The world's cheapest path to wealth: Well-fed kids

The world's cheapest path to wealth: Well-fed kids

Eating well isn't only good for you, it's good for the economy, too. Photo: Edgar Putul/Mercy Corps Guatemala
Eating well isn't only good for you, it's good for the economy, too. Photo: Edgar Putul/Mercy Corps Guatemala

In a time of global economic crisis, the world is exploring every possible hindrance to economic growth: debt, unemployment, inflation... malnutrition?

Malnutrition is not commonly discussed in economics, although it can be a major factor in economic lag. A new report on the state global hunger by Save the Children provides new data connecting malnutrition to global markets and individual productivity.

Global economic effects:

  • The effects of malnutrition in developing countries can translate to losses in GDP of up to 2-3 percent annually.

  • Globally, the direct cost of child malnutrition is estimated at $20 to 30 billion per year.

  • 11 percent of global disease burden relates back to malnutrition. Well-nourished individuals are less likely to suffer from non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, kidney disease and diabetes, thus lowering national health bills.

  • 2.6 million children die of malnutrition annually.

Individual economic effects:

  • Adults who were malnourished as children earn on average 20 percent less over their lifetimes than those that weren’t.

  • Children who are “stunted” in the first two years of their lives are 16 percent more likely to fail a grade.

  • For each 1 percent loss in height due to stunting, an adult tends to be 1.4 percent less productive.

  • An estimated 450 million children will be affected by stunting in the next 15 years if current trends continue.

This is bad news for the economies of these developing countries as well for the people that populate them. Children in developing countries are twice as likely to be malnourished than their developed country counterparts.

While it is clear that malnutrition negatively affects markets, it's not clear how well a strong market fights malnutrition. Some countries, such as Vietnam, saw growing GDP met with decreasing malnutrition. Between 1990 and 2009 Vietnam grew by six percent annually, while the percentage of stunted children dropped by four percent in each of those years.

Other countries showed that growing GDP does not necessarily cure malnutrition. Over that same period, India grew by 4.8 percent, yet the percentage of malnourished children remained steady at around 50 percent of the population.

Despite the daunting statistics, there may be a reason for optimism. As The Economist reported in February, “better nutrition can be a stunningly good investment...nothing in development policy has such high returns.” Eight of the world’s leading economists, including five Nobel laureates, agreed in the 2008 Copenhagen Consensus that combating malnutrition was the best development investment. Adding nutrients to food and providing vitamin supplements are astonishingly cheap.

Progress on nutrition is possible. Brazil, Vietnam and Bangladesh have all decreased malnutrition and stunting over the past decade.

With 2.6 million children in lower-income countries dying per year of malnutrition--more than malaria, HIV/AIDS and heart disease combined--the human need for improved nutrition should be clear. Let’s hope that the economic need becomes just as hard to ignore.

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