Purnima Menon reviews the literature about the drivers of undernutrition in South Asia. Purnima is a Member of Transform Nutrition Steering Group and senior research fellow at IFPRI, based in New Delhi.
South Asia carries the world’s highest burden of child nutrition. The problem has attracted many scholars, and many views. In July 2011, two economists, Rohini Pande and Seema Jayachandran, convened a small workshop of early-to mid-career economists to discuss the problem of undernutrition in South Asia.
I brought the nutritionist’s perspective to that small conference. All the papers from the workshop are available in the current issue of CESifo Economic Studies. In my article in this supplement, I describe the problem of child undernutrition in South Asia through the lens of a nutritionist, using a well-known and robust conceptual framework, and linking perspectives from the biological and social sciences.
The conceptual framework used in my paper is the ‘famous’ UNICEF conceptual framework for nutrition, which has now stood the test of time as a framework to bring different perspectives on nutrition together. It highlights that child nutrition is an outcome of immediate factors such as food and nutrient intake and illness, which in turn are influenced by underlying factors such as household food security and poverty, women’s status and access to health, nutrition, and social services. These factors, in turn, are a product of basic societal factors such as institutions, governance, politics, and culture. The framework highlights the multi-sectoral nature of nutrition, and in doing so, calls for different convergent actions to address nutrition.
Many debates on undernutrition in South Asia have taken partial views to the problem, unfortunately. In my paper, using the literature, and data from the region, I make the point that it is really important to take a comprehensive view that embraces the multiple contributors to undernutrition in South Asia. This is essential if we are to mobilise action and to generate the scientific and programmatic evidence needed to make a substantial dent in the high levels of undernutrition. Undernutrition in South Asia is a result of a ‘perfect storm’ – all the ingredients that contribute to undernutrition operate at a high level in the region – poor health and nutrition services related to direct interventions, poor women’s status, high levels of poverty and social exclusion, and poor governance. These issues need to be tackled systematically and simultaneously.
Using data from South Asia, and linking to the literature, this article provides an overview of the nutrition problem in this region and raises questions for further research and policy and programme action…