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.

A short reading list for development economists and practitioners

Below is a list of books I am currently reading and that I think most development economists (and anyone interested in development) would benefit from reading. The reading list is America-centric and provides a mix of economic history and the history of governance in the US.

Let’s make this a year in which development economists and practitioners read more economic history.

  1. The Tycoons: Charles Morris’ book outlines American economic history from the perspective of four of the country’s most celebrated businessmen: Jay Gould, John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie and J. P. Morgan. You think corruption is bad for development? Can industrial policy help poor countries overcome the poverty trap? And how exactly do countries become rich? These are some of the questions that are implicitly addressed in this rather easy to read book.
  2. FDR by Jean Edward Smith: If America ever had a developmental president, it was FDR. His big push to help regular folk with the New Deal and other government programs took water and electricity to many corners of America that had previously been forgotten by mainstream politics. The story of American development is a caution agains the prevailing fascination in the development community with small-scale pro-poor initiatives that largely sidestep the state. Development is political (because it creates relative distributional winners and losers) and those who ignore this fact will always fail.
  3. The Search For Order, 1877-1920: Want to know more about how America became modern? This book provides a glimpse of the period in American history between the era when robber barons ran the show and when formal institutional arrangements became commonplace in business and government alike. The book provides an excellent account of the dynamics of institutional development both in the public and private sectors.
  4. The Evolution of American Legislatures: Want to know how US State Legislatures have evolved from the colonial times to the present? The you must read Squire’s book. I loved reading this book [yes, because I study African legislatures myself] precisely because it gives a detailed account of the very undemocratic origins of the democratic institution of the legislature(s) that we associate with modern United States. The book is a caution to institutionalists who peddle the false idea that good institutions are born good and stable. The lesson from American history is that it is all about how checks are enforced, and that sometimes to guarantee enforcement you might need to limit political participation and choice.
  5. Abraham Lincoln by Lord Charnwood: I now live in the land of Lincoln and so this was a must read for me. The big development lesson from this book is that civil wars are complex and that sometimes nations ought to be left to recover autonomously. Just imagine how the history of the US would have played out if the UN already existed (and at the time dominated by the UK, France, and Germany) and had sent in peacekeepers right after the Confederates seceded…. The book is also a nod to the Great Man theory by showing us how Lincoln’s personal life and conviction played a big role in determining the course of US history.
  6. 1913 The Eve of War: This is a random addition to the list, I know. But I added it to remind readers that things can always go wrong in the international system, with grave consequences for the entire global community. The book is also a good lesson on how Great Powers can sometimes be forced into conflict even when they would prefer not to fight.
  7. The Great Escape: I know I am late to the game on this one but Angus Deaton’s book (which got glowing reviews in the Fall) is a great account of the public health advances of the of the last century in both the developed and developing worlds. The book also reminds us that economic inequality is not always a bad thing, as long as everyone’s living condition is improving – which he says has been the case for much of the last century. Also, Deaton reminds us that aid is not the panacea to underdeveloped and that it might actually lead to more harm than good. But the solution he runs to – good governance – is equally problematic. 21st century good governance means zero tolerance on corruption, crony capitalism, and state capture by the business elite. Yet if you read the books above, you realize that because of the political risks involved in poor (or less institutionalized) countries, sometimes the habits associated with bad governance are the only means available for incentivizing investment. The point here is not that we should neglect the fight against bad governance, just that “Governance” shouldn’t be the only consideration when thinking of factors that retard economic growth. Just imagine how the Transparency International report on corruption in the US circa 1920 would have read like.