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Economic Crises Taking a Toll on Children

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  • The global financial crisis may well have caused as many as 50,000 new infant deaths in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2009
  • Baby girls are more likely to die when poor countries face economic shocks
  • Nutrition programs addressing young children’s needs may offer benefits that last a lifetime

April 7, 2010—Economic shocks are taking a toll on a population already facing high risks in low-income countries: children.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, as many as 50,000 infants likely lost their lives last year to the global financial crisis that began in the U.S., almost all of them girls, according to economists at the World Bank’s Development Research Group. That worsens the region’s struggle to reduce infant mortality: 3 million already die every year before reaching their first birthday.

In addition, children in poor countries—mostly Africa and parts of Asia—are put at risk by droughts, export decline and other economic setbacks. They often drop out of school or lose access to health care, according to a series of research papers by the Development Research Group exploring the impact of economic crises.

That in turn will put those children at a disadvantage, even long after the crises are over, according to economists who study past crises. That’s because children suffering from malnutrition – especially from conception to two years old—are more likely to be shorter in height as adults, less educated and earn less income over their lifetimes.

"The GDP goes down a year and eventually recovers," said Harold Alderman, an economist who studied previous crises in countries such as Tanzania and Zimbabwe. "A young child with malnutrition is not likely to recover. A child who drops out of school is not likely to go back."

Lessons for Policy Makers

The research could offer valuable lessons for policy makers, relief organizations and others as they grapple with economic distress, earthquakes and other disasters. The Development Research Group recently estimated that extreme poverty in developing countries is declining in fits and starts, with the number of extreme poor in the developing world expected to total 920 million by 2015, compared with 1.4 billion in 2005. However, rising food and fuel prices since 2005, combined with the worldwide financial crisis that soon followed, likely pushed millions more into poverty than would have been without such shocks. The U.N., aiming to halve the proportion of people living in extreme poverty from 1990 to 2015, will convene a global summit in September to address the issue.

"For poor households, it’s important to ensure food security, as well as critical health services, because we know crises can affect the welfare of children in the long term," said Jed Friedman, an economist who has studied the impact of economic crises in regions such as Indonesia and Africa.
Indeed, infants die during economic crises because families, facing an income shortfall, tend to spend less on food, especially healthy food, Friedman said. Parents and other caretakers also are more likely to skip doctor visits when their children are sick, just so they can save on medical costs. In addition, some countries may see their public health system breaking down, making it harder for patients to get care.

Baby girls, in particular, are more likely to die during economic crises, a phenomenon found in many developing countries, including those in Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions not known for preferring boys, Friedman and his colleagues found.

"These patterns are very unlikely to have a ‘biological’ explanation," said Norbert Schady, an economist who has studied the impact of economic crises extensively. "Girls are generally sturdier than boys, and there are no significant or substantive changes in the boy-girl ratio at birth during crises. Rather, it seems, families appear to make greater efforts to protect boys than girls in dire economic times."

Crises Affect Countries Differently

To be sure, low-income countries aren’t the only ones being affected by global economic crises. But rich and middle-income countries have more resources to absorb economic shocks, and most recessions—except for those affecting at least 15% of a country’s general economy—often don’t drive up the number of infant deaths, Schady said.

In fact, in the U.S., child health and education improve during recessions. That’s because Americans, facing high unemployment rates, are often encouraged to get more education. They may also spend more time with their children and cut spending on products such as alcohol.

The picture is mixed with middle-income countries. Most countries in Latin America, such as Mexico and Peru, tend to see children’s health declining but school enrollment increasing during economic shocks. That may be because falling wages for child labor make education more desirable, the researchers said. During an economic crisis in the late 1980s, lower household incomes and a collapse in public-health spending in Peru were linked to a higher rate of infant mortality, which resulted in more than 17,000 additional infant deaths.

Still, economic downturns seem to be hitting children in poor countries the hardest, and researchers say the impact can last a lifetime. In Zimbabwe, for example, how children fared after a civil war and drought was affected by their height in early childhood, according to research by Alderman and his colleagues. Children whose growth was stunted because of malnutrition before age five tended to be shorter as young adults and receive less schooling.

Researchers say policy makers can and should address children’s needs during and after economic crises. "There are things that governments can do to help protect children in poor families from shocks," said Martin Ravallion, director of the Development Research Group. "Cash incentives, for example, can provide a degree of protection, particularly if they come with the condition that parents look after the health and nutrition of their children. The key, he said, is to design programs that fit a country's circumstances and improve them based on evaluations.




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