Madagascar once boasted one of the finest school systems in French-speaking Africa.
In the late 1990s, its students scored among the highest marks in maths and French standardised tests compared to the continent's other Francophone countries. When results began to dip in 2003 after a 30-year decline in investment, the government launched a massive school improvement programme. But the 2009 coup halted these reforms. Since then, the country's education and economy have been nose-diving.
Former President Marc Ravalomanana noticed the falling school scores in 2003 and launched nationwide education reforms. His campaign to fix the schools included training and recruiting teachers, and renovating and building more schools.
The Fast Track Initiative, a partnership between developing countries, international donors, the World Bank and the UN, backed Mr Ravalomanana's reforms with a $60m grant and a second $80m grant in 2008.
The reforms seemed to be working: as of 2009 Madagascar was on target to provide elementary education to all its school-age children. The number of primary school pupils almost doubled from 2.2m in 1999 - 2000 to 4.3m in 2008 - 09, according to a 2012 report by the UN's agency for children (UNICEF).
Public primary schools increased from 14,637 in 2002 - 03 to 16,917 in 2005 - 06, according to the World Bank. In the reform's first three years, the government hired 48% more teachers, raising the number from 38,509 in 2002 - 03 to 57,024 in 2005 - 06.
However, Andry Rajoelina's illegal takeover of power in 2009 - followed quickly by the international community halting all but humanitarian aid - reversed this progress. Mr Rajoelina responded to the foreign aid cuts by slashing the nation's budget. He cut the national education allocation by 25%, from 733 billion ariary ($334m) in 2008 to 557 billion ariary ($253m) in 2011, according to the World Bank.
For nearly two months during April and May 2012, Harisoa Rasolonjatovo and other World Bank researchers visited southern Madagascar to examine the island's schooling since the coup. “We had a lot of anecdotal evidence that things were going badly at the schools, but no real figures,” Ms Rasolonjatovo said.
In their June 2013 report, they documented an education system in crisis: school enrolment has plummeted and drop-out rates have soared. Primary school enrolment has languished since 2009: an estimated 600,000 children between the ages of six and 12 who could have been in school in the last four years are not registered, according to the World Bank report.
This evaluation is based on trends over the period immediately preceding the crisis, when the annual growth rate of primary enrolment was thought to be 7.8% on average over 10 years and 6.2% on average over three years.
The number of children leaving school before grade 5 has increased by 54% between 2008 and 2011, according to the World Bank. Of 100 pupils who enter primary school, fewer than half currently reach grade 5, against 63 in 2007 - 08.
The share of trained teachers has dropped and learning results have deteriorated. Many of these problems had their roots in the 2003 education reforms when the government began training and hiring “community teachers”, adults who completed secondary school, but had no prior experience as instructors.
Many of these community teachers had been previously unemployed, help- ing out on the fields. The government paid most of these community teachers about 110,000 ariary ($50) a month, less than certified public school teachers, according to UNICEF.
Their numbers nearly quadrupled from 6,931 in 2002 - 03 to 27,372 in 2005 - 06, according to the World Bank. By 2010 - 11, only one-third of teachers were certified civil servants compared to more than 40% in 2006 - 07.
Parents in Madagascar care deeply about education and supplemented teachers' low wages out of their own pockets or with rice, maize or cassava (a plant with a carbohydrate-rich root). Partly as a result of these parental hand-outs, family spend- ing on education rose 36% between 2005 and 2010, according to the World Bank.
In rural areas, it went up by 45%. “Despite their low incomes, families do everything to keep the children going to school,” Ms Rasolonjatovo said. “They see that they are poor and they understand that the only way to get out of poverty is educating their children.”
Now, Madagascar's economy has collapsed completely. Since the coup poverty has increased sharply. Overall, GDP per capita has decreased by 4.6% in the last four years, reflecting a substantial drop in revenues for most households, according to the World Bank. More than 92% of Madagascar's 22.3m citizens live on less than $2 a day. Families can no longer afford to pay the teachers, even with food, let alone send their children to school.
“In rural areas, it's mostly the boys who are now kept away from school,” Ms Rasolonjatovo said. “In the south, they are put to work, which often means guarding the zebu [hump-backed African cattle].” Girls stay in school longer but still leave eventually.
