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Hopeless cause of the week: save Madagascar!

Aid Watch has a stubborn attachment to excellent but possibly hopeless causes…

Madagascar, a country we first blogged about in June and then again in August, may be down to its last few days as regards AGOA, the US preference program that underpins about 50 percent of the country’s $500 million textile industry.  Because of the change of government that took place in Madagascar in March, the US has been steadily threatening to suspend its AGOA eligibility unless the country returns pronto to constitutional government.  A committee consisting of representatives from State, Commerce, Labor, Treasury, USAID, the NSC and the USTR has been deliberating for several days on whether Madagascar’s transgressions merit suspension from AGOA.

With little likelihood that egregious democracy and human rights violators like Gabon and Angola will be suspended from AGOA, it’s hard not to be cynical about why Madagascar has come under such scrutiny for a regime change in which a highly experienced kleptocrat was replaced by a less experienced one.  Or why, suddenly, there is such concern about a return to constitutional government when it’s not at all clear that Madagascar’s leaders over the last 40 years have ever placed the interests of their people above their own.  We can be fairly sure that if Madagascar were pumping oil instead of just looking for it the country’s AGOA status would not even be under consideration. Still, we’re going to try not to be cynical.

We don’t know WHAT the AGOA eligibility committee on Madagascar is talking about. (The committee doesn’t actually make the final decision on AGOA.  They make a recommendation to the president who typically announces who’s in and who’s out around Christmas time.)  But we imagine the discussion breaks down in two ways.  On one side, there are the idealists who believe that the AGOA goals of promoting democracy and good governance will never be achieved unless the US gets serious about sanctioning individuals who overthrow democratically elected governments.  After seeing Madagascar’s political leaders backslide, prevaricate and just plain lie about their intentions in on-going negotiations brokered by the AU, SADC and the UN, the idealists are skeptical about whether these leaders – none of whom is a poster child for good governance – are serious about resolving their long standing differences.  The idealists are probably right.  These political adversaries, who have overthrown one another like kids playing leapfrog, despise each other.  We can expect that, AGOA or no AGOA, political friction, back-stabbing and jockeying for position will continue in Madagascar for years to come – just like in most countries.

On the other side of the committee table, there are the realists who recognize that cutting off AGOA is unlikely to have any effect on those behind the overthrow of the previous government but will vaporize millions upon millions of dollars of foreign investment in Madagascar, some of it by US companies, and dump tens of thousands of young female workers trying to feed their kids into the streets.

So what to do?  Cancel AGOA in support of a principle that will do nothing to advance good governance in Africa, or continue it and support workers and investors who had nothing to do with the whole business?  Forgive us for our presumption that this is a fairly obvious call.

This is an interesting test of whether independent observers who actually care about Madagascar have any effect on US government decisions in our democracy, or whether the departments concerned simply act with impunity to pursue their own interests and agendas. The rest is up to you, most esteemed AGOA committee.

Update: Take action on this cause! Send an email to Florizelle Liser (, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative for Africa, telling her not to cancel AGOA in Madagascar.

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  1. Justin Kraus wrote:

    First I agree with you that AGOA should stay.
    However having spent a good few months in Madagascar in 2008 researching, and in a part of the country where Mr. Ravalomanana was most unpopular no less, the Tulear region, I still wouldn’t be so quick to draw an easy equivalence between him and his younger successor. Certainly both are kleptocrats. But Mr. Ravalomanana was at least an elected kleptocrat, whereas Mr. Rajoelina took power in what was in effect a coup. We can of course argue over the extent of voter fraud during the last election that brought Mr. Ravalomanana his second term in office, but even most people I talked to in the Tulear region thought that even without the fraud he would have won the election or at least received a large plurality of the votes.
    I am hardly endorsing the man but elections, even flawed ones, are almost always better than coups. Mr. Ravalomanana at least kept up the form, if not much of the substance. Mr. Rajoelina, and perhaps more importantly those behind him, don’t seem to give a damn about anything.

    Posted November 20, 2009 at 4:42 am | Permalink
  2. Solofo RAFENO wrote:

    For avoiding another catastrophy in Madagascar, the US should keep AGOA incentive for this country. However, the change in march 2009 was a coup and Obama Administration should stated that if they keep Madagascar within the AGOA process, it is only for avoiding more people to lose their jobs and not as a support to Andry Rajoelina’s coup.
    A clear oficial statement from US government is key; moreover the US could keep Madagascar within AGOA but should ban coup leaders (Andry Rajoelina and his deputies) from any official relationship and discussion with the US Administration and also not permit them to come to the US; and this until the last power sharing deal signed in Addis-Abbeba implemented.

    Posted November 20, 2009 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  3. Ernest Kreutzer wrote:

    I would like to comment about kleptocrat .
    Consideringthe situation in Madagascar it could be some similar to the countries from previous east-bloc;but in fact i would rather talk more as a zombie-economy in Africa and Madagascar .
    Since about 2000 ,Madagascar took an other way like a born-again economy to try to be steadfast loyal and true to the market .
    Stop aid we are ready to suffer more as the parliamentary is showing it through hunger strike ;but keep trade going on we need work and jobs .
    D’ont let Madagascar to go back to a medaeval economy ;it is not worth the millenium challenge .

    Posted November 27, 2009 at 1:55 am | Permalink

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    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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