Tag Archives: poverty alleviation

What is Stunting?

In today’s post, I wanted to revisit stunting. Over and over again, stunting emerges as one of the most critical hurdles to achieving full economic and social development in a global context. The condition affects over 162 million children under the age of 5 (Stunting Policy Brief, WHO and 1,000 Days). There is a significant amount of research into the causes and effects of this state of malnutrition, and a growing body of evidence-based interventions to combat it. So what is stunting?


Technically, the condition of stunting is defined as “a height that is more than two standard deviations below the World Health Organization (WHO) child growth standards median.” (Stunting Policy Brief, WHO and 1,000 Days) As any statistician might tell you, that’s quite extreme. It is important to recognize that so many hundreds of millions of children persist in this condition despite the extremity of its definition. However, the real tragedy of stunting is the irreversible long-term damage it inflicts including “diminished cognitive and physical development, reduced productive capacity and poor health, and an increased risk of degenerative diseases such as diabetes.” (Stunting Policy Brief, WHO and 1,000 Days)

Research has demonstrated the correlation between stunting before the age of 2 with diminished cognitive and educational ability later in life. Stunting is associated with fewer years of school completed, and significantly lower academic performances compared to non-stunted peers. In addition, stunting in women is associated with lower age at first childbirth and a higher number of total pregnancies. Stunting has been estimated by economists to reduce a country’s GDP by up to 3%. Furthermore it is associated with lower household income and a greater chance of living in poverty. One of the most shocking data points I came across is that stunted children earn an “estimated 20% less as adults compared to non-stunted individuals”. (Investing in Nutrition, World Bank)

Think about that for a minute – in India, the average GDP per capita in 2015 was roughly USD 1,581 (World Bank). If you were unfortunate enough to be stunted as a child, something that you had no control over, you can expect to earn on average USD 316 less every year, a truly significant amount of money at the margins. If you take into consideration the mean individual income of only the bottom 50% of income earners, you can imagine how disenfranchising that 20% diminishment in income really is.

One of the most important developments in the fight against malnutrition, including stunting, occurred in 2012 when the 194 member states of the World Health Assembly (WHA) endorsed six global targets to improve nutrition by 2025. (Interestingly enough, the world is currently not on track to meet even a single one of these targets…more on that later). The nutrition target for stunting is a 40% reduction in the number of children under 5 who are stunted. This translates roughly to at least 65 million fewer children who are stunted in 2025 and an estimated 2.8 million child lives saved. (Investing in Nutrition, World Bank)

As part of the effort to successfully reach the target goal for stunting, the WHO recommends the following actions to drive progress:

  1. Improve the identification, measurement and understanding of stunting and scale up coverage of stunting-prevention activities.
  2. Enact policies and/or strengthen interventions to improve maternal nutrition and health, beginning with adolescent girls.
  3. Implement interventions for improved exclusive breastfeeding and complementary feeding practices.
  4. Strengthen community-based interventions including improved water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH), to protect children from diarrheal diseases and malaria, intestinal worms and environmental causes of subclinical infection.


To learn more about stunting, please visit and donate generously to 1,000 Days.


Women’s Economic Empowerment, and Education

On to the inaugural post! Today I’d like to broach the topic of Women’s Economic Empowerment (WEE). In the world of development, this is as close to the Holy Grail as we have come to achieving true poverty alleviation. Its worth pausing for a moment to dig deeper into we actually mean by WEE. I have been reading through a terrific research report by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) titled “Women’s Economic Empowerment: Navigating Enablers and Constraints” (by Abigail Hunt and Emma Samman) which you can find here. In it, the authors state the definition of WEE as follows:

“Women’s economic empowerment is the process of achieving women’s equal access to and control over economic resources, and ensuring they can use them to exert increased control over other areas of their lives.” (Taylor and Pereznieto, 2014).

