Friday, March 09, 2007

Ethiopia "doing better" than Asia?

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 worthwile 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 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. see Empty Stomachs and the Union Budget

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 pyramind", "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 protrayed as an economic opportunity. In fact, I see all around this infectious new economism" everything must be protrayed 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 was to stop).

Paintings 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 latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-III of the Government of India).

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