Banerjee delivers keynote address on nutrition deficiency

Last Thursday evening, Professor Abhijit V. Banerjee, co-founder of the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, delivered a keynote speech for Hunger Week on nutrition deficiency in developing countries.

Throughout the course of his speech, Banerjee revealed dramatic statistics on nutritional deficiency in countries like India, Indonesia and Bangladesh — 48 percent of children in India, in terms of nutritional requirements, are two standard deviations below where they should be.

He recalled an incident from a trip to a village in Morocco, when he asked a villager what the latter would buy if he was given money. The villager said, “Buy food.” And if he was given a little more money? Again, the villager said, “Buy food.” Yet when Banerjee walked into his house, there was a flat screen television, a parabolic antenna, and a DVD player.

“He was not posturing, but he said that television is more important than food. For him, his life was very boring — he lived in a village, he did not have much work, there were only a few people, so not much scope for entertainment,” explained Banerjee.

If people do not see themselves as starving, then they will not eat extra food, Banerjee said. Instead, they will sell it. “They are people after all; they naturally have their own judgments. And this is what economists usually miss,” he said.

“People are underweight; food is one way to not be underweight. But what has been observed is that as people are becoming rich, they are spending less on obtaining essential calories. Money is going to fund entertainment of all sorts,” he elaborated. He added that he thought it unrealistic to believe that people would be psychologically rational with regards to something as fundamental as food.

According to Banerjee, the primary barrier to solving nutrition deficiency problems is people’s mindsets. For example, said Banerjee, iron pills are inexpensive or free in may countries — but it is difficult to convince people that these pills are good for their health, and ensure that they take the supplements.

“What’s the cost of taking an iron pill everyday? Nothing. What costed a lot was making sure they took it everyday,” said Banerjee.

In Indonesia, as a substitute to iron pills, fish sauce is fortified with iron. Though this is more expensive than simply taking a pill, it ensures that people get their necessary dose of iron.

Banerjee cited this fish-sauce approach as a simple solution to a far-reaching problem.

“Getting people to understand the importance of nutrition is a long-term fight, it is not a trivial fight. I am usually not the one who advocates technology as the solution. But here I think that technology will be very close to solving all these nutrition deficiency problems,” he concluded.