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Conflict and the long-lasting impact on child health

Children in al-Mahwit, Yemen
Children in al-Mahwit, Yemen. Photo: Flickr / Charles Roffey

“Everyone is responsible for everyone and everything”

Fedor Dostoyevsky


Evidence shows that conflicts have a long-lasting negative impact on the health outcomes of a population. The ongoing conflicts in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Yemen and other states today may have a long-lasting health impact on the lives of future generations there.

The Demographic and Health Surveys Programme in developing countries estimate that more than 40% of children under the age of five have stunted growthare too short for their agewith the majority living in sub-Saharan Africa. An estimated 5.9 million children under the age of five died around the world in 2015 and less than half of all births in sub-Saharan Africa were delivered outside of a healthcare facility. Experts note that poor health outcomes during childhood have a long-lasting impact on educational achievement and are linked to poor future health status in adolescence and adulthood.

Today, on Development Information Day and United Nations Day, it is important to emphasise the urgency of the third Sustainable Development Goal (a goal the international community is aiming to achieve by 2030): ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages.

Map of countries with high stunted growth among children
Countries with high proportions of stunted growth among children. Source: Demographic and Health Surveys Programme.


Colonial influence

Many development problems that African countries face today have deep roots in history. It is undisputable that precolonial and colonial practices had a drastic impact on the economic and political life of former colonies. Researchers estimate that between the years 1400 and 1900, about 15.7 million people were deported from their original place of living to work as forced labour, either within the same country or to other countries. During the trans-Atlantic slave trade period, slaves were taken in greatest numbers from Angola, Benin, Congo, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Ghana and Nigeria. Many slaves were shipped from Ethiopia and Sudan during the Red Sea and trans-Saharan slave trades to North Africa, the Middle East and India.

According to data from the Uppsala Data Conflict Programme, the countries with the highest number of fatalities from conflicts during the post-colonial period were former colonies in Africa. The scramble for Africa beginning in the 1880s was characterised by European invasion, occupation, division, colonization and annexation as European nations introduced imperial policies by imposing extractive economic institutions that looted and drained large proportions of Africa’s natural wealth, including coco, cotton, diamonds, gold, ivory and rubber. European powers also implanted leaders who deliberately advocated against Africa’s best interests. For instance, the popular ‘divide and rule’ policy implemented by the British in countries such as Nigeria and Uganda contributed towards ethnic divide and continues to provoke many post-independent and present conflicts. As a consequence, many colonial legacies remain as obstacles in modern realities of underdevelopment.

Child health

When we look at the child health indicators for some of the former colonial countries, the number of children under the age of five with stunted growth is striking. According to the Demographic and Health Surveys’ most recent estimates, 45% of children under 5 have stunted growth in Benin, 44% in Ethiopia, 43% in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), 37% in Nigeria, 24% in Congo and 19% in Ghana. A large number of malnourished children under the age of five live in former French Africa: 39% of children under 5 are malnourished in Mauritania, 38% in Mali, 35% in Burkina Faso and 30% in Cote d’Ivoire. These are also some of the most impoverished countries in the world.

These estimates are most likely to be modest in comparison to actual levels. In 2013 UNICEF reported that the births of nearly 230 million children under five have never been registered, which is approximately one third of all children under five around the world. The lowest birth registrations are found in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. This lack of registration creates obstacles for tracking children’s education and health status. Experts say that most of the unregistered children come from poor households in rural or remote areas, belong to certain ethnic or religious groups, and are children of uneducated mothers.

Poor child health should be addressed in its complexity along with other challenges that are currently being faced by many impoverished societies, including fertility planning, education, creating equal opportunities for both genders, new infrastructure and institutional development. All this cannot be achieved without addressing many ongoing conflicts. Sustainable development, including in child health, requires a secure and safe environment. It is thus important to acknowledge the responsibility of the international community, political leaders and those who have power. As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the (positive and negative) consequences and impacts of many political and economic decisions can both empower and hinder the prosperity of our future generations. We need to make sure that we choose empowerment.


Dr Anastasia Aladysheva was a Senior Researcher with the Peace and Development Programme.