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What Poverty Does to Children’s Development Around the World

One-third of kids in low- and medium-income countries aren’t meeting basic milestones.

By Nathan Collins


(Photo: Andrea Moroni/Flickr)

Hundreds of millions of children worldwide live with malnutrition and poverty. Though it’s logical to assume such living conditions are not good for their social, emotional, and cognitive growth, no one has been quite sure what poverty actually does to those children’s development. Now, researchers have confirmed our intuitions, and put a specific number on the problem: More than one-third of kids in low- and middle-income countries are falling behind on key developmental milestones.

“These results highlight the critical need to consider multi-pronged approaches to intervention that are able to address the diverse yet relatively common developmental setbacks,” a team of researchers led by Harvard University’s Dana McCoy write in PLoS Medicine.

At the outset, McCoy and her colleagues’ goal was to go beyond previous research on poverty and malnutrition to investigate those factors’ consequences for childhood development. To do so, they turned to UNICEF’s 10-question Early Childhood Development Index, which covers things like a a kid’s ability to follow directions and propensity for violence. All told, UNICEF gathered data on 99,222 three- and four-year-old kids in 35 low- and medium-income countries between 2005 and 2015.

The team estimated that 32.9 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries are falling behind.

McCoy and her colleagues found that 14.6 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries scored low on cognitive development, 26.2 percent scored low on social-emotional development, and 36.8 percent scored low on one or both of those measures. The highest numbers were in Chad, where 67 percent scored low on cognitive and/or social-emotional development. The lowest among the 35 countries surveyed was Montenegro, with just 4.3 percent scoring low.

But those numbers don’t say much about why children are falling behind. To get a deeper understanding of the problem, the researchers combined the UNICEF data with country-level data from the Human Development Index and the Nutrition Impact Model Study—both of which turned out to be strongly correlated with children’s cognitive and social-emotional development.

Finally, using their analysis and Human Development Index and Nutrition Impact Model Study data—which are both available in more low- and middle-income countries than Early Childhood Development Index data—the team estimated that 32.9 percent of children in low- and middle-income countries are falling behind. The highest percentages were recorded in sub-Saharan Africa (43.8 percent), South Asia (37.7 percent), and East Asia and the Pacific (25.9 percent).

The researchers suggest that a combination of warm, responsive parenting and “direct education experiences” integrated with health and nutrition programs could change things for the better.