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Joining the dots between economics, income, health and poverty

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The concerns about recession and its impacts on poverty are seen commonly as a question mark over household incomes, over food security and often involve debates about social protection. An aspect that all too often gets ignored in this equation – no doubt because of its complexity – is health and in particular the health of women and children.

Changes in neonatal mortality rates between 1990 and 2009. The map illustrates the change in NMR between the years 1990 and 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

This is linked very closely to poverty, however we measure it, and the conditions that either cause poverty to persist (leading to chronic poverty) or cause households at risk to lapse into poverty every now and then (shock). The human development index methodolgy, which is from this year using multi-dimensional indices for poverty for the first time, helps us link health, poverty, income and economic growth (or its opposite).

The question is: is this new understanding, which is more in tune with the way households actually carry on with their lives and are actually affected by wider trends concerning economy, helping integrate the connections? If there is one good reason to ask this question, it is the new study on ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’.

[The World Health Organization (WHO) has a report and summary of the study on this page – ‘Newborn deaths decrease but account for higher share of global child deaths’]
[The full study is available on PLoS Medicine, 1 August 2011 (Volume 8, Issue 8)]

This has shown that every year, more than 8 million children die before their fifth birthday. Most of these deaths occur in developing countries and most are caused by preventable or treatable diseases. In 2000, world leaders set a target of reducing child mortality to one-third of its 1990 level by 2015 as Millennium Development Goal 4 (MDG4). This goal, together with seven others, is designed to help improve the social, economic, and health conditions in the world’s poorest countries. In recent years, progress towards reducing child mortality has accelerated but remains insufficient to achieve MDG4.

“In particular, progress towards reducing neonatal deaths – deaths during the first 28 days of life – has been slow and neonatal deaths now account for a greater proportion of global child deaths than in 1990. Currently, nearly 41% of all deaths among children under the age of 5 years occur during the neonatal period. The major causes of neonatal deaths are complications of preterm delivery, breathing problems during or after delivery (birth asphyxia), and infections of the blood (sepsis) and lungs (pneumonia). Simple interventions such as improved hygiene at birth and advice on breastfeeding can substantially reduce neonatal deaths.”

Neonatal mortality rates in 2009. The map illustrates the NMR in year 2009 for each of the 193 countries estimated. PLoS Medicine 8(8): e1001080

The researchers used civil registration systems, household surveys, and other sources to compile a database of deaths among neonates and children under 5 years old for 193 countries between 1990 and 2009. They estimated NMRs for 38 countries from reliable vital registration data and developed a statistical model to estimate NMRs for the remaining 155 countries (in which 92% of global live births occurred).

They found that in 2009, 3.3 million babies died during their first month of life compared to 4.6 million in 1990. More than half the neonatal deaths in 2009 occurred in five countries – India, Nigeria, Pakistan, China, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. India had the largest number of neonatal deaths throughout the study. Between 1990 and 2009, although the global NMR decreased from 33.2 to 23.9 deaths per 1,000 live births (a decrease of 28%), NMRs increased in eight countries, five of which were in Africa. Moreover, in Africa as a whole, the NMR only decreased by 17.6%, from 43.6 per 1,000 live births in 1990 to 35.9 per 1,000 live births in 2009.

To return to my question concerning the understanding of economics, income, health and poverty, does most current analysis see to integrate these elements, or is it still GDP-income driven? A new (2011 May) paper released by the Brookings Institution indicates that the GDP-income route is still favoured. The paper, ‘Two Trends in Global Poverty’, Geoffrey Gertz and Laurence Chandy, has said that while the overall prevalence of poverty is in retreat, the global poverty landscape is changing. “This transformation is captured by two distinct trends: poor people are increasingly found in middle-income countries and in fragile states. Both trends – and their intersection – present important new questions for how the international community tackles global poverty reduction.”

