Four and a half years after being elected president of Madagascar, Marc Ravalomanana is set to seek a second term in the election on Sunday. Although lauded for rehabilitating the infrastructure, opinion is divided over whether he has helped alleviate poverty.
"Look at this road: four years ago, your main task as a driver was to concentrate on how to avoid potholes rather than to drive safely - I am not even talking about the nightmare during the raining season - now it is like a European highway!" quipped Jean de Dieu, a taxi-driver in the capital, Antananarivo, pointing to one of the many new roads in the city centre.
Sure enough, the face of some areas in the busy capital, built for less than half a million people and now home to about 1.3 million, has changed. Narrow streets that used to be crowded with vendors, buses and cars have been converted into broad, double-lane roads. The rattle of outdated cars on rutted streets has been replaced by silence as they rush down new asphalt roads on the hilly terrain of the capital with their engines switched off to save fuel.
However, most Malagasy battle with a much deeper-rooted problem: poverty. More than 85 percent live on less than US$2 a day, according to the 2006 United Nations Human Development report.
Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in sub-Saharan Africa, placed at 143 out of 177 countries in the United Nations Human Development Index. Economic development has been hampered by low domestic savings, poor social and economic infrastructure, the uneven application of government regulations and, most recently, power outages owing to a financial crisis at the national public utility company, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF).
At 14 percent, inflation is still high. The economy would need to grow annually by about 7.6 percent if Madagascar is to achieve the United Nations Millennium Development Goal (MDG) of halving poverty by 2015, the IMF said recently. Such growth is attainable only if there is a large increase in private investment and a substantial scaling-up of donor assistance to finance infrastructure and other social spending.
Urban poor and middle-class populations have been the most affected. Urban household consumption expenditure decreased by more than 17 percent in 2004, according to an annual national household survey, Enquête périodique auprès des ménages (EPM).
"There has been an erosion of the purchasing power - you can see it, for instance, at the butcher shops in the market - people can't buy meat any longer and butchers complain that their meat gets spoilt," said Mathilde Rabary, president of a local rights nongovernmental organisation (NGO). "There's a slow disappearance of the middle-class, with two very distinct classes, the rich one and the poor one [remaining]."
However, Ravolamanana has seen the country through a difficult phase. In the last election in 2001, Ravalomanana and the then incumbent, Didier Ratsiraka, both claimed victory. Ratsiraka's supporters tried to blockade the capital, Antananarivo, which was pro-Ravalomanana, but after a recount in April 2002, Madagascar's High Constitutional Court pronounced Ravalomanana president. There was an uneasy stalemate until Ratsiraka fled the country in July and Ravalomanana finally took control of the country. The crisis forced the growth rate down to below -12 percent.
The population also had to face a strong depreciation of the Ariary, the local currency, in 2004, when annual inflation reached 27 percent, pushing up the price of rice, the staple food, and fuel, while salaries and income remained relatively stable between 2001 and 2004, according to the 2004 EPM.
"Ravalomanana comes from the private sector. His will to institute a new way to govern, to cut ties with the past and the usual Madagascar 'mora-mora' [slowly, slowly] seduced the international community," said Bouri Sanhouidi, the UN resident coordinator.
Investment and foreign aid has flowed in. When Madagascar gained independence from France in 1960, it had 35,000km of unusable roads, but this has dwindled to just 15,000km. Thanks to the financial support of the World Bank and the European Union, the biggest donors in terms of road construction and maintenance, $371.8 million will have been spent on upgrading the network by 2007.
The government has stepped up the construction of health centres and schools, improving the quality of lives of Malagasy children, who make up more than half the population of 17 million.
While tremendous progress has been achieved in recent years in reducing the number of children who die before their fifth birthday, the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF) said an average of more than 160 children still died each day from preventable causes, such as malaria, diarrhoea and acute respiratory illnesses.
Most children of primary-school age attend school, but less than half complete their schooling. Repetition is common, with the average student taking seven years to finish what would normally be five years of primary school, because many are forced to work to support their families. More than one-fifth of all children aged between 5 and 14 work, some in hazardous conditions, such as mining and stone cutting.
Mining has been identified as one the sectors with the biggest potential for job-creation. Ravalomanana supported its development with billion-dollar projects for extracting ilmenite, nickel and cobalt, and prospecting for oil was accelerated. Madagascar's rich but unexploited mineral reserves and cheap labour are expected to increase mineral exports from about $100 million to $150 million per year over the next 10 years, according to the World Bank.
The mining sector provides direct, stable employment to at least 100,000 people in the rural areas, as well as half a million seasonal jobs.
Observers point out that Ravalomanana has managed to enhance Madagascar's profile internationally, partly by joining the Southern African Development Community, but he does not always have an appreciative audience at home.
NGOs, the media and political opponents have complained of alleged government pressure. The 13 candidates who will challenge him in the Sunday ballot have criticised his refusal to launch a reconciliation process, called for by the international community after the 2002 crisis, during which some supporters of the former president were jailed.
"Ravalomanana is definitely turned towards the future and doesn't want to hear about the past; he doesn't listen to anybody and he put many people against him," said a diplomat in Madagascar.
Detractors accuse him of being unable to distinguish between politics and his business interests. Ravalomanana was elected on his promise to fight corruption, which is widespread. Two structures, the Bureau Indépendant Anti-Corruption (Independent Anti Corruption Bureau) and Comité pour la sauvegarde de L'intégrité (Committee for the Safeguard of Integrity), were created and anti-corruption legislation drawn up in 2004.
"The main criticism of the former government was corruption; the new government wanted its approach to contrast. There was also pressure by donors, civil society and the media to change," said Brice Lejamble, the CSI director of communications and public relations.
According to a CSI survey, justice, security and political parties were viewed as the most corrupt sectors of society, and corruption and bribes were found to cost the poorest people seven percent of income.
"It's not a clean break yet with the past and, if we look all around us, there's no complete change, but it takes time," said Lejamble. "So far, we've been preparing the ground for people to understand what corruption is and its consequences, so that they can make the fight theirs."
Some people have been arrested for corruption, but the process is long, he said. In 2005, the anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, still ranked Madagascar at 97 out of 158 countries in its index.
The government recently released a detailed strategy for meeting its MDGs. Viewed as Ravalomanana's electoral programme, this ambitious plan will need to convince international donors to provide the money to help Madagascar. This time round the help might be more discerning.
During the past four years, Madagascar has benefited from "exceptional support", commented Olivier Jenn-Treyer, coordinator of the donor secretariat in Madagascar.
"There was a euphoric effect after the crisis in 2002 - almost an overbid from the international donors - the country obtained a lot of grant promises and debt cancellation," he said. "Now the relationships are normalising, the donors wish to keep on supporting the country, but the 'blank cheque' period is over."
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions