development economics environment globalisation poverty wealth

Geographical factors that affect development

This is part 2 in a series on why some countries remain poor.

One of the most important factors in development is geography, where the country is in the world, and climate. It’s no coincidence that the poorest countries are in the tropics, where it is hot, the land is less fertile, water is more scarce, where diseases flourish. Conversely, Europe and North America profit from huge tracts of very fertile land, a temperate climate, and good rainfall. In extremes of climate, either hot or cold, too much energy goes into the simple business of survival for there to be much leftover energy for development. You have to work twice as hard to get enough to eat out of the ground, you have to irrigate where others can depend on rainfall. It may be too hot to work between 11 and 2, so you lose three hours out of every day. Rain patterns may give you a short growing season, while others can get two harvests in one year. Some countries are just at a natural disadvantage.

Secondly, geographical location plays a part in access to markets. All the great empires have been based around trade routes, and these are almost always maritime. There are notable exceptions, the medieval Mongol empire was based on the Silk Road from China to the west, but Jeffrey Sachs sums it up well in his important book The End of Poverty: ‘Many of the world’s poorest countries are severely hindered because they are landlocked; situated in high mountain ranges; or lack navigable rivers, long coastlines, or good natural harbours.’ has three of the world’s busiest ports, and so does the US. With ports you can raise money through tolls and shipping services. If you have no access to the coast, not only do you miss out on these services, you have to transport everything by land, which is much more expensive. And what if your neighbours don’t like you? Ice-bound on its northern coastlines, Russian has squabbled for centuries over access to a warm water port, the Crimean War being the most serious. Countries like Afghanistan, Rwanda, Malawi, or Bolivia are all hindered by access to ports. Other countries, like Ethiopia or Lesotho, are not only landlocked, but mountainous as well, making trade even more expensive.

Thirdly, every country has been dealt a hand in natural resources. It takes infrastructure to capitalise on these, but some places have a distinct advantage over others. Oil is the most obvious. Nobody is any doubt about how Saudi Arabia or UAE make their money. Among other advantages, gold and diamonds have helped South Africa build the most successful economy on the continent. These are all non-renewable resources – once they’re gone, they’re gone, but while stocks last there is wealth to be made.

Besides these there are renewable resources – forests, fish, stocks that, if correctly managed, will refresh themselves. Much South American development has been based on the Amazon rainforest, in natural rubber and then timber.

Finally, there are what are sometimes called ‘flow resources’. These are renewables that need no management, wind, tide and solar resources. The Earth Policy Institute describes the American Great Plains as ‘the Saudi Arabia of wind energy’, while sunshine-rich places like California, Sicily and Portugal are able to invest in solar power. No natural resource is a license to print money, and there are plenty of poor countries who are rich in resources, but it is a factor.

Finally, environmental stability can be a factor in development. Some countries are more stable than others. Mohammad Yunus makes this point in describing his book Banker To The Poor: ‘Bangladesh is a land of natural disasters, so this is unfortunately an important factor in our doing business here.’ If you are regularly beset by monsoons, floods and landslides, like Bangladesh or the Philippines, things are going to be harder for you. You may be in an earthquake zone, and we’ve all seen what a tsunami can do to a country.

Where I grew up in Madagascar, the annual cyclone season regularly swept away roads and bridges, damaged railways and refineries, and took the roofs of houses and hotels all along the east coast. How do you build and sustain infrastructure in those conditions? It’s not impossible, but these are problems most countries don’t have to face.

Read part 3.


  1. Here is a thought, what if investors invest in the “hot” climates where sun is a major factor by investing in solar power? That is one way to generate revenue locally. Yes, there is infrastructure to consider here but that is part of investing.

    Think about it, if the hot, arid regions of Africa could develop a power grid for all of Africa by utilizing solar power, then it is feasible that the African Union could benefit as whole, and have resources to build other revenue sources.

    1. This is a plausible idea but have you considered the negative impacts it has on the environment, along with the initial cost of setting up the power grid. It is also very costly to maintain the grid as well as it not producing as much energy as you would think from solar.

  2. It’s a good point. If there’s one thing Africa has it’s sunshine. I think it’s only recently that people have started to see things like sunshine and wind as resources in their own right, so hopefully we’ll see more of this. I guess the main problem would be transporting that power to somewhere where it could be sold. Generally speaking electricity doesn’t like long distances.

