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Global Poverty Research Group

Nutritional status and economic development in sub-Saharan Africa, 1950-1980

Alexander Moradi

Global Poverty Research Group

12 July 2006

SARPN acknowledges the ESRC Global Poverty Research Group as a source of this document:
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It is widely acknowledged that human well-being is multidimensional encompassing much more than the command over goods and services. Paying attention to soft indicators, which measure aspects of living standards complementary to income, is especially worthwhile regarding sub-Saharan Africa (SSA); contrasting the exceptionally poor economic performance, advocates of an optimistic view of African development emphasized achievements in soft indicators like education and longevity (Sender, 1999).

Nutrition and health are also essential components of the quality of life. A good measure of both of these aspects is a population’s mean height. The human body thrives well in a healthy environment, in which nutrition is of sufficient quantity and high quality; deprivation and insults, in contrast, stunt bodily growth. Hence, mean heights reflect nutritional intake net of claims due to diseases and physical exertion. It is worth mentioning that genetics does not play an important role at population level. Anthropometric studies found large height differences between socioeconomic elites and poor people of the same ethnic background, more so than between African elites and a US-American reference population demonstrating the overwhelming influence of environmental conditions (Fiawoo, 1979; Habicht et al., 1974).

Mean heights are a measure of nutritional status but they also have a much broader meaning. In being very sensitive to poverty and its effects, such as hunger, low-nutrient diets, poor housing and sanitary conditions, contaminated food and water, no or limited access to medical care, child labour, etc., heights put the emphasis on the consumption of basic necessities, i.e. they are consistent with the basic needs approach of measuring welfare (Steckel, 1995). Therefore, heights are a valuable indicator of living standards deserving attention in its own right. In this paper, we study how well Sub-Saharan African countries ranked in terms of nutritional status in the 1960s and whether nutritional and health conditions improved in the second half of the 20th century.

While both, heights and income, measure living standards, there is also a complex interrelationship between the two. On the one hand, it is often assumed that higher incomes for the poor is the most effective means for reducing undernutrition (World Bank, 1986). In fact, anthropometric studies often found a significantly positive relationship between income and height in the 20th century (Brinkman and Drukker, 1998; Steckel, 1995). On the other hand, there is an influential theoretical literature highlighting the consequences of insufficient nutrition on labour income. Leibenstein (1957) argued that nutrition determines labour productivity, which in turn influences labour income. Dasgupta (1997) used the nutrition-productivity link to explain poverty traps. At the macro level, Fogel (1994) argued that nutritional improvements increased life expectancy and that both stimulated industrialization in 19th century. In this study, we analyze the influence of income on nutritional status taking concerns of endogeneity serious. We also take into account other potential determinants like national food supply, droughts, education, civil wars, etc.

The paper is structured as follows. In the next section, we present the data and address potential limitations. In section 3 and 4, we describe the state and development of nutritional status in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). In section 5, we clarify the time structure of the relationship between nutritional status and environmental factors. After presenting our explanatory model, we come to the regression results. The last section concludes.

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