Poverty Statistics: Ngäbe-Buglé Region, Panama, and the World

Happy World Statistics Day!  It’s likely no one has ever wished you that before, but it’s true: first recognized in 2010, the United Nations declared that October 20th of every fifth year would be World Statistics Day [8].  This year’s aim is to raise awareness about the need for good data to inform sustainable international development [9].  How fortuitous that this day happens to coincide with our planned blog post about poverty statistics in Panama!  

Kidding aside, poverty is no laughing matter.  It is a persistent issue with deep roots in social injustice, with effects ranging from hunger and chronic illness to poor educational access and a cycle of entrapment.  We wanted to take this opportunity to examine the inequalities felt among the people of Panama - using statistics as a tool - and to compare these patterns with data from the US and countries worldwide.  

First let’s look at a regional comparison of poverty rates.  World Bank data from 2011 measures the percent of the population living below national poverty lines in each of the following countries [5b]:

  Colombia     34.1 %  

Panama    27.6%

Costa Rica    21.6%

Guatemala    53.7%

Honduras    61.9%

Compared to Guatemala and Honduras, Panama’s rate is fairly low.  In the US, that national rate is 14.8% (2014), according to the US Census Bureau.  However, they do note that poverty is not distributed evenly; areas with 20% or higher poverty rate are deemed “poverty areas,” which support 24% of the US population, or 77 million people [6].  


Similarly, poverty is not distributed evenly across Panama.  In rural areas, 45.8% of the population lived below the poverty line in 2008, with 23.6% living in extreme poverty.  In indigenous regions (where Few for Change works), 80.5% of people nation-wide live below the poverty line, 51.9% in extreme poverty [2].  According to the World Bank, “extreme poverty” means spending $1.25 or less per day, and “living on the edge of subsistence” [9].   

Areas with chronic poverty have poor access to education; in 2010, 30.8% of the people in the Comarca Ngäbe-Buglé were illiterate.  The same year, the average number of years that males spent in school was 4, while for females the figure was closer to 3 [4].  In fact, the dropout rate among primary school students in the Comarca is almost 3 times higher than the national average; 2.8% of Ngäbe students dropped out in 2011, while the rate was 1% country-wide [1].  Students in Few for Change’s program have had to drop out for a variety of reasons, including family illness, transportation/boarding difficulties and costs, lack of support, pressure to enter the workforce, and pregnancy.  Even with scholarship support, many of these issues persist, symptoms of greater societal problems.  

Interestingly, in both the US and Panama about 13% of government spending went towards education in 2011.  Germany spent 16.9% the same year, while Japan spent just 9.6% and Iran spent 21.7%  (2013) [5].  Clearly, in each scenario the actual dollar amounts vary greatly, as do the populations of each country, and how the funds are allocated.  Still, these numbers are an interesting jumping off point for examining the inequalities and effectiveness of worldwide education spending.

While trends are improving, access to education is still very unequal, both in Panama and worldwide. At Few for Change, we work to ensure that someday, no student will have to miss out on public education because they can’t afford a uniform or get a ride to school.  Want to help change the statistics?  Give today at www.fewforchange.org/donate.


1.  http://www.contraloria.gob.pa/inec/Publicaciones/Publicaciones.aspx?ID_SUBCATEGORIA=41&ID_PUBLICACION=533&ID_IDIOMA=1&ID_CATEGORIA=6  "Contraloria General de la Republica de Panama." Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Censo, 2011.

2.   http://www.ruralpovertyportal.org/country/home/tags/panama  “Rural Poverty in Panama.” Rural Poverty Portal, IFAD.

3.   http://www.globalissues.org/article/26/poverty-facts-and-stats  “Poverty Facts and Stats.” Anup Shah, 2013.

4.  “La Educacion en Panama: 5 metas para mejorar.” Unidos por la Educación, 2013.

5.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SE.XPD.TOTL.GB.ZS  “Government expenditure on education, total (% of government expenditure).”  The World Bank, 2015.

5b.  http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/SI.POV.NAHC/countries Poverty headcount ratio at national poverty lines (% of population).  The World Bank, 2015.

6.  https://www.census.gov/hhes/www/poverty  “2014 Highlights.” US Census Bureau, 2015.

7.  http://www.nytimes.com/2015/10/21/upshot/numbers-take-a-star-turn-on-world-statistics-day.html  “Numbers Take a Star Turn on World Statistics Day.” The New York Times, 2015.

8.  http://www.un.org/en/events/statisticsday/ “World Statistics Day 20 October.” United Nations, 2015.

9.  http://data.worldbank.org/news/extreme-poverty-rates-continue-to-fall  “Extreme Poverty Rates Continue to Fall.”  The World Bank, 2010.