The two charts show the trajectory of 20 developing countries along three dimensions: number of poor people, degree of fragility and real income per capita. These 20 countries collectively account for 90 percent of the world’s poor in 2005, and thus largely define the evolving state of global poverty. Graphic: Brookings Institution

“The increased prevalence of poverty in middle-income countries is in many ways a trend of success. Over the past decade, the number of countries classified as low-income has fallen by two fifths, from 66 to 40, while the number of middle-income countries has ballooned to over 100. This means 26 poor countries have grown sufficiently rich to surpass the middle-income threshold. Among those countries that have recently made the leap into middle-income status are a group of countries  –  India, Nigeria and Pakistan  – containing large populations of poor people. It  is their “graduation” which has brought about the apparent shift in poverty from the low-income to middle-income country category.”

This categorisation of middle, low and high income was to an extent useful in the 1970s, when the idea of a human development index was being discussed, but we’ve come a long way since. We know that even in smaller countries (rather, countries with populations that are relatively small compared to those whic bear the sort of burdens studied in the PLoS Medicine research) there is a great deal of income disparity. ‘Income’ itself is a condition with a bewildering number of inputs – social science is quite inadequate to the task of being able to recognise all of these, let alone quantify them and rationalise them across countries and regions – which is exactly what studies like this try to do unfortunately.

“In 2005, when more than half the world’s poor lived in such countries, it made some sense to think about fighting poverty in terms of a single developing country paradigm, based on what worked in countries such as Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique or Vietnam,” Gertz and Chandy have said. “This logic was evident in two of the major events of that year which continue to shape today’s development agenda: the G8 meeting at Gleneagles and the High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness in Paris. It was also apparent in Jeffrey Sachs’ influential 2005 best-seller, ‘The End of Poverty’. The legacy of these ideas is scattered throughout the work of the international development community in the design of traditional aid instruments and the standard methods of country engagement.”

The authors of the Brookings paper have said that this approach remains relevant for some countries, but with 90 percent of the world’s poor living in different settings today, its broader application can no longer be justified. Yet they have found that such an admission poses a dilemma. The dilemma exists because one of the reasons the stable low-income paradigm has persisted is because it characterizes an environment in which the international development community feels most comfortable and has the most experience. “The role of external actors in supporting poverty reduction in stable low-income countries is well understood and the standard tools of external assistance – financial and technical assistance – are well suited to them.”

Maplecroft's 2011 food security risk index

What does this mean? Does it give us a hitherto obscured insight into the inner world of aid agencies and international development departments and how they see ‘poor’ countries’ populations? Does it mean that we are burdened with three decades worth of simplistic labelling of populations at risk simply because labelling them any other way makes it difficult to help them? That’s what it looks like to me and I’d like to thank Gertz and Chandy for revealing this. But it’s way past high time this sort of categorisation was ditched, once and for all. It would do us and the battalions of development professionals a huge amount of good to simply be able to say, every so often, “we don’t know enough”.

It is worth being honest about the state of our knowledge concerning the lives of the the majority of households in ‘developing’ countries. Some of the reasons why such honesty will help in the long term are contained in a thoughtful new publication from the World Bank (whose army of development professionals will benefit from its reading). This collection is entitled ‘No Small Matter: The Impact of Poverty, Shocks, and Human Capital Investments in Early Childhood Development’ (The World Bank, 2011) and it has said that, as the 2008 global financial crisis has again demonstrated, economic crises are an unfortunate recurring event in the world and can have severe consequences for household livelihoods.

Progress in key health indicators, UN Human Development Report 2010

‘No Small Matter’ defines economic crises as sharp, negative fluctuations in aggregate income, these being especially common in developing countries, and the frequency with which they occur has been increasing in recent history. We know that declines in household and community resources are not the only risks that arise from an economic crisis because of its aggregate nature. We also know – from fieldwork and by hearing those whom we would wish to help – that at the same time as households cope with the possibility of reduced income from aggregate economic contractions, vital public services may also experience a decline in quality or availability, which in turn may have an additional impact on skill development among children. This is happening now, in more countries than ever before. The economic crisis that hit Latin America in 1982 led to a decrease in public health spending and had a disproportionate effect on the poorest groups. In 2011, the decrease in public health spending exists in many more countries.

