In the richest countries in the world, wealthier people tend to be thinner.
But in Uganda, one of the poorest countries, where almost half of the population eats fewer calories than they need each day, excess fat is often a symbol of wealth, making it difficult to obtain bank loans. help, according to an upcoming article in the American Economic Review.
It is not surprising that obesity is an important indicator of wealth in places where food is scarce.
But a new study points out that poorer countries also lack information. And in those situations, loan officers use whatever evidence they can find to make important financial decisions.
“Given the lack of readily available and robust information in poor countries, wealth signals, including obesity, play an important role in economic interactions in which individuals seek to assess someone’s wealth.” said Elisa McKee, assistant professor of economics at Brown University.
As part of the study, Makki tested 238 loan officers at 146 financial institutions in the capital, Kampala. She asked them to review applications from fictitious potential borrowers with photographs attached. Manipulated to be thin or fat.
It is not uncommon in Uganda to attach a photo of yourself when submitting a loan application, and it is also used by loan officers as part of the information to decide whether to grant the applicant an initial interview. Makki said it could become a department.
What she found was that loan officers were more likely to rate an applicant as creditworthy and financially sound if a fat version of the photo was attached.
“The obesity premium is large, corresponding to a 60% increase in borrowers’ self-reported income in the experiment, or the effect of additional assets such as car ownership,” the study concluded.
Historically, obesity has been prized in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. Mauritania was once notorious for its brutal force-feeding practice to make young girls eligible for marriage. This practice is called force-feeding, which comes from the French term for force-feeding geese to produce foie gras. Fat was considered a sign of family wealth as well as a cultural ideal.
Obesity has recently become an increasingly alarming health risk on the continent, a trend that follows that of the richest countries, where obesity is often correlated with poverty. The easy availability of cheap, highly processed foods with little nutritional value allows people to satisfy their hunger without promoting their overall health.
In developing countries, changes in diet, lack of physical activity, and use of multiple modes of transport, especially in urban areas, contribute to weight gain.
“Africa faces a growing problem of obesity and overweight, and the trend is increasing,” said Masidiso Moeti, the World Health Organization’s regional director for Africa, in a statement last year. “If left unchecked, millions of people, including children, are at risk of short lives under the burden of poor health.”
Studies have found that obesity is associated with more severe illness and hospitalization in COVID-19 patients.
The World Health Organization and other international organizations have begun working with Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda to develop programs and standards to promote healthy eating and physical activity.
But despite science-based recommendations, such as the perception that fat indicates wealth, cultural ties and stereotypes often persist.
But in the end, facts outweighed perceptions, at least for Ugandan loan officers. Lenders took advantage of better information provided about loan applicants’ income, collateral and occupation, lowering the so-called obesity premium.
“The good thing is that it’s not so fixed,” McKee said of preconceived notions about wealth and weight. “When we give them information, they react to it immediately.”