The Agenda

Stunted or Naturally Short?

Reuben Abraham, executive director of the Centre for Emerging Markets Solutions at the Indian School of Business, defends the work of Columbia University economist Arvind Panagariya, who claims that the World Health Organization approach to measuring child malnutrition might overstate the extent of extreme deprivation.

It assumes that identical nourishment leads to identical average heights and weights in different populations, regardless of differences in race, culture, geography and physical environments between them. In other words, the WHO approach is premised on the assumption that given proper nutrition, on average, a five-year-old Keralite girl reared in Kerala will soon attain the same height and weight as a five-year-old Dutch girl reared in Holland. Panagariya argues that this is a false premise and leads to overestimation of stunted (low height for age) children in India relative to, say, sub-Saharan Africa.

Panagariya recognizes that improved diet and reduced incidence of disease can lead to improvements in height and weight, yet he argues that it is foolish to discount the possibility that there might be some genetic component to height and weight as well. Abraham cites height differences among affluent countries:

[T]he critics have been unable to explain the persistent height difference of 12.5 centimetre (cm) between a Japanese male and a Dutch one (the two countries that have both been rich and free of malnourishment for decades), or a 9.5cm difference between a Portuguese male and a Dutch male. For that matter, the critics haven’t explained the persistent height difference between children of Moroccan extraction born in Holland and native-born Dutch children of 6cm among men and 7.9cm among women.

This latter observation strikes me as particularly interesting. If relative social position contributes to height differences, the fact that Dutch children of Moroccan origin tend to live in households with below-avergae incomes might be a contributing factor. But I am inclined to agree with Panagariya and Abraham on the basic question of whether persistent height differences can be attributed to genetic differences. One wonders if the growing use of human growth hormone (HGH) treatments for children of below-average height in the U.S. and other affluent countries might alter this landscape — it might mitigate height differences across groups, or it might spark an arms race among parents looking to give their children a boost.


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