Thursday, March 5

Tall and shrinking Muslims, short and growing Europeans

I have written about the Arab Human Development Report before. It is indeed shocking to read about how the Arab lands are now. It does concern the rest of the world, because the Arabs and this region play a very big role in the religious wars and terrorism now roiling the globe. The Arab Development report points to various issues that the region has to grapple with. Obviously, Human Development is a comparative study, you compare the performance of the other countries to the Arab lands to check how far they are apart.

But what happened in the past? And I don't mean along the lines of Bernard Lewis’s What went wrong type of analysis. Where did the divergence happen? Well, I think we have a partial answer to that question. As is well known, the anthropometric (height/weight etc) dimensions of human beings is a good indicator of economic and human development. In other words, there is a good correlation and causality between good nutrition, good economic development, reasonably good height / weights.

So what was the difference? An article, Tall and shrinking Muslims, short and growing Europeans: The long-run welfare development of the Middle East, 1850–1980 by Mojgan Stegl & Joerg Baten of the University of Tubingen in Germany, published in the Explorations in Economic History came into my in-box recently.

They have done a sterling job in collecting anthropometric data from a staggering variety of sources and have combined it to provide some very interesting data. Without going into the intricacies of how they managed to do it, this is their first graphical result of the heights of the populations they studied.

And these results are statistically significant, the authors ran some standard statistical tests to make sure that the populations, samples etc. etc. are accurate. So how did the wages bit turn out around the inflexion point? They calculate real wages in Istanbul and industrializing countries in grams of silver per day (weighted by population size).


Curious result, no? It shows how the divergence in urban and rural areas emerge. The main improvement in the west happened in the cities, because if you strip out the cities, then the performance was about the same as urbanised Istanbul. Here’s another way of looking at the economic impact by comparing GDP per capita:

Not looking good, is it? If you go the whole hog by applying PPP and adjusting for population size, you get this picture:

So what were the other reasons given by the authors - besides the obvious economic development driving nutrition? Well, they point to the fact that in in many areas around the Middle East, people lived next to animal husbandry, and given that this was a concentrated protein rich diet, their heights and weights were quite good. However, as as the number of people living off animal husbandry in the Middle East started to drop, right at the same time, the supply chains in Europe improved with developed economies and better farming technologies. Diseases were further controlled and the graphs say it all. The Arab / Muslim (so as to incorporate the non Arab world of Turkey) world in the Middle East has steadily lost ground since then.

Now you can definitely incorporate the elements of colonialism, history, imperialism and the like, but that will make it a bit more difficult to ascribe differences in nutrition to imperialism, no? Does this mean that till about 1900/1910, Arab/Muslim imperialism and colonialism was still existent and then it was overtaken by European imperialism so the story flipped? I wonder what the situation will be in another 100 years of time?

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