Warm welcome for UK delegation to Madagascar
Apparently when visiting Madagascar after World War II when the country had been liberated from the control of the Vichy French, General de Gaulle described the island as having great potential and that he intended to keep it that way. Alas some 70 years on that potential remains as unrealised as ever.
It was with some trepidation that our group took the long flight to the world’s fourth largest island and fourth most malnourished country, not least due to the recent outbreak of bubonic and pneumonic plague. However that had not deterred Princess Anne from blazing a trail for us with a high profile visit two weeks earlier and could not therefore deter our high calibre delegation consisting of Chris Leslie and Liz McInnes for Labour, Lib Dem peers Joan Walmsley and Martin Thomas and my Conservative colleague Sir David Amess, ably kept under control by Lauren Tait from the BGIPU. We took advantage of the long stopover at Nairobi Airport on route to hear a useful briefing from the Deputy High Commissioner about the apparent impasse in the election chaos in Kenya.
Our brand new ambassador, HE Dr Phil Boyle, had literally arrived in post a day ahead of us and had to wait a few days to receive formal accreditation but the Embassy and Madagascar Parliament put together a very intensive programme. We hit the ground running with a meeting with the President on our first morning in his North Korean built palace. We discovered that it was also his birthday so we were able to present him with a bottle of English sparkling wine with the message that English fizz was better than French champagne, accompanied by a rendition of happy birthday from our two noble members of the Parliamentary choir. Not easy when President Rajaonarimampianina has one of the longest names of any head of state! We made the evening news and front pages so got off to a good start with a series of enquiries about where this English champagne region is located.
We were very well looked after by both the Senate and National Assembly and I was accorded the honour of speaking at a plenary session of the former. Meetings with the Foreign Minister, trade minister and departments for justice and health followed. We saw some excellent projects with UNICEF especially around child protection and sexual exploitation; met some impressive Chevening scholars and held roundtables with a group of civic society leaders and British businessmen all keen to invest more in the country but held back by the constant scourge of corruption and archaic business practices.
Congestion in the sprawling capital Antananarivo made it hard to get out of the city but we were able to appreciate just a little of the island’s unique environmental treasures for which it is renowned with a trip to a lemur sanctuary and a primary forest protection project in collaboration with Kew Gardens. Madagascar’s diverse ecosystem is one of its major attractions. The island hosts over 13,000 species of flowering plants for example, some 90% of which are unique to Madagascar. But it is also greatly under threat as poverty, invasive mining and the Chinese all pose a threat to the survivability of rainforests and other precious habitats for the lemurs and other wildlife.
Some of the most revealing sessions were with members of the Electoral Commission and representatives from the World Bank and IMF. They all know corruption is rife. Most wealth is in the hands of a small group of people close to Government and several ‘Mr Bigs’ from the Indian sub-continent control many businesses whilst 91% of the population survive on less than U$2 a day. Whilst there has been some success with funding small scale projects through aid money GDP per head has actually been going backwards over recent years and shockingly half of children under 5 suffer from chronic malnutrition.
Despite the rich natural environment of the island, food production techniques remain archaic and they are even having to import supplies of the staple crop rice. With birth control programmes under threat given a revised stance from the Trump administration and an expected population explosion despite limited food and water access the future is challenging to say the least. Strong internal leadership is crucial for Madagascar, preferably with a legitimate democratic mandate but it became clear to us that external largely financial incentives, through the IMF and World Bank who we met, and possibly the AfDB and DfID, are crucial in prompting meaningful change and reform.
Yet Madagascar is a fragile democracy after a ‘transitional’ regime which was put in place between 2009 and 2013 largely at the behest of the former colonial power France. Politicians talk a good talk about tackling poverty and corruption yet the amount of attributable money sloshing around such a poor country at election time is alarming. There are fears that Presidential elections due next year will be no different. The tragedy is that Madagascar is resource rich in all sorts of valuable minerals and agricultural products and has a young and willing workforce yet too few are gainfully employed in the formal economy. Potentially oil exploration is a big earner but most multinationals have pulled out though BP is just about to sign a major contract. As with other East African nations the Chinese are busy exploiting rare and even protected resources and wildlife in return for short term finance and infrastructure spend.
A common theme during the week was the great warmth shown towards the British. This year Madagascar celebrates 200 years since the friendship treaty with the UK. Next year is the 200th anniversary of the arrival of two Welsh Methodist missionaries, David Jones and David Griffiths, who we found are well remembered. They devised a western orthography for the Malagasy language, translated the Bible, and opened 33 schools. Methodism is still a leading influence. We were a little abashed by a question from a National assembly member who enquired what role is played by religion in our political system.
There is a major Commonwealth war graves cemetery in the north of the island marking an important military intervention by allied forces in 1942. The recent visit by Princess Anne went down extremely well and there is a clear wish from the President down to pursue membership of the Commonwealth which would be a particular coup given Madagascar currently chairs the Francophone group of African nations. The visit by the President to London earlier in the Autumn specifically to open a new embassy further underlined the importance the Madagascan government place on closer links with the UK.
Our visit was particularly well timed therefore. There is a real momentum building for closer relations between our two nations with considerable opportunities for boosting trade, aid and environmental cooperation where our expertise in this form of soft diplomacy is particularly relevant and welcome. We need to sustain that momentum and we will be setting up an APPG to help cement the strong links we have already forged.