A recent UN report found that many children throughout the Middle East and North Africa suffer from stunted growth which can either be the product of inadequate food or improper nutrition. While it might be expected that there would be a correlation between children’s health and GDP per capita, this proves not to be the case. In fact, many of the wealthiest societies in MENA have relatively high rates, especially when compared to countries with similar incomes. In Kuwait, one child in four suffers from stunted growth while in Saudi Arabia the figure is one in five.
While poverty explains some of these results, this finding also highlights two significant challenges which MENA must address. First, it is critical to improve educational standards throughout the region, especially for women. The effect of additional years’ of women’s education improving family health is well documented.
However, in addition to formal education, it is also clear that programs are necessary to increase information about basic health. The report notes that many children are given alternatives to breast milk including, in some cases, porridge or tea which does not provide the necessary nutrients. The effect of these programs is clear, especially when one considers that, despite the challenging conditions, the West Bank and Gaza, with a very strong presence of international NGOs, has the lowest rates of stunted growth throughout the region.
Second, inequality is becoming a significant concern in some MENA societies. Most MENA countries have low rates of inequality by global standards. Yet, rapid economic growth, especially in the Gulf, has occurred unevenly. While GINI coefficients are unavailable for most oil states, any observer can see that economic growth has not benefited all members of society equally. Moreover, in light of the large number of expatriate workers working for extremely low wages, the findings of this report are not particularly surprising. These states need to provide the necessary social services to ensure that all individuals living in their community have access to basic services.