New Detailed Maps Reveal Progress And Retreat In The Battle Against Child Poverty

The proportion of African children experiencing stunting as a result of malnutrition has dropped dramatically in 15 years, but levels above 30 percent are still widespread , and large regions are above 50 percent. Osgood-Zimmerman et al./Nature

Extreme child poverty is falling around the world. Yet surely we'd be making better progress if we had a better grasp of where the greatest need lies. Newly published detailed maps identifying the frequency of malnutrition and level of educational attainment across Africa, and the changes over time, could help with both.

In 2015, it is estimated 36.6 percent of African children under five were stunted through malnutrition. Even this horrifying figure is a big improvement on the situation in 2000. Likewise, more children are getting an education. However, continental averages mask the fact that in some pockets there has been little progress, or things have got worse. Although data for these measures has been widely available at the national level, this still hides major differences, such as between Nigeria's north and south. Until now it has been difficult to discover, let alone visualize, the situation on a more fine-grained scale.

Two papers in Nature address this, along with an opinion piece by former United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan. As one paper notes, “Similar efforts that mapped subnational malaria prevalence, incidence, and mortality have, when overlaid with interventions, shown where use of insecticide-treated nets or access to treatment is lacking, pinpointing where remedial actions are needed.” According to Annan: “If you can't see it you can't solve it.”

The maps reveal at a glance the enormous progress made in some areas, particularly Angola, Liberia, and Mozambique since the ending of those countries' civil wars. Some countries, where rates of malnutrition were already low by the continent's standards, have met the Global Nutrition Targets set by the World Health Organization 10 years early.

On the other hand, malnutrition has actually become more prevalent in much of Ethiopia and parts of Chad.

The maps also reveal geographic variations between different forms of malnutrition. Wasting occurs when children get insufficient food over periods of months, rather than years, and is heavily concentrated in northern Africa and Madagascar where food supplies are more seasonal. Progress against wasting has been slower than against more long-term food deficiency.

Wasting, caused by months of severe food deprivation, was never as wide-spread as long-term malnutrition, but progress has also been slower outside the Congo. Osgood-Zimmerman et al./Nature

The authors also acknowledge estimates for some parts of Africa are much more reliable than from others.

When it comes to education, enormous gender gaps remain. Men are far more likely to have had access to schooling almost everywhere on the continent outside southern Africa. For most of northern Africa, women aged 15-49 have less than a 5 percent chance of having six years of formal education. Given the well-established relationship between girls' education, their future opportunities, and their children's health, addressing this is essential for many forms of future progress.

The differences between the years of education boys and girls are getting is smaller in southern Africa than elsewhere, and was only slightly lower in 2015 (right) than in 2000 (left). Graetz et al./Nature

 

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