Turning economic growth into nutrition-sensitive growth

There is a growing consensus that reducing childhood malnutrition is a critically important goal, but far less consensus on what kind of strategies can best achieve that goal. Many nutrition programs focus on quite specific interventions (food supplements, or nutrition training), but many “non-nutrition” factors—such as household income (poverty), food availability, female education and health outcomes—can potentially have profound influences on nutrition outcomes. If economic growth can improve these intermediate factors, then this “nutrition-sensitive” economic growth might be the most effective means of sustainably reducing childhood malnutrition. To explore this hypothesis more systematically, this paper employs a rich cross-country dataset containing information on malnutrition outcomes, economic growth, food consumption patterns, and other social-sector determinants of malnutrition. The paper first looks at the productive sectors— agriculture, nonagriculture—as important mediating channels between overall economic growth and nutrition, before examining social-sector channels such as health, education, and family-planning outcomes. The econometric results indicate that economic growth is nutrition-sensitive if it increases food production (especially when food insecurity is high), reduces poverty, increases female education, improves health access, and reduces fertility rates (a proxy for various family planning outcomes). A non-econometric analysis of successful and unsuccessful nutrition episodes confirms the more formal econometric results, and perhaps even makes the stronger case that—for low-income countries, at least—economic growth is a necessary but insufficient condition for reducing malnutrition. It is necessary because there is no example of a low-income country making significant progress in reducing malnutrition without fairly rapid economic growth, but it is insufficient because there are several instances where rapid economic growth has produced little or no reduction in malnutrition (including India, where roughly one-third of the world’s malnourished children reside). While these findings do not rule out an important role for more specific nutrition interventions, they do suggest that a nutrition-sensitive growth strategy would be an effective instrument for achieving both nutrition and non-nutrition goals (such as education, health, and poverty targets).

Headey, Derek
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International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)
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