Poverty and Undernutrition: Theory, Measurement, and Policy

Poverty and Undernutrition: Theory, Measurement, and Policy

Poverty and Undernutrition: Theory, Measurement, and Policy

Poverty and Undernutrition: Theory, Measurement, and Policy


A large share of the population in many developing countries suffer from chronic undernutrition. In this book, Professor Svedberg provides a detailed comparative study of undernutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, the two worst affected areas, and provides crucial advice for allthose concerned in development worldwide. The book concentrates on the five challenges that undernutrition creates: what undernutrition is, who the undernourished are, where the undernourished are, when people are undernourished, and why people are undernourished. The book is divided into fiveparts: Part I introduces the main paradigms and controversies of undernutrition; Part II deals with the relationship in the individual between calorie intake/expenditure, work effort, body weight, and income; Part III assesses the method of defining and measuring undernutrition based on estimates ofgaps between calorie intake and calorie requirements for households; Part IV provides a parallel analysis of the main alternative approach to defining and measuring undernutrition, based on anthropometric assessment, mainly of young children, but also adolescents and adults; Part V analyses theconsequences and causes of anthropometric failure, as well as the related policy issues.


Heads of state and representatives of government from 186 nations have recently signed a resolution to reduce the number of undernourished people in the world by half before the year 2015. If the 'international community' should be able to monitor progress towards this worthy objective, agreed to in Rome at the World Food Summit in late 1996, a necessary precondition is that (i) the initial number of undernourished is reasonably well known and (ii) that changes over time can be observed. Moreover, if this objective is to be accomplished through new policy initiatives, directing and designing these policies require that we know (iii) where the undernourished are found, (iv) who they are, and (v) why they are undernourished.

When addressing the above questions there are only two data sets that can be consulted. One is from the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) and relies on national per-capita food 'availabilities' for estimating the proportion of the population that is undernourished in different countries. The other data set is from the World Health Organization (WHO) and is based on the anthropometric approach, the essence of which is to assess the nutritional status of individuals by their weight and height. The disturbing fact is that these two methods give different, or conflicting, answers to the above questions, or no answer at all.

(i) According to the FAO, 20 per cent of all households in the developing countries (or 841 million people) are undernourished. The WHO data suggest that in these countries, when judged by weight for age, 34 per cent of all children below the age of five (179 million) are undernourished; when judged by height for age 41 per cent (215 million); and by being thin for their height, 9 per cent (48 million). If the number of undernourished are to be halved, we must choose between these (or other) numbers in order to establish a bench-mark of the initial level of undernutrition.

(ii) If the monitoring of progress towards the 2015 objective is to be carried out with the present version of the FAO method, it will—in effect—be like monitoring changes in national food supplies. This is because food supplies is the only variable that the FAO is able to measure in terms of changes over time. As of today, the FAO has no data from any country on changes in the distributions of calorie intakes and in calorie requirements across households, the other two main parameters in its estimation model. On the other hand, if progress is to be monitored with the anthropometric approach, its coverage has to be extended to all age/gender categories, and measurements have to be obtained more frequently than at present.

(iii) The two methods give diametrically opposite answers to the question of where the undernourished are found. The FAO method finds undernutrition to be the most prevalent in the Sub-Saharan African countries (43 per

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