Economic growth has done little to reduce child under-nutrition

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

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.

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