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Malnutrition Persists Despite Economic Growth

Malnutrition claims the lives of more than 3.1 million children a year. Those who survive face mental impairment as well as a heightened risk of disease or disability.

Yet the rising gross domestic product (GDP) of low-income to mid-income countries fails to correlate with a decline in stunted, under-weighted or wasted children. In field of development, many presume economic growth and improved standards of living lead to greater food security. S.V. Subramanian, a social epidemiologist at Harvard, reports an “insignificant decline in stunting” during times of economic expansion. He and his associates researched 36 of these countries, collecting data on children from 1990 to 2011. The Journal Lancet Global Health published the results this month.

With every 5 percent gain in GDP, less than 1 percent of decrease in stunting results. This results in a “zero effect” of GDP on child malnutrition, according to Subramanian.

Derek Heady of the International Food Policy Research Institute objects to this conclusion. “Income growth is a necessary condition for increased spending on food, health, education, sanitation and so on,” he asserts.

Subramanian, however, attributes this “zero effect” to disparities in income distribution and the inefficient delivery of health services. A rising GDP, he remarks, may not benefit every individual, region, or sector. For instance, these countries often invest money into sectors that initially led to the this growth. Such investments, however, often fail to improve child health.

India highlights this tendency. Its GDP has grown rapidly in recent decades, reaching an estimated 5 percent increase per year. This growth far surpasses that of most Western countries. Yet nearly half of children appear stunted and an additional two-fifths underweight. This limited food security among children has persisted as early as 1990.

Rather than investing in nutrition efforts in schools or clinics, the government focused on highway construction. A large population currently lacks basic sanitation. Child malnourishment endures without interventions in safe water, breastfeeding practices and food aid. Economic growth alone cannot resolve this health threat.

Lawrence Haddad heads the Institute for Development Studies in England. He highlights Ghana, Vietnam and Brazil as success cases; in these countries, malnutrition declined as a result of both economic growth and investments in water, sanitation, health services and nutrition programs.

“Unfortunately, with malnutrition, there is no silver bullet,” he elaborates. “It’s like a series of links in a chain, and if any one of those links is weak, it undermines everything else.”

Understanding the driving factors in malnutrition, though, promises reform in government spending. These growing economies hold the potential to combat this health crisis. First, though, strategic investment in the fields of nutrition and sanitation must occur.

– Ellery Spahr

Sources: NPR, Voice of America
Photo: United Nations Photo via photopin