are also some cold countries that are poor too. Russia today is a relatively poor country.

Of course, measurable economic wealth is not necessarily related to happiness, but it certainly helps with health and education.

The image shows a world map showing GDP per person (There are some  white gaps in the map where no data is available for countries such as North Korea, Afghanistan and Somalia.) Here’s the data: https://databank.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.CD/1ff4a498/Popular-Indicators

Map of the world showing countries with low and high per capita GDP. Poorer countries (low GDP) are clustered either side of the equator.

Among the wealthier hot countries, the exceptions, almost all rely on petroleum exports, including Venezuela, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, Brunei and the United Arab Emirates.

Collectively, the world’s poorest countries are often referred to as “the Global South”, in contrast to the wealthier northern hemisphere countries concentrated in North America and Europe.

Few question predictions that we will collectively fail to achieve the ambitious Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the UN in 2015. We will need to come to terms with the reasons to have any possibility of sustaining human life on earth. While some cite the Ukraine conflict and the Covid pandemic as reasons, I think one of the main reasons is climate, as I shall explain in this post and in more detail in later posts.

In this post I will explain the “conventional” explanations, mainly from economists and geographers. From my research I can now see additional powerful explanations – I will write about those in the next post.

Several notable economists have examined this apparent correlation between climate and economics. In 1976, the World Bank published Andrew Kamarck’s commissioned study on the relationship between climate and economic development. He reviewed many of the earlier explanations, such as a study by Maeterlinck who observed that bees stop producing and storing honey when taken to places where there is a continuous year-round food supply. He and others argued that people living in lush tropical climates where food could be plucked from plants or rivers at any time discouraged economic activities such as saving and investment. Others suggested that construction materials such as wood decay faster in the tropics because of humidity and termites, discouraging their use and limiting construction ambitions. Some even suggested that certain religions discouraged ideas of improving one’s living conditions.

Kamarck’s analysis pointed to many contributing factors.

First, human physiological thermodynamic limits impose muscle power limitations. Muscles convert energy stored as adenosine triphosphate (ATP) which is made from glucose which the body makes from food and stored fat: carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Muscles convert ATP to mechanical energy. However, just like any heat engine, most of the energy emerges as waste heat. Hot climates slow the rate at which our bodies can release heat to the environment, limiting muscle effort.

Next, he drew attention to weather variability, particularly the intensity of tropical storms that can devastate crops and buildings, and extended droughts. Winters kill so many microbes, viruses, pests and parasites in temperature latitudes, but in countries with continuous warmth these can thrive. He pointed out that soils in hot countries often lack humus and organic matter in comparison to temperate soils. Across much of Australia, for example, the heat from summer sunlight distils oils and wax from decaying leaves that form a water-repellent coating on soil particles so summer rains fail to penetrate below ground. However, there are also large tropical regions with some of the most fertile soils on the planet, particularly across South and South-East Asia.

Karmarck remarked how sgricultural pests can thrive in perennially warm climates. Locusts emerge in vast swarms after heavy rains, and trypanosomiasis parasites from tsetse flies strike cattle and other domesticated animals, humans too.

Disease is also an obvious factor affecting people: malaria parasites, bilharzia worm infections, dengue, cholera and yellow fever strike in the tropics far more than temperate climates.

Since Kamarck’s work, partly motivated by his analysis, tropical diseases and parasites have been at least mostly controlled, often by eradicating the insects that so often bring them to humans. Plant breeding programs and more recent genetic engineering techniques have helped produce agricultural crops that resist disease and parasites far better, boosting production many times. Improved farming methods, irrigation and fertilizes have boosted food production many times.

Yet, the relationship between climate and productivity remains nearly half a century after his report.

Two highly influential and popular books appeared around the turn of the millennium. Jared Diamond wrote “Guns, Germs and Steel” suggesting that these three factors explained the ascendance of European civilization in the last few centuries. He also suggested that geographic regions extending across a limited range of latitude encouraged successful plants to dominate the landscape, whereas in the Americas, plants that thrived in temperature North America could not spread to South America. David Landes wrote “The Wealth and Poverty of Nations” presenting his explanations on why some countries are wealthy and others poor. Landes, an economist, extended Kamarck’s findings, suggesting that organizational innovations such as individual property rights and companies that enabled people to share profits and risks collectively helped propel enterprise and innovation, resulting in wealth generation in Europe and North America.

At the same time, Andrew Mellinger, Jeffrey Sachs and John Gallup published a detailed quantitative analysis and the relationship between climate and economic development. They added another critical factor – water navigability – being an enabler of trade and access to industrial supplies.

I was fortunate to meet Sachs in 2003 at a meeting arranged by the Harvard Bureau for Economic Research on skilled migration. He is still one of the world’s preeminent authorities on economic development and poverty alleviation.

Among other findings, they calculated that, on average, GDP per square kilometre was eighteen times higher in temperate regions close to sea-going transport than tropical regions far from transport links. However, climate was still the dominant factor.

While socially organised insect control measures and modern health science can deal with disease and improved infrastructure, irrigation and agriculture can reduce the impact of tropical storms and droughts, the overriding factors that remain are temperature and humidity.

And that’s why Singapore’s founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, attributed his nation’s success to the invention of air-conditioning, the ability to remove climate from the economic equation. He is not the only one to have noticed this connection. Robert Gordon, another economist, highlighted the significance of air-conditioning, eliminating climatic impediments, enabling large productivity gains across southern and eastern regions of the USA in the 20th century.

So, could air-conditioning bring Singapore’s prosperity to the Global South?

In principle, yes, of course. However, burning fossil fuels to produce electricity for air-conditioning and leaking refrigerants that are far more potent in promoting global warming than CO2 make this impossible today without literally cooking the planet. Further, across most of the Global South, only about 3% of the population can afford the cost of electricity to run their air-conditioners all the time.

So, if we are to eliminate the climate factor impeding social and economic development with air-conditioning, we need something different. Coolzy could be the solution we need for that.

In future blog posts, I will explain some of the recent findings from medical science and physiology that give a much clearer understanding on how climate affects economics and hence engineering too.

If we are to overcome the wealth disparity between the rich industrial, perhaps now post-industrial countries, and the Global South, and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals on a less ambitious schedule, there are many more influences we need to think about.

Further Reading

Diamond, J. M. (1999). Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies. W. W. Norton & Company.

Diamond, J. M. (2005). Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Viking Penguin.

Gordon, R. J. (2012). Is US economic growth over?  Faltering innovation confronts the six headwinds. NBER. Retrieved September 25 from http://www.nber.org/papers/w18315

Kamarck, A. M. (1976). The Tropics and Economic Development: A Provocative Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations. The Johns Hopkins University Press for the World Bank. https://documents1.worldbank.org/curated/en/775691468780881698/pdf/multi-page.pdf

Landes, D. S. (1998). Wealth and poverty of nations. W W Norton and Co.

Mellinger, A. D., Sachs, J. D., & Gallup, J. L. (1999). Climate, water navigability, and economic development. Working Paper Series, 33. https://dash.harvard.edu/bitstream/handle/1/39403786/024.pdf?sequence=1


One comment

  1. Pingback: How do people survive months of intense heat?


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