The year I was born, GDP per capita in Madagascar stood at $517, making it one of the worlds poorest countries. Forty years later in 2021, the World Bank records GDP per capita at $501. So little has changed for so many Malagasy people. By some measures progress has gone backwards. And yet, “we have everything here,” says a former senator interviewed in the book. “Food, water, minerals, mountains, beaches. It’s a beautiful country and there is no reason why we should be so poor.”
This the ‘tragedy’ that Nathaniel Adams investigates in his book. It’s a puzzle my family wrestled with when we lived there, and it will be familiar to anyone with an interest in the country. It should be noted that it’s not typical of Sub-Saharan Africa. The last half century has seen dramatic falls in extreme poverty and plenty of countries that were worse off than Madagascar in the 80s have overtaken it. Madagascar’s development has the kind of reversals seen in troubled nations such as Sudan or DRC, but without the conflict. So what on earth happened? How did it get left behind?
Adams is an attorney and a traveler who, like many others before him, visited the country once and found reasons to keep going back. In 2019 he spent 18 months traveling around the island, talking to people and trying to understand how Madagascar’s prospects have come to so little. He talks to diplomats, lawyers and police officers, students, entrepreneurs, farmers and fishermen, hotel owners and hotel maids. He gets an audience with former president Marc Ravalomanana, and generals involved in the coup that unseated him. Out of this blend of perspectives a story begins to emerge.
The book begins with some history, summarising the island nation’s kingdoms and tribes, the rise of the Merina empire, and the advent of colonialism. This is an interesting story – as Adams notes, “Madagascar was in 1895 more advanced than most of the African countries when they achieved independence from colonial rule sixty or seventy years later.” It had some of the highest literacy rates in Africa, and an educational system established by Welsh missionaries. It had governance institutions and a nascent industrial revolution. When Madagascar gained its independence again in 1960, it wasn’t a nation derived by white people drawing lines on a map. It had a sense of itself and was picking up where it left off. It then seems to have gone wrong in several ways.
One is the lack of redistribution of power after colonialism, with 90% of the economy still owned by foreign interests. Then there was the prolonged experiment in socialism under president Didier Ratsiraka that attempted to redress this. (Imports were restricted to protect domestic industry, and I remember the quotidian sorrows of the government issue toilet paper.) Steps forward were undermined by political instability, which caused a panicked flight of foreign capital. There were moments of hope with a few years of improvement under Ravalomanana, which were then aborted by a coup and the arrival of president Rajoelina – still in power today after stepping away and then returning in an electoral victory.
This divide between Ravalomanana and Rajoelina continues to define the country’s politics, as Adams discovers in his various conversations. For some the coup was the will of the people against a government that had started well and then become self-interested. For others it was a power grab by a rich upstart who had bought off the army. Either way, the result has been further instability and further stagnation.
In all of this, corruption is a recurring theme. Some of this is meddling from overseas (the US, France and Russia all backed different candidates for different reasons in the last election), but ultimately Madagascar has been ill-served by its elites, who support an obviously failing system because they benefit from it personally. Votes are bought, officials bribed, old tribal suspicions are exploited, politicians dole out favours and enrich themselves. Some of Adams’ interviewees talk openly about this, others are more coded, but it is widely acknowledged. “Nothing is more corrosive to Malagasy democracy than the rampant corruption that now plagues all levels of its society,” Adams concludes.
In the final chapters, the book looks at what might lie ahead for Madagascar as the 21st century unfolds. It’s not a very hopeful picture. A youthful population locks in further growth – and a booming population is part of the reason for that low per capita growth figure. The problem is captured in the title of one chapter: ‘Where will all these kids work?’
There is also the looming threat of climate change, already menacing the south. Adams visits villages on the cusp of habitability. “The Great South, always an outlaw region of Madagascar, is quickly becoming a dustbowl.” Climate change is likely to bring further hunger, drought, and internal displacement to an already fragile situation.
The book combines travel writing and investigative journalism to explore all of this, telling a story that hasn’t really been told in the English language as far as I’m aware. Though it is seen through American eyes, the book is full of Malagasy voices from many walks of life. I’d nevertheless be interested to know what Malagasy readers make of the book and how it concludes, and whether they agree with the view of Madagascar as ‘a tragedy’.
The Tragedy of Madagascar will be a must-read for anyone with an interest in the country, but it’s useful too for thinking about how regions get left behind, how climate change piles extra pressure on poorer countries, and how solutions to poverty and sustainability need to be holistic and inclusive.
- The Tragedy of Madagascar is available from Earthbound Books UK and US