Children: Ethiopia Better than Asia?

March 10, 2007
Ananya Mukherjee

Here you have India growing almost 10%, supposedly gaining on China and providing one of history's greatest investment stories. And yet, Indians figured even worse in the (UNICEF) report than Ethiopia and on a par with Eritrea and Burkina Faso in the area of malnutrition.

-- "Where even Ethiopia is doing better than Asia", The Economic Times, March 3, 2007

When I stumbled on to this headline in the Economic Times, I decided to dig out some more data from the UNICEF database comparing India, China, Ethiopia, Eritrea and Burkina Faso. While I am somewhat uncomfortable in using countries as "benchmarks" of disaster (and Africa seems to be a frequent victim of this act), it seems quite worthwhile to examine how India looks in terms of the comparisons mentioned in the article.

Take a look: it is every bit as bad as the article suggests, and even worse. In addition, levels of inequality are the highest in China, but quite comparable in India and Ethiopia. India has the highest percentage of its under-five population suffering from severe-to-moderate malnutrition (about 47 percent), the highest percentage suffering from severe malnutrition, and so on.

And there is no redress in sight. In today's Hindu, Jean Dreze tells us that the budget allocation for the Integrated Child development scheme (ICDS) in 2007-08 has not increased at all: it remains the same as a proportion of GDP. Accordingly, the Government of India will be spending less than Rs.5,000 crore for its 160 million children under six. By contrast it will spend Rs.96,000 crore on defence.

Yes, increased allocations would certainly help. But what is at stake here is not simply a matter of fiscal allocations. At stake here is the overall vision of development itself. Very popular now are the ideas of "inclusive growth", "the bottom of the pyramid", "the triple bottom line" and their likes.

Inclusive growth is of course a simple empty uttering of a master politician. The others are motivated by the belief that the the vast numbers of the poor must be portrayed as an economic opportunity. In fact, I see all around this infectious new 'economism' everything must be portrayed as profitable.

(Most blatant is perhaps the discussion around female foeticide. As part of its Women's Day collection, the Times of India suggests that the girl child must be made an economically attractive option if foeticide is to stop).

Painting victims of injustice as a market or an asset? Children suffering from malnutrition as potential consumers of packaged babyfood? Perhaps baby food manufacturers can lobby Chidambaram for an increased allocation towards child health to be spent on babyfood? That would be "inclusive growth" in the best possible way: the growth of these children would include the growth of babyfood manufacturers, global and Indians. The government will finance a food distribution scheme for the "severely malnourished", by taking away from another public service.

In the mean time, either nothing will change for the parents of the "moderately malnourished", or they will slip into the severe category. (Recall that 46 percent - i.e. almost half of under-fives suffer from moderate to severe malnutrition, according to the UNICEF/NFH survey).

Ananya (Mukherjee Reed) is a professor at York University, Toronto, specializing in critical approaches to political economy, development and related issues. Ananya is passionate about arguing!
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Children: Ethiopia Better than Asia?


Author: Ananya Mukherjee


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March 11, 2007
07:07 AM

Hi Ananya

The 47% you quote is from the NFHS report 1999. The figure is 46% now.

The problem with this data is that the weight benchmarks used are US benchmarks. (atleast for 1999 data).

I am not sure what benchmarks have been used in 2005-2006 data. There is a strong case that it may have been US benchmarks.

here is the link with new benchmarks


I suspect that with the new benchmarks, the % of underweight children would be about 25-30%, more the line of poverty data,


Ananya Mukherjee Reed
March 11, 2007
10:13 AM

Dear Chandra, The way I use the term benchmark or the ET article does, refers simply to the levels of the variables as published in the UNICEF's State of the World's Children 2007. I have put a link to some of the data in a table I compiled. The comparisons are there. The UNICEF data on India was compiled in collaboration with the National Family Health Sruvey, and they have published the NFHS-II data. This is what is compared to the data from other countries, which I why I have quoted that figure. The NFHS-III indeed is at 46 as you say, although I am not sure that all of this 1% gain can be attributed to real improvement, but let us hope it is.

March 13, 2007
10:08 PM

many points raised.

the righteous anger/outrage aside, real practical methods to stop infanticide should include financial incentives.

more money thrown at primary education is not going to help, but definitely less taxation for money on defence will be useful. they certainly have not accounted for how 160 million is spent on education. maybe greater accountability through RTI would be a better way to increase effectiveness in spending.

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