Working Paper
Undernutrition in Sub-Saharan Africa

A Critical Assessment of the Evidence

The predominant perception is that the world's food problems are now concentrated in Sub-Saharan Africa. Declining food production and recurrent famine in many African countries are the focal points of much recent work on food problems. This paper assesses the evidence on the prevalence of undernutrition on a more permanent basis. The overall conclusion is that there is no firm evidence corroborating the notion that chronic and severe undernutrition is widespread in most parts of Africa. World Bank estimates, derived on the basis of aggregate data, suggest that almost half the population in Sub-Saharan Africa is undernourished and one-quarter severely so. FAO estimates purport that the amount of calories available for human consumption in the region corresponds to 80 percent of requirements even if distributed in proportion to needs. In the present paper, these estimates are shown to be biased, i.e., to exaggerate the non-transitory food consumption problems in Africa. Moreover, the aggregate estimates do not square up with the evidence from (i) dietary, (ii) anthropometric and (iii) food expenditure studies of sample populations. Many infants and children in Africa are stunted by Western standards and they face an exceedingly high risk of dying. There is, however, practically no evidence vindicating the notion that lack of food at the household level is the main reason; it thus seems that other factors, such as disease and nutritional misallocation within the families, are the major culprits. Finally, it is shown that there is no bias against female children in Africa, something that has been found in South Asia and Latin America. On the contrary, in Africa, boys seem to be at a systematic disadvantage.