• Wednesday, Sep 23, 2020
  • Last Update : 01:36 am

The pains of growing

  • Published at 09:52 pm December 14th, 2019

Chasing GDP itself is of course a valueless pursuit

The United Nations says that Bangladesh is on course to cut stunting by 40% in just a few years, in 2025. This newspaper also reports that famine is a thing of the past, that the country has managed to increase food supply.

The two points are connected of course. As is the third point being made, that economic growth means that GDP per capita is running over the some $1,900 a year level.

The connection should be obvious enough, a richer place has more food with which to feed children so they can reach their genetic potential rather than being stunted through malnutrition. As should also be obvious there is therefore a point to this idea of economic growth. We are not chasing simply some unimportant chimera of GDP, but are building that better life that we all desire.

There is a useful little rule of thumb that can be used here. It requires no training other than just the use of the eyes on any street you care to walk down. Look at the heights of the people you pass. If the young are generally taller than the older generations then something important has happened in recent decades. Exactly what is described in that first paragraph, in fact -- the place has become so much richer that the young are now better fed, continuously, than their parents or grandparents were.

The standard historical tale here is that the British government was shocked, appalled even, when they found that the working class soldiers in the 1914-1918 war were on average six inches shorter than their upper-middle-class officers. This class difference in height was something entirely missing in the British society of my lifetime (now near some six decades long).

But I have seen this. As a child living in Italy, it was obvious that the generation immediately preceding mine was substantially taller than their parents. I see it in the Portugal I now live in. It's not unusual to see those over 70 who are under five foot tall -- and that's not from the inevitable shrinkage of age. The youth today are not notably shorter than other Europeans -- except, perhaps, the Dutch.

But, then, everyone's shorter than the Dutch.

It's even possible to do this in a more historical manner. Antique clothing is a thing, people desiring to dress up as say great grandmother did. The thing about this being that anyone of average height today finds it almost impossible to find such clothes that will fit. They're all cut for people considerably shorter than we are today.

Something has happened, something good. Food supply has increased, yes, that's true. But more importantly it has increased so much that there is that sufficiency for all to eat sufficiently in their childhood. Stunting is, now in Europe, something that comes from significant hormonal or genetic problems, not simply a lack of nutrients as a child.

Clearly, from those UN numbers, this is not entirely so in Bangladesh. But matters are vastly better than they used to be. Something I saw on my very first day in Dhaka. Yes, sorry, I did go and check but this is something that any can do. Those young are taller. More, the poor and young are tall by local standards. No, not all, but the effect of those generational improvements in childhood nutrition is obvious just to the naked eye.

It's not just that things are getting better it's that things already did get better. Something we can see just by walking down the street.

It's even possible to use Bangladeshi knowledge and resources to check this. The world’s RMG industry is one of the things making Bangladesh richer. But that means that the very industry we’d want to use to use to check this insight is right there too. For, obviously, clothes are made to size. 

There's a mix of tall and short, wide, and narrow, that has to be made and supplied. That mix will depend upon the measurements of the target population. Further, that mix will be different for different countries, but more than that clothes are aimed at different age groups. Check the mix of sizes being produced for the different age groups and we've that obvious proof of changes in size over time.

The RMG factories are going to be making taller clothes for the younger people. Which is the very proof of the UN's contention up at the top, childhood nutrition is improving.

All of which is rather the point of economic development. We want everyone to be able to achieve their potential. The most basic part of which is feeding children sufficiently that they grow into their genetic physical potential. Bangladesh is getting there, as southern European countries did one and two generations ago.

Chasing GDP itself is of course a valueless pursuit of a chimera but the things we can do with that greater output are beyond mere monetary valuations.

Tim Worstall is a Senior Fellow at the Adam Smith Institute in London.

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