The Face of Poverty in Madagascar

Kids in Madagascar

Man Madagascar is poor. Officially 77% are below the poverty line, but we’ve seen heaps that you would say are worse than that, they’re in essence, destitute. The Malagasys work really hard in the fields mainly as they try their best just to cultivate enough to live on. You don’t see many here that anyone would describe as shirkers, that group that according to some are apparently holding the NZ welfare benefit regime to ransom. Fall for that Kiwi myth if you will, but here it’s all hands to the pump that’s for real – there are no safety nets.

Encouragingly that engenders a hugely impressive culture of sharing – shared effort, sharing of any resources that might come along and sharing the burden when hard times hit. Every time we have given someone food they have immediately sought to share it with whoever is in the immediate vicinity. This has happened time and time again as we’ve stopped on the roadside to boil the billy and have a bite, so we’ve concluded it is engrained in these folks’ culture. We’ve never seen this to the extent we have in Madagascar – handing over half a loaf of French bread and a couple of tomatoes for example could see that being shared amongst a dozen people, it is a revealing display of the human spirit and gives you hope.

But despite their benevolent disposition to their fellows in similar predicament the reality is that life here is really hard, and there are many conflicts that are unavoidable. For example the conflict between the need to survive that see trees being cut down for wood for producing clay-fired bricks and charcoal used for cooking, yet without doubt the island is running out of trees – it is virtually bereft of primary forest now and so its precious wildlife is interminably on the road to extinction. That’s sad, not just for humankind, but also for the future of any tourism here and ultimately the ability of the 70% of people in the rural sector to sustain themselves as the soil erosion that’s resulted is significant.

Then there’s the conflict between the cattlemen and the cultivators. Every inch of land is used for production and the free-roaming cattle herds do a lot of damage to the paddy fields if they inadvertently wander across the. And that happens more frequently as the population just keeps growing, the number of mouths to feed with it. Urbanisation is expanding but for many who drift to town they’re swapping a life of meagre returns from growing crops, for a life of meagre returns from hawking trinkets or their labour on the city streets. Antananarivo is bursting at the seams, its infrastructure cannot cope, the water and sanitation conditions for the disenfranchised living on its streets are desperate. Only 7% of households have piped water, 60% get their water from sources without any treatment, and 32% of householders defecate in the open. Seeing the state of many rivers, health problems linked to contaminated water sources and insecure waste disposal remain substantial.

We thought we’d seen poor health conditions in North Korea earlier this year, but the rates of stunting amongst the children of Madagascar is even higher at around 50%. The political crisis here which saw a coup in 2009 has seen what paltry public services existed fall ever since – schools are no longer delivering as the State’s ability to pay teachers has fallen away, and the secondary school completion rate that was 25% has fallen away since the coup. In addition the health system has seen clinics closing down and immunisation programmes being wound back as the annual health budget falls to $US2.90 per capita. 70% of the State’s budget was coming from international agencies but since the coup much of that has stopped. The immediate prospects then are for things to get worse rather than better.

As with much of Africa the problem is lack of income and that requires not only political stability and less corruption at home, but it needs in addition opportunities for the country to sell its wares. Those resources include oodles of cheap labour – and these folk already work hard so there’s nothing new in that regard – and there are mineral resources, as well as some of its unique natural capital remains intact and that could attract tourism. But which is the chicken and which is the egg? Without political stability and equity foreign investment won’t be attracted, and with foreign investment political stability remains elusive.

7 Responses to The Face of Poverty in Madagascar

  1. Don Juan September 27, 2012 at 2:49 pm #

    I’ve been reading the Gareth Morgan blogs for a while now and for someone of my age group [very old] it would appear that the capitalist economic system has failed humanity,, There are continual patchups in various parts of the world, but, the patchups only attend to the symptoms,,,,,,,,,,,,,not the cause ,,,, The above article on Madagascar points out those values that the capitalist competitive system has totally destroyed are still alive and well where competition does’nt exist
    Am I alone in noticing this ?? How bout a comment from Gareth ????

    • Gareth Morgan September 28, 2012 at 8:58 am #

      Not sure I’d blame capitalism for this, there is starvation in many non-capitalist states as well. So long as there is no public order however and governments rule by the gun and corruption is at every level of authority then it is very difficult for the weakest to improve their lot. Every time they get going someone stronger comes and forcibly removes their gains. That of course is what a non-democratic system commonly delivers. Capitalism is simply a method to create and allocate wealth and it certainly works best, albeit not perfectly, if operating within a democratic political regime. The role of government should I’d have thought to protect individual rights, ensure individual gain doesn’t come at the expense of others, and to ensure markets are economically efficient – everyone is able to participate (so same education, health etc) and meritocracy (productivity and innovation) is rewarded.

      Sadly few regimes fit this model but man continue to try.

      • Sesiwi September 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm #

        If a country has a democratic political regime then why wouldn’t it also have democratic communities and businesses. It seems to me capitilism fights against democracy. It is a system that is top heavy and has sought for more and more deregulation and less government involvement.

  2. jh September 27, 2012 at 8:25 pm #

    Richard Dawkins says (I think) that a gene wouldn’t waste itself by producing lots of progeny in situations of scarcity, yet that is what plants do. There must be some (biological) reason why intelligent beings over produce children?

    @Don Juan, whether the economic system is capitalist or socialist it is still a subset of the earth’s ecosystem.

    • Ross Carter-Brown September 28, 2012 at 8:10 am #

      Well said jh on both comments. I read The Selfish Gene a while ago, interesting read

  3. jh September 27, 2012 at 8:35 pm #

    Some people start with the assumption that no matter how large the worlds population there is sufficient for everyone; wealth is concentrated in the hands of a minority but is redisrtibutable everywhere as though it was a lake to be fed by irrigation channels over fields near and far.

  4. Sesiwi September 28, 2012 at 1:40 pm #

    Isn’t capitilism esentially about being separate from government? This is how many proponents of capitilism see it. Wanting more and more deregulation. While capitilism may not have created all poverty it has certainly contributed to it. A system which puts the majority of profits in the hands of the few at the top is not significanly different to a monarcy or dictatorship. It’s just that capitilism is sold as something anyone can get rich in. But the reality is that only 1% do.

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