Why are Africans getting shorter?

South Asia still posts the lowest average height for adults in the world (see image below). But a remarkable finding of a recent study is that adult Africans (among other low income regions of the world) have gotten shorter, on average, since the 1970s.

Being taller is associated with enhanced longevity, and higher education and earnings. We reanalysed 1472 population-based studies, with measurement of height on more than 18.6 million participants to estimate mean height for people born between 1896 and 1996 in 200 countries. The largest gain in adult height over the past century has occurred in South Korean women and Iranian men, who became 20.2 cm (95% credible interval 17.5–22.7) and 16.5 cm (13.3–19.7) taller, respectively. In contrast, there was little change in adult height in some sub-Saharan African countries and in South Asia over the century of analysis. The tallest people over these 100 years are men born in the Netherlands in the last quarter of 20th century, whose average heights surpassed 182.5 cm, and the shortest were women born in Guatemala in 1896 (140.3 cm; 135.8–144.8). The height differential between the tallest and shortest populations was 19-20 cm a century ago, and has remained the same for women and increased for men a century later despite substantial changes in the ranking of countries.

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What explains deceleration in average adult heights on the Continent?

One obvious explanation is a decline in nutrition amid rising populations and declining agricultural productivity (Africa barely registered a green revolution). Another major culprit is the economic disaster that visited the Continent from the late 1970s to the early 1990s — which resulted in poor nutrition and an unchecked disease burden. Lastly, there is the issue of water and sanitation, especially in the context of a rapidly urbanizing population, which has direct implications for the realized disease burden.

the mdgs

Since everyone is currently talking about the MDGs and how they may or may not be achieved on time here is a nice piece from Bill Easterly.

According to an Oxfam study, eliminating US cotton subsidies would “improve the welfare of over one million West African households – 10 million people – by increasing their incomes from cotton by 8 to 20 per cent”.

I may not always agree with Bill but I think his basic approach to development is spot on. Just like in most human endeavors (politics, economics, sports) systems based on human goodwill are bound to fail while those based on self-interestedness thrive. There is no magic bullet in development, but there is definitely a better approach than is currently being employed. Lets not forget that aid is supposed to eventually lead to self-reliance.

It is already clear that the goals will not be met by their target date of 2015. One can already predict that the ruckus accompanying this failure will be loud about aid, but mostly silent about trade. It will also be loud about the failure of state actions to promote development, but mostly silent about the lost opportunities to allow poor countries’ efficient private business people to lift themselves out of poverty.

Bono has a slightly less realistic more hopeful take on the progress towards achieving the MDGs.