A chapter in ‘No Small Matter’, ‘The Influence of Economic Crisis on Early Childhood Development: A Review of Pathways and Measured Impact’, by Jed Friedman and Jennifer Sturdy, is particularly useful.

This has said that “conservative estimates suggest that over 200 million children under five years of age living in developing countries fail to reach their cognitive development potential because of a range of factors, including poverty, poor health and nutrition, and lack of stimulation in home environments”. It is possible, the chapter’s authors have said, that this burden increases during times of crisis as poverty increases and food security is threatened. However, to investigate this claim more carefully it is necessary to understand the pathways through which poverty influences skill acquisition in children.

“The most severe condition affecting ECD (Early Childhood Development) is infant and early child mortality. Sharp economic downturns were associated with increases in infant mortality in Mexico, Peru and India. The mortality of children born to rural and less educated women is more sensitive to economic shocks, which suggests that the poor are disproportionately affected during most economic crises, and perhaps the poor face important credit constraints that bind in tragic ways during large contractions.

Weak relationship between economic growth and changes in health and education, UN Human Development Report 2010

The mortality of girls is also significantly more sensitive to aggregate economic shocks than that of boys. This gender differential exists even in regions such as Sub-Saharan Africa that are not particularly known for son preference and indicates a behavioral dimension where households conserve resources to better protect young sons at the expense of daughters.”

Finally, a further note about the extremely valuable PLoS Medicine study ‘Neonatal Mortality Levels for 193 Countries in 2009 with Trends since 1990: A Systematic Analysis of Progress, Projections, and Priorities’. The authors are: Mikkel Zahle Oestergaard1, Mie Inoue1, Sachiyo Yoshida, Wahyu Retno Mahanani, Fiona M. Gore1, Simon Cousens, Joy E. Lawn and Colin Douglas Mathers (on behalf of the United Nations Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation and the Child Health Epidemiology Reference Group – World Health Organization, Department of Health Statistics and Informatics; World Health Organization, Department of Child and Adolescent Health and Development; London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine; Saving Newborn Lives/Save the Children).

Children of poor households are more likely to die, UN Human Development Report 2010

The study found that of the 40 countries with the highest NMRs in 2009, only six are from outside the African continent (Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Bhutan, Myanmar, and Cambodia). Among the 15 countries with the highest NMRs (all above 39), 12 were from the African region (Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Sierra Leone, Guinea-Bissau, Chad, Central African Republic, Burundi, Angola, Mauritania, Mozambique, Guinea, and Equatorial Guinea), and three were from the Eastern Mediterranean (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Pakistan). Throughout the period 1990–2009, India has been the country with largest number of neonatal deaths. In 2009, the five countries with most deaths accounted for more than half of all neonatal deaths (1.7 million deaths = 52%), and 44% of global livebirths: India (27.8% of deaths, 19.6% of global livebirths), Nigeria (7.2%, 4.5%), Pakistan (6.9%, 4.0%), China (6.4%, 13.4%), and Democratic Republic of the Congo (4.6%, 2.1%). The top five contributors to the 4.6 million neonatal deaths in 1990 were: India (29.5% of deaths, 19.8% of global livebirths), China (12.3%, 18.0%), Pakistan (5.4%, 3.4%), Bangladesh (5.0%, 2.9%), and Nigeria (4.8%, 3.3%).

As the risk of children dying before the age of five has fallen, the proportion of child deaths that occur in the neonatal period has increased. This increase is primarily a consequence of decreasing non-neonatal mortality in children under five from infectious diseases such as measles, pneumonia, diarrhea, malaria, and AIDS. Globally, 41% of under-five deaths now occur in the neonatal period. Over the 20 y between 1990 and 2009, the proportion of global neonatal deaths that occurred in Africa increased. Although Africa is now the region with the highest NMR, the proportion of under-five child deaths that are neonatal remains relatively low in Africa—the fraction increased from 26% to 29% between 1990 and 2009. This apparent anomaly reflects the fact that Africa accounts for approximately 90% of child deaths due to malaria (0.7 million under-five deaths) and HIV/AIDS (0.2 million under-five deaths), resulting in relatively higher post-neonatal child mortality than other regions.

