Research highlight

Sustainability: Putting African education and child malnutrition on the map


March 1, 2018

Exceptionally detailed maps modelling educational inequality and child malnutrition across 51 African countries between 2000 and 2015 are reported in a pair of papers published in this week’s Nature. It is hoped the maps will help with the identification of regions where development targets are not being met.

Malnutrition can cause child growth failure, in the form of stunting, wasting or lower than average body weight. Meanwhile, educational attainment is another key development focus, with greater attainment linked to increased human capital, social mobility, gender equality and better health outcomes for women.

Previous efforts to track these factors have looked only at national-level trends, masking variation on local scales. Simon Hay and colleagues gathered survey and census data on individual educational attainment and the age, height and weight of children from thousands of villages, and then used a geospatial modelling technique to combine these data with information such as local climate and geography to extrapolate values for regions where information was lacking. They have produced a series of 5 km by 5 km scale maps showing changes in child growth failure and educational attainment across Africa over a 15-year span.

The mapping reveals that most African countries, especially much of sub-Saharan Africa (the eastern and southern regions, in particular), show improvement in malnutrition across the 15-year period, although striking regional disparities remain within individual countries. The authors note that, of the nations and regions with slower gains, many, such as Chad and Somalia, have received less international assistance for child health improvement and have experienced prolonged conflict. Many areas of Africa should meet the World Health Organization 2025 targets for child nutrition but high levels of growth failure will remain across the Sahel, the region between the Sahara and the Sudanian Savanna. Furthermore, at the present rate of progress, no country in the continent will meet the United Nations goal of ending malnutrition by 2030.

Similarly, the mapping reveals that, despite overall progress in average educational attainment from 2000 to 2015, great disparities - and failures to meet basic educational targets - persist across the continent, particularly in the Sahel. Moreover, gender inequality in education remains common across central and western Africa; in Chad’s Kabia state, for example, men typically receive five to six more years of education than women.

In an accompanying World View article, Kofi Annan, chair of the Kofi Annan Foundation and former UN secretary general, says that the maps show both progress over time and stark, stubborn disparities. This kind of information can show governments and international agencies where to direct programs and resources, he says. “Such fine-grained insight brings tremendous responsibility to act.”

doi: 10.1038/nature25761

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