Chronic Malnutrition Stunts Asia’s Rising-Star Economies: Over 30% of Indian, Filipino and Indonesian Kids Never get Chance to Reach Potential

The economic costs of malnutrition are staggering. India stands to lose $46 billion of its gross domestic product by 2030, according to a study by British charity, ‘Save the Children’.


Malti Bhogade’s twin daughters died soon after they were born. Bhogade, a 32-year old farm laborer working 150 km north of India’s financial capital, Mumbai, delivered her babies prematurely in January. One died almost instantly due to malnutrition.

The other died of a heart attack within a month. “It was painful to lose them,” she said. It is a pain far too many families are experiencing in some of Asia’s fastest-growing economies. From India to the Philippines and Indonesia, youthful societies promise ‘demographic dividends,’ but malnutrition is cutting lives short and hindering children’s growth. As the world races toward a digital future, these countries are scrambling to prevent their population blessing from becoming a curse – large numbers of infirm citizens who cannot support themselves.

Bhogade and her husband, Bhimjaya, live in a hamlet of roughly 50 families in Mokhada, part of a large tribal belt in India’s most prosperous state. Mokhada has seen hundreds of malnutrition-related deaths in recent years. The wider district of Palghar, to which Mokhada belongs, recorded over 3,000 such deaths in the last five years.

When it does not kill, chronic malnutrition causes stunting – when a child cannot grow to an age-appropriate height. Stunting also impedes brain development, especially in children up to the age of five, preventing them from ever reaching their full potential.

For these children, the future is bleak. They struggle in school, are more likely to drop out altogether, and have little chance of landing a good job and becoming financially secure, productive citizens.

In India the median age is 28.5, making it the envy of aging countries like Japan, where the median is over 47. But 46.6 million Indian children, or 38%, suffer from stunted growth despite the government’s efforts to address the problem; only neighboring Pakistan has a higher ratio.

India’s stunted children account for a third of the worldwide total.

The situation in the Philippines is similarly grim: one child out of three is stunted, a ratio that has remained virtually unchanged for two decades. Health experts say the country is stuck in a vicious cycle, where children who were malnourished 20 years ago are now becoming mothers to malnourished children of their own.

The economic costs of malnutrition are staggering. India stands to lose $46 billion of its gross domestic product by 2030, according to a study by British charity Save the Children. The Philippines, meanwhile, has been losing 220 billion pesos ($4.3 billion) or 1.5% of its GDP a year, based on a joint study by the United Nations’ Children’s Fund, the Philippines’ Health Department and a local nongovernmental organization.

The multilateral lender estimates that every dollar invested in maternal and child nutrition can deliver returns of up to $16 on average. Indonesia, where about 31% of children experience stunted growth, stands to earn as much as $48 in economic returns. The World Bank explains this is because the cost of investing in nutrition is similar across all countries, but earning potentially lost to stunted growth is much higher in middle-income countries like Indonesia than, say, the poorer nations of sub-Saharan Africa.

Social norms can contribute to the problem, noted Naresh Dhanwa, a manager with Dr. M. L. Dhawale Memorial Trust, which runs health care and sustainability programs in India. It has been a common practice for pregnant women to eat less so that the babies would be smaller and easier to deliver at home, rather than a hospital.


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