Carion — For the 92 percent of Madagascar's population living on US$2 dollars or less a day, the country's 25 October presidential polls will signal a step not only towards the return of democracy but also towards the unfreezing of donor funds and the reversal of other punitive measures adopted in the aftermath of a coup d'etat.
In the wake of March 2009 military-backed change of government, the international community responded by imposing sanctions and withdrawing development funding for all but emergency assistance to the donor-dependent state. The US suspended Madagascar from the Africa Growth Opportunity Act, a law providing preferential trade status to sub-Saharan African countries, leading to the collapse of its textile sector, the country's largest private-sector employer. Foreign investors shied away, and the 2008 global economic slowdown saw falling demand for the country's main exports - vanilla, cloves and coffee.
Economic growth in 2009 was 0.6 percent, the World Bank said, a precipitous decline from the 7 percent seen the previous year. A World Bank report published on 1 February 2010 noted that Madagascar's leader, Andry Rajoelina - who ousted President Marc Ravalomanana from power - slashed the budget allocation for public services by an estimated $200 million in his first year in office.
A high-level donor agency official, who declined to be identified, told IRIN several years after the imposition of sanctions that smart sanctions, including travel restrictions - similar to those imposed on Zimbabwe's President Robert Mugabe and some members of his ZANU-PF government for human rights abuses - were not considered because there was a belief the wholesale sanctions used instead would lead to the collapse of Rajoelina's government "within months."
More than four years on, the humanitarian impact on the country's more than 20 million people has been immense. A June 2013 World Bank report said, "The gap between where the economy could have been [GDP at 20 percent above its current level] and where it is suggests that the cumulative costs of the crisis now exceed $8 billion."
The return of one of the world's poorest countries to the international fold, and the restoration of funding and trade agreements, will only be determined after all three elections - presidential, legislative and local - have been deemed free and fair. The legislative elections are scheduled for 20 December; a date for the local government poll has yet to be announced.
"The crisis has affected everything, from health [and] education to infrastructure. The challenges for the new government will be so big, and the expectations are so high, that disillusion is bound to set in," Eva Palmans, senior electoral advisor of the European Centre for Electoral Support, told IRIN.
Toll on nutrition
Erratic weather and a locust plague, left unchecked because of the paucity of funding, have taken a toll on Madagascar's rice and maize harvests this year, leaving as many as 4 million people - 28 percent of households in rural areas - food insecure, according to a recent World Food Program (WFP)/Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report. A further 9.6 million people are estimated to be at risk of food insecurity.
At a nutrition centre in Carion, a village about 80km east of Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo, the impact of poor child nutrition is attributed to a variety of factors. "We eat rice and manioc, but we don't have enough meat to feed the children," Ravaoniriana Razafindramaro, a 43-year-old mother of three, told IRIN. Her youngest son is now 22 months old and weighs 9kg. When the child was born prematurely, he weighed 1.8kg.
"The mothers here do not eat enough, and they work too hard while they are pregnant, so then the babies already have a low birth weight when they are born," community nutrition worker Mavoariso Rasoazanamanana told IRIN. "We weigh the babies and teach the mothers how to cook, but we can't do anything when parents don't have enough food."
Supported by the UN Children's Fund (UNICEF), the centre receives equipment to monitor child growth and offer counselling on better nutritional practices. But, like others scattered throughout the island state, it missed out on many of the benefits of the Scaling Up Nutrition movement (SUN), because the government was not recognized internationally. SUN provides a range of assistance, from the fortification of foods and micronutrient supplementation to the treatment of severe malnutrition.
"The country could have benefitted from a new pool of funding after it became a member [of SUN] in 2012," the centre's nutritional manager Nanama Simeon told IRIN. "As it is, we have helped to set up the platforms and carried out advocacy. But these children could have benefitted from added nutrition, improved health care and better access to good quality food if there hadn't been a political crisis."
The elections are being run for the first time by the independent National Electoral Commission of the Transition (CENIT), which will coordinate the voting of 7 million registered voters. There are 20,000 polling stations, and 5,000 election observers, at a cost of $60 million, with $25 million of the sum donated by the international community.
There are 33 candidates on the presidential ballot paper; Rajoelina and former president Ravalomanana, who is living in exile in South Africa, have been excluded from the poll, as part of the Southern African Development Community-led negotiations for the country's return to democratic norms.
But no matter who wins the presidency, the country's fragility means that winners and losers will have to cooperate. "The solution depends on what the two camps will do after the elections. There can be reconciliation, if they form an inclusive government. If not, they will be back at the starting point," electoral observer Palmans said.
"These elections are a necessary step to constitutional order, but elections are only part of the solution and not the solution in itself," she said. "The economic crisis could even be felt more after the elections. Much of the economy now functions in an informal way, and once the IMF [International Monetary Fund] comes back to help rebuild the economy, there will probably be economic reforms and even restrictions."
[ This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations. ]