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new internationalist
issue 313 - June 1999

Country profile

Where is Madagascar?

In a country where the shortened name of one king was Andrianampoinimerina, Jackson is not the sort of name you expect to find in a remote village. But in south-east Madagascar, in a hut made of forest hardwood and thatched with ravenala leaves, lives the Jackson family. I visit them to pay my respects after the death of the family patriarch. The total contents of their hut comprise a woven raffia floormat, some rolled dirty rags for pillows and a small fire fuelled by forest timber.

Three new wells in their village mean cleaner water to drink, but for the Jacksons as for the other 10 million rural dwellers, not much has changed since the advent of democracy in 1992/3.

Madagascar was a French colony for most of the century. French encroachment started in 1642 and continued on and off until 1896 when they finally exiled Queen Ranavalona III and declared Madagascar a colony. It ended when the French packed their bags on 26 June 1960 and an independent republic was born.

By 1975, when a coup within the military eventually threw up Lieutenant-Commander Didier Ratsiraka as head of state, Madagascar had withdrawn from the Paris-orientated Communauté Financière Africaine (CFA) zone and closed all French military bases, causing the mass exodus of the remaining French farmers. Ratsiraka then began ‘the experiment’, otherwise known as the Second Republic. Banks, insurance companies and other major businesses were nationalized without compensation and all ties with France were severed. The communist ideal became Madagascar’s guiding light.

By the 1980s, however, after years of emphasizing self-sufficiency and creating obstacles to foreign private investment, Ratsiraka had decided such outside help was essential. He introduced austerity measures which attracted IMF dollars.

By early 1991 a wave of demonstrations and strikes were demanding Ratsiraka’s resignation. The killing of peaceful demonstrators by the Presidential Guard in front of Ratsiraka’s opulent palace in August 1991 was the beginning of the end: a new constitution was unveiled and 17 years of dictatorship ended in February 1993 when Albert Zafy became the first democratically elected President of Madagascar.

Although real per-capita income has fallen over the past two decades by more than 40 per cent, the latest wave of financial and social reforms – a $118-million loan package was agreed with the IMF in 1996 – do seem to be bringing slow improvement, at least in the cities. Inflation was running at 64 per cent in 1995; today it is around 3 per cent.

The Government’s objectives are a recovery of private investment (apparently working in the cities) and a reduction in poverty (manifestly not happening in the countryside). The Government says it is concentrating on basic health services, primary education and public security. Yet in the Jacksons’ village there is no state-provided healthcare, no electricity, the bridges have been broken for years, corruption is rife and the village president retains control by fear of witchcraft.

When Zafy was impeached in 1996 for abuse of power, tricky old Ratsiraka returned from exile in France. To the astonishment of many he was re-elected, and to this day the new Ratsiraka – reborn as a ‘humanist ecologist’ – remains President. The new constitution says the President can only have two terms. The second fall of Ratsiraka is set in stone – but ‘will he go?’ remains the question.

Brett Massoud


LEADERS President Didier Ratsiraka; Prime Minister Pascal Rakotomavo.

ECONOMY GNP per capita $250 (France $26,270). When last profiled in 1985 the GNP per capita stood at $320.
Monetary unit: Franc Malgache (FMg). Main exports: coffee, vanilla, prawns, cloves, cotton cloth.
External debt: $4,175 million, or $263 per person.
Debt service: 7% of exports.

PEOPLE 15.8 million.

HEALTH Infant mortality 96 per 1,000 live births (Tanzania 92, France 5). Maternal mortality 490 per 100,000 live births (Malawi 620, France 20). Health conditions have deteriorated, with malaria increasing amongst the poor.

ENVIRONMENT The rivers bleed red mud into the sea as the inland plains erode after massive deforestation: Madagascar remains one of the world’s top conservation priorities.

CULTURE The Malagasy population is a broad composite of Malayo-Polynesian, Arab and African ethnic groups. The Merinas are about 20% of the total and the Betsimisaraka 10%. Tiny French, Indian and Chinese minorities.
Religion: Christian 51%; traditional beliefs 47%; Muslim 2%. Many hold traditional and Christian beliefs in parallel.
Languages: Malagasy and French. There are also local dialects such as Hova.

Sources: World Guide 1999/2000; State of the World’s Children 1999; Africa Review 1998; Azafady Village Health Survey Aug 1998; FAO/World Bank; Encarta 1999; IMF.

Previously profiled: September 1985


[image, unknown] INCOME DISTRIBUTION [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The urban middle class is growing but the poor are staying poor.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]

[image, unknown] LITERACY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Has declined in the last decade to 46%, compared with regional neighbours Comoros 57% and Tanzania 68%.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] SELF-RELIANCE [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Cereal (rice) imports are at their highest since 1988 and food aid hasn’t been higher since 1992.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] FREEDOM [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
Human rights and freedom of speech are protected by law, but in practice some minor violations occur.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] POSITION OF WOMEN [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The new constitution prohibits sex discrimination but also abortion.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
[image, unknown] LIFE EXPECTANCY [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
58 years. Compares with an average for sub-Saharan Africa of 51 and with 79 years in the former colonial power, France.
1985 [image, unknown] [image, unknown]


[image, unknown] NI ASSESSMENT [image, unknown] [image, unknown]
The Government is barely touching the rural population. The main abuse of human rights is institutional rather than individual: the constitution removes all rights of the Fokonolona (rural people) to protect their environment, land, ceremonial heritage if such protection is against ‘the common interest’ (for example if a mining company wants their land).

NI star rating

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