Four key challenges facing least developed countries

04 April 2022

The world’s most vulnerable nations face many obstacles, including soaring debt, export marginalization, energy poverty and climate vulnerability.


About 1.1 billion people live in least developed countries (LDCs), which face daunting development challenges.

The LDC group grew from an initial 25 countries in 1971 to a peak of 52 in 1991 and stands at 46 today. Only six countries have managed to graduate from the category.

“The vulnerabilities of LDCs have evolved since the UN created the category five decades ago, but they continue to face major obstacles that block their sustainable development,” said Paul Akiwumi, UNCTAD’s director for Africa and least developed countries.

These include soaring debt, export marginalization, energy poverty and climate vulnerability.

1. Soaring debt

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, UNCTAD warned about the climbing debt burden of LDCs, which undermines their ability to provide basic services, such as health care and education.

Their debts have not only grown but also become costlier and riskier. Between 2011 and 2019, LDCs’ debt service more than tripled to $33 billion, which represents between 5% and 13% of the value of their exports.

The pandemic has exacerbated the situation, with LDCs’ debt repayments set to hit $43 billion in 2022.

Such a burden will jeopardize their COVID-19 recovery efforts and sap the public funds needed to fight poverty and invest in essential infrastructure, such as roads and hospitals.

2. Export marginalization

LDCs also remain marginalized in global trade. Their share of global merchandise exports has hovered around just 1% since 2010.

And their main exports leave them highly vulnerable to global crises and shocks.

Although several LDCs have broadened their export base, as many as 38 of them remain commodity dependent. They rely on primary goods like copper, cotton and oil for over 60% of their merchandise exports.

Global commodities’ markets are very volatile, and when prices crash, so do exports, jobs and government revenue.

This volatility is a serious threat to many LDCs, especially for food and fuel. The impact of the war in Ukraine on global prices for these two products is a stark reminder.

3. Energy poverty

UNCTAD calculations show that more than half of the people in LDCs still lacked access to electricity in 2019. About 570 million men, women and children in these countries don’t have light at night for reading and aren’t able to charge a mobile phone.  

The situation is worse in rural areas, with about two thirds of the population (458 million people) living without electricity.

And where electricity is available, such as in large cities, access is often unreliable.

Access to energy matters now more than ever as LDCs try to recover from the COVID-19 crisis. For example, without reliable electricity, hospitals can’t refrigerate vaccines. This hampers vaccine roll-out efforts.

4. Climate vulnerability

LDCs are on the front lines of the climate crisis even though their populations have barely contributed to the global greenhouse gas emissions fuelling global heating.

In the past five decades, these vulnerable nations have been home to 69% of the global deaths caused by climate disasters. Yet their cars and industries have produced just 1.1% of the world’s total CO2 emissions.

Even their share per person barely reaches 9% of the world’s average. In 2019, the carbon footprint of an average person living in an LDC was 23 times smaller than that of someone in a developed country, such as the United States or a European nation.

This “climate apartheid” means that the people least responsible for climate change are the most affected by its consequences.

Chance to redefine development strategies

The 5th United Nations Conference on the Least Developed Countries (LDC5) is a chance to get LDCs the support they truly need to tackle their sustainable development challenges.

LDC5 is being held in two parts. The first part was held at the UN headquarters in New York on 17 March 2022, during which the Doha Programme of Action for Least Developed Countries was adopted.

It aims to ensure LDCs are placed at the top of the international agenda, to rally stronger support to help them overcome the structural challenges they face.

The second part will be held in Doha from 5 to 9 March 2023, where world leaders will gather with civil society, the private sector, young people and other stakeholders to build new plans and partnerships for the delivery of the programme of action over the following decade.