While I think this idea really broadly covers the aspirations of WEE work, I think it’s a little vague and begs for more detail over how exactly control and access lead to increased empowerment. Critically, what emerges is the ability control and access have to generate power for social and economic change. The authors go on to refine their definition of WEE as a,

“Process whereby women’s and girls’ lives are transformed from a situation where they have limited power and access to economic assets to a situation where they experience economic advancement.” (Taylor and Pereznieto, 2014)

In my opinion then, the true value of WEE is the ability to not only provide control and access but also to seed transformative power changes in society at the micro (individual, household, familial, regional, etc.) and macro (economic, state-level, international) levels. The report continues to expand on 10 “key factors” that can enable or constrain WEE. I hope to get into most of these factors in the future but for now I want to focus on the first, and in my estimation one of the most important – Education and Skills Development.

I have really positive news to start with – most people fundamentally believe in equal access to good education for both boys and girls (OECD, 2012b; Jones et al., 2014b;Purewal and Hashmi, 2015)! This is really an understated achievement of shifting cultural norms, and is worth its own moment of pause and reflection. While this may be self-evidently important, I think a powerful statistic shared in the report elucidates why we should be concerned with equitable access to quality education as a transformative social justice practice: “An additional year of primary school for girls can later increase wages by around 10%, rising to 15-25% for each extra year of secondary school, and nearly 17% for tertiary education.”

But don’t dwell there too long because unfortunately we don’t actually see this professed equity play out in the real world. According to UNICEF, in 2013 there were nearly 63 million girls of primary or secondary school age who were not enrolled respectively around the world. That figure is nearly the entire population of France. So what exactly are the barriers to female participation and access to quality education?

The short answer is there are a lot of reasons. It would take hundreds of pages to go into the details for all of them so I’ll just mention a few along a micro and macro split. At the micro level, some of the most important causes include young/child marriage. For example, according to ODI’s research report Gallup notes that in 29 Sub-Saharan African countries in 2015 “…married girls aged under 18 with a secondary education was 16% compared to 36% of unmarried girls.” While both numbers are starkly low, one is significantly lower.

Another important reason mentioned in the report is a lack of household resources. This can range from lack of financial resources to purchase school uniforms, textbooks, notebooks and pencils, and even tuition fees. Furthermore, in places like India where I worked for several years on issues of primary school education, there is a distinct and unfortunate cultural preference to send boy children to school over their girl siblings when resources are limited. (Author’s Note: A further blog post will provide more substantial data and research to back this up, as well as personal observations from my own professional experience). Conversely, programs that aim to alleviate these financial burdens have seen interesting and hopeful reduction rates in dropouts for adolescent girls (Duflo et al., 2006). A few other considerations at the micro level include “institutions that are inhospitable to girls who are menstruating, pregnant, or have children, curricula that reinforce traditional gender roles and a lack of female teachers.” (UNFPA, 2014)

At the macro level, data suggests that while most people are negatively impacted by external shocks (economic crises, wars, famines, natural disasters, etc.), girls’ lives and access to education are severely affected. One of the most interesting and disheartening consequences of economic shocks occurs when household mothers are driven to pursue more paid economic activities. According to the ODI research report, “girls are often the first to be removed from school to take on extra domestic responsibilities, including looking after younger siblings.” The disproportionate burden that is placed on women and young girls to manage household and informal sector care is evident in school dropout rates in periods of economic contraction (Stavropoulou and Jones, 2013). Even worse we find that “4 of the 5 countries with the largest gender gaps in education” are facing war or insurgency.

I want to end with a reflection on what this last piece of information tells me. Something I think is becoming abundantly clear through the data is the tremendous improvements to WEE gained through the modern infrastructure of multinational cooperation and stability. Rash wars, interventions, or escalations of tensions not only damage nation-states and the infrastructure of international stability – they disproportionately affect women who are often the first to be stripped of the progress and advancements of the 21st century.

More on that later…thanks for reading.