  3. That is true, electricity doesn’t like long distance. That could be the next step in re-engineering electrical currents. Some kind of a pipeline, a battery transfer of sorts.

    It would probably end up with a migration of people closer to the power grid freeing up Africa from population congestion in fertile areas.

    The only issue would be water. Boy, its one thing after another but its a start.

  4. This is really interesting, thanks for sharing your thoughts with us all Jeremy!

    One thing though – I’m not completely convinced on the water/climate thing. While a lack of freshwater is clearly a problem for a society it is nevertheless one problem that has notably been overcome by many places.
    For example, what you said about America particular is not completely true. If you want desert, etc., then Las Vegas is a good place to start – and one that is clearly not poor. Also, San Francisco (who’s regional economic product surpasses Africa’s) has no real freshwater supply and the crop growing potential could never sustain its inhabitants.

    There are also many ‘great’, wealthy places that have grown up over history with little or no natural water supplies in arid or semi-arid areas. Think Mesopotamia, Ur, Babylon and even Rome. They built elaborate systems to transport water and grew inspite of the problem…

    1. These are all very good ideas. How is the econommy going to be stimulated by this ,when the average lifespan in central Africa is 35 and the average income is a few hundred dollars a month? Also, what about the huge issue the Africans are facing with Malaria? They can’t seem to advance at a good rate for increase economic growth when the death toll of disease is competition.

  5. Hi Steve, these are good points, although even Las Vegas grew where it did in the desert because there were natural artesian wells there. (vegas means ‘fertile valley’ in Spanish) What’s interesting is that San Francisco was built by the gold rush, and Vegas was built on a rush to capitalise on Nevada’s gambling and alcohol loopholes. So where there’s a massive money-making opportunity, and well funded risk-takers, you can find a way. Dubai is a modern example of pretty much the same thing, but all of these depend on the money coming in from the outside. It’s unlikely that a rush of prospectors will descend on Somalia or Eritrea in quite the same ways, and they’ll have to continue scratching a living out of the hard ground.

  6. its quit interesting to note that Africa is suffering today not because of its position in the world but because it has failed to realize its potentials and the ways of tackling them.I think i like Steve’s view of eletricity trasportation but thats not the only resource they’ve got.They are what they are today because of thier mindsets.

  7. What are the geographical factors that can affect the success of tourism, resort attraction,infrastructure and tourist flow? Can you please sent me the information plz

    1. Hi Juliana, I’m afraid I don’t know much about tourism. That’s not really my field. Good luck finding the information you need, and sorry I can’t be more helpful!

  8. Geography has a huge impact on human developement. Climate, resources, and location are needed in order for human development. The climate of an area determines whether humans can live their develop. Places like the arctic and antartic are not meant for humans much less human development. For example, slums are one of the worst places for humans to develop. Garbage and toxins and pollution are piled high there. Slums are not good for humans because they would get poisoned by the toxins and lead, also, it rains toxic which is not good for the crops there because the toxins would get into their food supply and eventually kill them. Resources are vital for humans to live. Resources can be found based on the climate. For example: In the polar areas, there aren’t many resources there because they are covered in permafrost, which is soil that is permanently frozen soil that runs meters deep into the ground. So plants can’t grow there unless they depend on those climates such as moss. Location is the last key to human development. For example: Would you put a marketplace in the middle of active volcanoes? No. Location plays a role for development, you would want whatever you want to use to make money in an ideal place that is easy for people to access. Stores are put right on the side of the road for this reason. If they didn’t put it on the road, people wouldn’t want to go looking on foot for it. They would just get what they needed from a place that is easily accessible. Location also can help a company, government, people, etc flourish and become wealthy/develop.

