Mapped: The Ins and Outs of Remittance Flows
The global immigrant population is growing at a robust pace, and their aggregate force is one to be reckoned with. In 2019, migrants collectively sent $550.5 billion in money back to their home countries—money transfer flows that are also known as remittances.
Remittances serve as an economic lifeline around the world, particularly for low- and middle-income countries (LMICs). Today’s visualization relies on the latest data from the World Bank to create a snapshot of these global remittance flows.
Where do most of these remittances come from, and which countries are the biggest recipients?
Remittances: An Origin Story
Remittances are a type of capital flow, with significant impacts on the places they wind up. These money transfers have surpassed official aid being sent to LMICs for decades, and in this day and age, are rivaling even Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) flows.
Remittance flows mainly help improve basic living standards such as housing, healthcare, and education, with leftover funds going towards other parts of the economy. They can also be a means for increasing the social mobility of family and friends back home.
Altogether, 50% of remittances are sent in either U.S. dollars, or the closely-linked currencies of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, such as the Saudi riyal. It’s not surprising then, that the U.S. is the biggest origin country of remittances, contributing $68.5 billion in 2018—more than double that of the next-highest country, Saudi Arabia, at $33.6 billion.
Remittance Flows As A Safety Net
The impact of remittances on LMICs can vary depending on what you measure. In absolute terms, the top 10 LMIC recipients received $350 billion, or nearly 64% of total remittances in 2019.
Top Remittance Recipients in 2019 (USD)
|Rank||Country||Remittance Inflows||% of Nominal GDP|
India tops the chart as the largest remittances beneficiary, followed by China and Mexico. Interestingly, these three countries are also the main destinations of remittance flows from the U.S., but in the reverse order. Mexico and the U.S. have one of the most interconnected remittance corridors in the world.
However, the chart above makes it clear that simply counting the dollars is only one part of the picture. Despite these multi-billion dollar numbers, remittances are equal to only a fraction of these economies.
By looking at remittances as a percentage of nominal GDP, it’s clear that they can have an outsize impact on nations, even if the overall value of flows are much lower in comparison.
Top Remittance Recipients in 2019 (% of GDP)
|Rank||Country||Remittance Inflows||% of Nominal GDP|
|#5||🇰🇬 Kyrgyz Republic||$2.4B||29.6%|
|#7||🇸🇻 El Salvador||$5.6B||20.8%|
|#10||🇵🇸 West Bank and Gaza||$2.6B||17.6%|
It’s clear that the cash influxes provided by remittances are crucial to many smaller countries. Take the Polynesian archipelago of Tonga, for example: even though it only saw $190 million in remittances from abroad, that amount accounts for nearly 40% of the country’s nominal GDP.
Will The Remittance Tides Turn?
The World Bank projects remittance flows to increase to nearly $600 billion by 2021. But are such projections of future remittance flows reliable? The researchers offer two reasons why remittances may ebb and flow.
On one hand, anti-immigration sentiment across major economies could complicate this growth, as evidenced by Brexit. The good news? That doesn’t stop immigration itself from taking place. Instead, where these migrants and their money end up, are constantly in flux.
This means that as immigration steadily grows, so will remittance flows. What’s more, fintech innovations have the potential to bolster this progress, by making money transfers cheaper and easier to access.
Tackling [high transaction costs] is crucial not only for economic and social development, but also for improving financial inclusion.
—UN ESCAP, Oct 2019
Mapped: GDP per Capita Worldwide
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s standard of living. This map showcases the GDP per capita in every country globally.
Mapped: Visualizing GDP per Capita Worldwide
View the high-resolution of the infographic by clicking here.
GDP per capita has steadily risen globally over time, and in tandem, the standard of living worldwide has increased immensely.
This map using data from the IMF shows the GDP per capita (nominal) of nearly every country and territory in the world.
GDP per capita is one of the best measures of a country’s wealth as it provides an understanding of how each country’s citizens live on average, showing a representation of the quantity of goods and services created per person.
The Standard of Living Over Time
Looking at history, our standard of living has increased drastically. According to Our World in Data, from 1820 to 2018, the average global GDP per capita increased by almost 15x.
Literacy rates, access to vaccines, and basic education have also improved our quality of life, while things like child mortality rates and poverty have all decreased.
For example, in 1990, 1.9 billion people lived in extreme poverty, which was 36% of the world’s population at the time. Over the last 30 years, the number has been steadily decreasing — by 2030, an estimated 479 million people will be living in extreme poverty, which according to UN population estimates, will represent only 6% of the population.
That said, economic inequality between different regions is still prevalent. In fact, the richest country today (in terms of nominal GDP per capita), Luxembourg, is over 471x more wealthy than the poorest, Burundi.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the highest GDP per capita in 2021:
However, not all citizens in Luxembourg are extremely wealthy. In fact:
- 29% of people spend over 40% of their income on housing costs
- 31% would be at risk of falling into poverty if they had to forgo 3 months of income
The cost of living is expensive in Luxembourg — but the standard of living in terms of goods and services produced is the highest in the world. Additionally, only 4% of the population reports low life satisfaction.
Emerging Economies and Developing Countries
Although we have never lived in a more prosperous period, and poverty rates have been declining overall, this year global extreme poverty rose for the first time in over two decades.
About 120 million additional people are living in poverty as a result of the pandemic, with the total expected to rise to about 150 million by the end of 2021.
Many of the poorest countries in the world are also considered Least Developed Countries (LDCs) by the UN. In these countries, more than 75% of the population live below the poverty line.