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State of Food Insecurity 2010 – FAO says too little, too timidly

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Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010The 2010 edition of the State of Food Insecurity says much too little and what it does say is unconvincing. There is a theme for this years edition of one of the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) ‘flagship’ reports. The theme is “countries in protracted crisis” by which FAO means conflict and war, internal and external.

FAO doesn’t say so explicitly in the introduction to SOFI 2010 on its website. There’s no excuses for FAO not to when the World Food Programme, Oxfam, ActionAid and a number of international agencies and aid groups have done so, not just this year but for at least a decade.

As the world’s pre-eminent compiler of food and agriculture-related research, data and analysis, FAO ought to see itself as duty-bound to be clear and fair in its reportage but it is not.

SOFI 2010 says that the majority of the world’s undernourished people live in developing countries. Two-thirds live in just seven countries (Bangladesh, China, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, India, Indonesia and Pakistan) and over 40% live in China and India alone.

The report says that “FAO’s projections for 2010 indicate that the number of undernourished people will decline in all developing regions, although with a different pace. The region with most undernourished people continues to be Asia and the Pacific, but with a 12% decline from 658 million in 2009 to 578 million, this region also accounts for most of the global improvement expected in 2010″. Where does FAO think this improvement is going to come from, given the fact that its own food price index shows how cereals have risen at a clip this year to match the rise in 2007?

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010Just as it did a month ago, the FAO is sounding like it is in two minds about what to report. SOFI 2010 says that “developing countries as a group have seen an overall setback in terms of the World Food Summit goal (from 827 million in 1990–92 to 906 million in 2010), while some progress has been made towards MDG 1 (with the prevalence of hunger declining from 20% undernourished in 1990–92 to 16% in 2010)”.

Which are the 22 countries covered by the ‘protracted crisis’ theme? Here they are, the numbers in total population in millions followed by number of undernourished in millions, both for 2005-07. (Why couldn’t these have been for 2009 in a report dated 2010?): Afghanistan (na / na), Angola (17.1 / 7.1), Burundi (7.6 / 4.7), Central African Republic (4.2 / 1.7), Chad (10.3 / 3.8), Congo (3.5 / 0.5), Côte d’Ivoire (19.7 / 2.8), Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (23.6 / 7.8), Democratic Republic of the Congo (60.8 / 41.9), Eritrea (4.6 / 3.0), Ethiopia (76.6 / 31.6), Guinea (9.4 / 1.6), Haiti (9.6 / 5.5), Iraq (na / na), Kenya (36.8 / 11.2), Liberia (3.5 / 1.2), Sierra Leone (5.3 / 1.8), Somalia (na / na), Sudan (39.6 / 8.8), Tajikistan (6.6 / 2.0), Uganda (29.7 / 6.1), Zimbabwe (12.5 / 3.7).

SOFI 2010 says: “On average, the proportion of people who are undernourished is almost three times as high in countries in protracted crisis as in other developing countries (if countries in protracted crisis and China and India are excluded). Nonetheless, not all countries in protracted crisis present very high levels of undernourishment as in some of these countries crises are localized to certain areas or regions. There are approximately 166 million undernourished people in countries in protracted crisis – roughly 20% of the world’s undernourished people, or more than a third of the global total if China and India are excluded from the calculation.”

Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), State of Food Insecurity (SOFI) 2010The question, what happens when China and India are excluded from calculations? With the exclusions 130.4 million (China) and 237.7 million (India) fall out of the equations? Moreover, SOFI isn’t following it’s own data. The para above says 166 million (approx) undernourished in countries in ‘protracted crisis’ but the table annex shows that the 22 countries together have 146.8 million undernourished. If the larger number for the 22 countries is the 2009 estimate, then FAO could have used the same method to provide estimates for all countries for 2009.