  9. Regarding your climate perspective, i’d like to correct some of your arguments:

    Tropical countries are not always HOT. The climate changes depending on the altitude. By the term “tropical” or “tropic” geography refers to a region of the Earth surrounding the Equator. It is limited in latitude by the Tropic of Cancer in the northern hemisphere and the Tropic of Capricorn in the southern hemisphere; these latitudes correspond to the axial tilt of the Earth. But the fact some countries are inside the tropics, doesn’t mean everything it’s sunny, jungle or caribbean stylish. The climate varies depending on altitude, so the higher you get the colder it is (for example, you can find snowy mountains all around South America, and chilly and cold valleys as similar as the ones you can find in Europe or the US).
    Land is actually very fertil depending on the regions (las pampas argentinas, for example, is one of the most fertil tropical savannes on earth, and that’s why Argentina is such a large meat and soy producer… consider los altiplanos, as well: valleys inside mountain systems with high leves of fertility, wich alows countries like Bolivia or Ecuador to produce 3 or 4 harvest per year). Actually, strong biodiversity, humidity levels, sun light are main factors that increase ground quality. The fertility changes depending on the region, as it happens in any seasonal country. Finally water is not scarce. 7 of the 10 richest countries by total renewable water resources are tropical countries (Brazil, China, Indonesia, Congo, Colombia, Peru).


    Alejandro Plata
    Geopolitical analyst
    Paris 8

    1. Sure, I grew up in a tropical country and I have no illusions about it being some humid jungle. But if you plot the world’s poorest countries on a map, the poorest do fall within the tropics. That’s just where they are – but perhaps I have made a generalisation about it, and I should clarify a little. Thanks for your comment.

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  11. Tropics dont get less rainfall? The amazon gets a rediculous amount of rainfall, like +120″ of rainfall in those areas. The amazon also carries more fresh water than any other on the planet so they have access to water. I live in phoenix az and I have worked construction right through 120 degree 12 hour day 6 day work week so whether the weather causes anybody not to work is their problem.

    1. Some have more rain, some don’t. As the paragraph goes on to say, rain also comes in particular seasons, and if those seasons come late or fail to deliver, you have a problem.

      I’ve not been to Arizona, but I presume you have a dry heat, which is very different from the humid heat you’re going to get in the tropics. In a humid heat your sweat won’t evaporate and cool you down, so the body can’t regulate its temperature. If you tried to work construction in 120 heat with high humidity, you’d probably get heatstroke. Nothing to do with laziness. Google ‘heat index’ if you want to know more.

      If you read the whole series, you’ll see that there’s no one reason why some countries are poor. But there are lots of factors that make life harder in some places than others.

  12. what are the major problems rising from the past and present development in considerating the development of geography

  13. We have aproblem of endless wars across the world mostly Ledcs this cuts the chain in very many ways eg South sudan, Somalia, Nigeria among others

  14. What do you understand by the term polity using specific examples from ten of the geographical areas on the Nigerian area Outline and discuss the major factors that influenced evolution and development of polities and communities?

  15. Hi. Enjoyed your article and it helped to answer some questions I have. Two ideas came to mind while reading your article. One is when you talk about water and land trade I was wondering what about air trade? With the advent of the airplane why do not more locationally disadvantaged countries not make more use of airplanes for their trade? Secondly, when you talk about the disadvantage of cyclones in your home country of Madagascar what about exploring underground living to avoid this problem. Is this a viable option? I often wonder why people don’t explore these other options available to them. I have noticed that cities in Canada (where I live) don’t take their environment into account when building. For example, in Vancouver where there is lot of rain there are also a lot of flat roofed buildings whereas i would think it would make more sense to build slopped roof buildings to aid in rain run-off. In areas of the world where there are threats like tornadoes, cyclones and hurricanes why is there not more emphasis on underground buildings? Just some thoughts. Thanks.

    1. Thanks for the questions – yes, some countries have taken advantage of air travel, but it’s so much more expensive that it only really works for lightweight and high value exports. Not many things qualify, but examples might include fresh flowers or herbs and fresh beans, both of which are flown from landlocked Aftrican countries to Europe.

      As for living underground, there’s really no need. It is possible to build storm-proof houses by design. The real problem isn’t damage to homes so much as infrastructure: ports, railway lines, bridges. They’re expensive to repair, and can really impact business and daily life while they’re out of action. If a port goes down, trade stops. If a refinery is damaged by a storm, oil runs out and transport grinds to a halt. That’s where it gets costly, and those are all things that can’t be relocated underground.

  16. What are the geographical impacts on human development? What is the role of a teacher in this impact on students?

  17. For example: in a hot place, a child may grow to stand the heat but may be weaker in the cold, sorry if that doesn’t answer your question, it’s also been a year since you asked that.

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