Economic growth has done little to reduce child under-nutrition

Data taken from 121 health surveys and 36 countries has been analysed

By Vani Manocha
Published: Thursday 27 March 2014

Economic growth has little or no effect on the nutritional status of the world's poorest children, finds a study jointly conducted by various organisations.
The study was based on child growth patterns in 36 developing countries and has found that economic growth in these countries was associated with small or no declines in stunting, underweight, and wasting—all signs of under-nutrition. 

"These findings represent a potentially major shift in how we think about policies to reduce child under-nutrition," said S V Subramanian, senior author and professor of population health and geography at Harvard School of Public Health (HSPH). "They emphasise that focusing on improving economic growth does not necessarily translate to child health gains." 

The research, published in journal The Lancet, was conducted by experts from HSPH, University of Göttingen, Germany, ETH Zürich, Switzerland, and the Indian Institute of Technology-Gandhinagar. They analysed data from nationally representative samples of children under three years of age, taken from 121 Demographic and Health surveys, conducted in the identified countries between 1990 and 2011. They measured the effect of changes in per-head gross domestic product (GDP) on changes in stunting, underweight, and wasting.

For individual children, a 5 per cent increase in per-head GDP was associated with a very small reduction in the odds of being stunted (0.4 per cent), underweight (1.1 per cent), or wasted (1.7 per cent). "These findings represent a potentially major shift in how we think about policies to reduce child under-nutrition," says Subramanian.

In their report, experts have cited reasons like unequal distribution of growth in incomes and insufficient expenditure by households on enhancing nutritional status of children as reasons behind the weak association between economic growth and reductions in child under-nutrition. Inadequate improvements in public services like health and clean water may be other reasons, the researchers say. Growth in incomes could be unequally distributed, with poor people excluded from the benefits. And in households where there was increased prosperity, money might not necessarily be spent in ways that enhance the nutritional status of children.

"Our study does not imply that economic development is not important in a general sense but cautions policymakers about relying solely on the trickle-down effects of economic growth on child nutrition," said Sebastian Vollmer, assistant professor of development economics at the University of Göttingen, adjunct assistant professor of global health at HSPH, and lead author of the study.

According to authors of the study, a more systematic and rigorous analysis of what specific health-related interventions would yield the greatest return remains to be carried out.


Association between economic growth and early childhood undernutrition: evidence from 121 Demographic and Health Surveys from 36 low-income and middle-income countries

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