When FAO recalculates its food price index monthly (the current index is up-to-date for September 2010) why are these estimates three years old? Why should China and India be excluded when they account for over a third of the global undernourished population? Last month FAO said that 925 million people in the world live in chronic hunger and explained that “the decline (from 1,020 million in 2009) was primarily attributable to better economic prospects in 2010 and the fall in food prices since mid-2008”. What fall in food prices? What better economic prospects?

The State of Food Insecurity 2010 is a disappointing and pedestrian effort. FAO ought to retract this version and revise it thoroughly without dwelling on themes like ‘protracted crisis’ and instead get to grips with the market- and economics-related reasons for food price spikes and the hunger they bring.

The food-agritech-aid stakes, a return to the 1950s

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Undernourished population (image: Nature)At the end of July 2010, the United States government together with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation made an announcement that has far and wide implications for the agriculture and development sectors. The announcement was the launch of the ‘Global Agriculture and Food Security Program (GAFSP)’. The US Under Secretary for International Affairs (Lael Brainard) and the president of the Global Development Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (Sylvia Mathews Burwell) met ambassadors and embassy officials from more than a dozen African countries to discuss how they could use the new fund.

Described as “a new fund to tackle global hunger and poverty”, the GAFSP was created following the meeting of the G20 in Pittsburgh, USA, in 2009. Launched in April 2010 with US$880 million in commitments from the United States of America, Canada, South Korea, Spain, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the GAFSP “represents a global effort to aid vulnerable populations afflicted by hunger and poverty”.

Calorie availability (image: Nature)Moreover, it is being positioned as a key element of the Obama Administration’s initiative to, in its own words, enhance food security in poor countries, raise rural incomes and reduce poverty. Laudable aims, but food and food aid and agricultural technology has for most of the 20th century been a tool of foreign policy. South Asia knows that well with the role of the American philanthropic foundations and their role in ushering in the Green Revolution.

The fund’s first round of grants (total US$224 million) were awarded in June 2010 to Bangladesh, Haiti, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Togo. In October 2010, approximately US$120 million will be available for allocation to countries “eligible” for the GAFSP. More than 25 countries are expected to apply for assistance, but there are conditions. Funding “will be prioritised” for those countries that demonstrate the highest levels of need, the strongest policy environments and the greatest level of country readiness. What does readiness mean? The country will need to draft and frame an agricultural development strategy and country investment plan.

Agriculture research (image: Nature)Rural realities and living conditions are usually very different from the sketches contained in funding documents. Poverty is the main source of hunger now, not a lack of food. Efficiency has become a central theme, which means getting higher yields on small plots with fewer inputs of water and chemical/synthetic fertiliser. It hasn’t helped that government investment in basic research and development on agriculture, in the countries of the South, is very little.

1. In 2009, more than 1 billion people went undernourished — their food intake regularly providing less than minimum energy requirements — not because there isn’t enough food, but because people are too poor to buy it. At least 30% of food goes to waste. Although the highest rates of hunger are in sub-Saharan Africa — correlated with poverty — most of the world’s undernourished people are in Asia and particularly South Asia.

Global undernourishment (image: Nature)2. The percentage of hungry people in the developing world had been dropping for decades even though the number of hungry worldwide barely dipped. But the food price crisis in 2008 reversed these decades of gains.

3. Scientists long feared a great population boom that would stress food production, but population growth is slowing and should plateau by 2050 as family size in almost all poorer countries falls to roughly 2.2 children per family. Even as population has risen, the overall availability of calories per person has increased, not decreased. Producing enough food in the future is possible, but doing so without drastically sapping other resources, particularly water, will be difficult.

4. An outlook published in 2009 by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) says that current cropland could be more than doubled by adding 1.6 billion hectares — mostly from Latin America and Africa — without impinging on land needed for forests, protected areas or urbanisation. But Britain’s Royal Society has advised against substantially increasing cultivated land, arguing that this would damage ecosystems and biodiversity. Instead, it backs “sustainable intensification,” which has become the priority of many agricultural research agencies.