Bulletin of the World Health Organization

Socioeconomic inequality in malnutrition in developing countries

Ellen Van de Poel, Ahmad Reza Hosseinpoor, Niko Speybroeck, Tom Van Ourti, Jeanette Vega


The objectives of this study were to report on socioeconomic inequality in childhood malnutrition in the developing world, to provide evidence for an association between socioeconomic inequality and the average level of malnutrition, and to draw attention to different patterns of socioeconomic inequality in malnutrition.


Both stunting and wasting were measured using new WHO child growth standards. Socioeconomic status was estimated by principal component analysis using a set of household assets and living conditions. Socioeconomic inequality was measured using an alternative concentration index that avoids problems with dependence on the mean level of malnutrition.


In almost all countries investigated, stunting and wasting disproportionately affected the poor. However, socioeconomic inequality in wasting was limited and was not significant in about one third of countries. After correcting for the concentration index’s dependence on mean malnutrition, there was no clear association between average stunting and socioeconomic inequality. The latter showed different patterns, which were termed mass deprivation, queuing and exclusion. Although average levels of malnutrition were higher with the new WHO reference standards, estimates of socioeconomic inequality were largely unaffected by changing the growth standards.


Socioeconomic inequality in childhood malnutrition existed throughout the developing world, and was not related to the average malnutrition rate. Failure to tackle this inequality is a cause of social injustice. Moreover, reducing the overall rate of malnutrition does not necessarily lead to a reduction in inequality. Policies should, therefore, take into account the distribution of childhood malnutrition across all socioeconomic groups.