Here’s a look at the 10 countries with the lowest GDP per capita:
Life in these countries offers a stark contrast compared to the top 10. Here’s a glance at the quality of life in the poorest country, Burundi:
- 80% of the population works in agriculture
- 1 in 3 Burundians are in need of urgent humanitarian assistance
- Average households spend up to two-thirds of their income on food
However, many of the world’s poorest countries can also be classified as emerging markets with immense economic potential in the future.
In fact, China has seen the opportunity in emerging economies. Their confidence in these regions is best exemplified in the Belt and Road initiative which has funneled massive investments into infrastructure projects across multiple African countries.
Continually Raising the Bar
Prosperity is a very recent reality only characterizing the last couple hundred years. In pre-modern societies, the average person was living in conditions that would be considered extreme poverty by today’s standards.
Overall, the standard of living for everyone today is immensely improved compared to even recent history, and some countries will be experiencing rapid economic growth in the future.
GDP per Capita in 2021: Full Dataset
|Country||GDP per Capita (Nominal, 2021, USD)|
|🇺🇸 United States||$66,144|
|Hong Kong SAR||$47,990|
|United Arab Emirates||$32,686|
|Trinidad and Tobago||$16,622|
|Saint Kitts and Nevis||$16,491|
|Antigua and Barbuda||$14,748|
|Saint Vincent and the Grenadines||$7,401|
|Bosnia and Herzegovina||$6,536|
|West Bank and Gaza||$3,060|
|Papua New Guinea||$2,596|
|Republic of Congo||$2,271|
|São Tomé and Príncipe||$2,133|
|Central African Republic||$522|
|Democratic Republic of the Congo||$478|
Editor’s note: Readers have rightly pointed out that Monaco is one of the world’s richest countries in GDP per capita (nominal) terms. This is true, but the IMF dataset excludes Monaco and lists it as “No data” each year. As a result, it is excluded from the visualization(s) above.
Visualized: The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History
Learn the stories behind some of the world’s biggest Ponzi schemes in this illustrative infographic timeline.
The Biggest Ponzi Schemes in Modern History
Some things simply sound too good to be true, but when money is involved, our judgement can become clouded.
This is often the case with Ponzi schemes, a type of financial fraud that lures investors by promising abnormally high returns. Money brought in by new members is used to pay the scheme’s founders, as well as its earlier investors.
The scheme is named after Charles Ponzi, an Italian who became infamous in the 1920s for claiming he could double his clients’ money within 90 days. Since then, numerous Ponzi schemes have been orchestrated around the globe.
To help you learn more about these sophisticated crimes, this infographic examines some of the biggest Ponzi schemes in modern history.
Ponzi Schemes in the 20th Century
The 1990s saw a number of large Ponzi schemes worth upwards of $500 million.
|Country||Date Ended||Name of Scheme and Founder||Value (USD)|
|Belgium||1991||Moneytron, Jean-Pierre Van Rossem||$860M|
|Romania||1994||Caritas, Ioan Stoica||$1B - $5B|
|Russia||1994||MMM, Sergei Mavrodi||$10B|
|U.S.||1997||Great Ministries International, Geral Payne||$500M|
In many cases, these schemes thrived by taking advantage of the unsuspecting public who often lacked any knowledge of investing. Caritas, for example, was a Ponzi scheme based in Romania that marketed itself as a “self-help game” for the poor.
The scheme was initially very successful, tricking millions of people into making deposits by offering the chance to earn an 800% return after three months. This was not sustainable, and Caritas was eventually unable to distribute further winnings.
Caritas operated for only two years, but its “success” was undeniable. In 1993, it was estimated that a third of the country’s money was circulating through the scheme.
Ponzi Schemes in the 21st Century
The American public has fallen victim to numerous multi-billion dollar Ponzi schemes since the beginning of the 21st century.
|Country||Date Ended||Name of Scheme and Founder||Value (USD)|
|U.S.||2003||Mutual Benefits Company, Joel Steinger||$1B|
|U.S.||2003||Petters Group Worldwide, Tom Petters||$4B|
|U.S.||2008||Madoff Investment Scandal, Bernie Madoff||$65B|
|U.S.||2012||Stanford Financial Group, Allen Stanford||$7B|
Many of these schemes have made major headlines, but much less is said about the thousands of everyday Americans that were left in financial ruin.
For victims of the Madoff Investment Scandal, receiving any form of compensation has been a drawn-out process. In 2018, 10 years after the scheme was uncovered, a court-appointed trustee managed to recover $13 billion by liquidating Madoff’s firm and personal assets.
As NPR reported, investors may recover up to 60 to 70 percent of their initial investment only. For victims who had to delay retirement or drastically alter their lifestyles, this compensation likely provides little solace.
Do the Crime, Pay the Time
Running a Ponzi scheme is likely to land you in jail for a long time, at least in the U.S.
In 2009, for example, 71-year-old Bernie Madoff pled guilty to 11 federal felonies and was sentenced to 150 years in prison. That’s 135 years longer than the average U.S. murder conviction.
Outside of the U.S., it’s a much different story. Weaker regulation and enforcement, particularly in developing countries, means a number of schemes are ongoing today.
Sergei Mavrodi, known for running the Russian Ponzi scheme MMM, started a new organization named MMM Global after being released from prison in 2011. Although he died in March 2018, his self-described “social financial network” has established a base in several Southeast Asian and African countries.
If you or someone you know is worried about falling victim to a Ponzi scheme, this checklist from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) may be a useful resource.
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