In Madagascar about 86,000 Malagasy children work in the mines, often under very dangerous conditions, according to the International Labour Organisation. In the south, home to the island's sapphire mines, children are the right size to crawl into the deep pits holding the precious stone - narrow holes without reinforcement on the sides that cave in easily.
The proportion of children between six and ten years old that work every day before and after school has increased from 38.8% in 2005 to 49.2% in 2010, according to the World Bank.
“When I was a child, our parents would punish us if we didn't go to school,” said 51-year-old Maurice Karimo, a community teacher in the fishing village of Sarodrano on Madagascar's west coast. “This has changed now. All the children in the village here are enrolled, but often they don't come. The parents here are fishermen and they figure that if their children don't want to go to school, they might as well stay home and help them collect fish.”
UNICEF also examined the coup's effects on Madagascar's primary school education. “Primary school exclusion, which was already a concern, has considerably worsened since the start of the crisis in 2009,” according to a February 2012 report. Net primary school enrolment dropped from 83.3% in 2005 to 73.4% in 2010.
More than 1m children, about 25% of Madagascar's 4.2m children between the ages of six and ten, are currently out of school, according to UNICEF. If this range is widened to include 11 and 12 year-olds, up to 1.5m children are not in school.
Aid organisations have tried to help by paying part of the community teacher salaries. When international sanctions kicked in after the 2009 coup and donors could no longer fund the government, a $64m Fast Track grant was given directly to UNICEF.
UNICEF used this money to pay part of the salaries of 45,000 community teachers, lunches, school supplies for children and teachers as well as the construction of schools. “Our programme went overnight from a classic development program to system survival,” said Graham Lang, an education chief at UNICEF.
In addition to helping the ministry with education plans and curriculum, UNICEF found itself managing money, keeping schools open and paying teachers. “Madagascar is one of the very few countries in the world where UNICEF ever paid teacher salaries,” Mr Lang said.
In March this year the education ministry wrote a new reform plan and the Fast Track Initiative once again approved another grant, this time $85.4m. But this money and other international donor funds are now frozen because the presidential election that had been scheduled for July 24th has been cancelled.
Mr Rajoelina cancelled the poll through a wily catch-22 manoeuvre: he sidestepped the electoral law that required him to resign two months before the elections by declaring that he was unsure whether the election would take place and the country could not operate without him, thus making sure the elections did not take place.
Although he and Mr Ravalomanana had earlier agreed not to stand for election, Mr Rajoelina changed his mind when Mr Ravalomanana's wife became a candidate.
The international community insists that Mr Rajoelina, Mrs Ravalomanana and ex-president Didier Ratsiraka, another candidate, pull out of the race if the Malagasy want the foreign community to fund the elections, recognise the winner and reopen the foreign aid floodgates. The elections commission has refused to announce a new election date as long as this political deadlock is not resolved, but all three candidates refuse to withdraw.
If the political situation does not improve, it is unclear what will happen with the grants. UNICEF might end up managing the money once again, an awkward arrangement. “As long as there are funds, we can keep doing this indefinitely,” Mr Lang admitted. “But the question is, should we? When do you say to a government, ‘It's enough, this is your responsibility?' We don't want to replace the government or establish a parallel system.”
Money and politics will not fix everything. The hiring of so many inexperienced community teachers and an education policy that lacks a strong teacher-training component has led to poor school performance. Of every ten children that start school in Madagascar, only three make it through the final exam at the end of five years of primary school, according to UNICEF.
“We can put money into the system and get more children in school, but the quality [of teaching] has to be improved also. If teachers are not trained, you will get high dropout and repeater rates. Very few children will actually complete school,” Mr Lang said.
The dropout trends are “extremely negative” and the high number of children who are excluded from school is “very disappointing”, Mr Lang says. “The system has managed to function at least. If we hadn't had these funds, the situation would have been much worse. Nothing else is coming in from the government; state investment is zero.”
It will be a Sisyphean task to get the education system to where it was before the crisis, let alone have it grow again. “Right now, there is a downward momentum,” Mr Lang said. “We have to stop that, before you can even go up again. It's like pushing a rock back up the hill. It will take at least five years just to get back [to] where we were.”