Madagascar's new leader seeks to win over donors

Madagascar's new president Hery Rajaonarimampianina (centre) is seeking to end his country's isolation that followed a 2009 coup that stalled the economy -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 
Madagascar's new president Hery Rajaonarimampianina (centre) is seeking to end his country's isolation that followed a 2009 coup that stalled the economy -- FILE PHOTO: AFP 

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Madagascar's new president has launched a charm offensive against the world's biggest aid institutions, hoping to revive the support to his impoverished country that was cut off five years ago.

Seeking to end the isolation that followed a 2009 coup that stalled the economy, Hery Rajaonarimampianina's efforts in Washington could mark a turning point for the African nation.

"Madagascar has turred a page through these elections," Rajaonarimampianina said.

"I don't need to convince the international community, they're already convinced."

Major donors like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the United States and the European Union cut off the flow of aid to the Indian Ocean island after the coup.

That in turn spurred private investors to pull out, aggravating the economic woes of one of the world's poorest countries.

"We have had over the past five years very weak economic and investment activity combined with a deterioration of social indicators," George Tsibouris, head of the IMF mission to the country, said.

According to the World Bank, around 30,000 jobs were directly lost after the 2009 coup.

The country was hit especially hard by losing the trade privileges which helped it export to the United States.

Today more than 90 percent of the population survives on less than two dollars a day, a level almost unparalleled on the globe.

"You have a combination of different crises - an infrastructure crisis, a political crisis and a social crisis - that have converged," said the World Bank's Madagascar mission chief, Haleh Bridi.

The visit of the new president to Washington is thus crucial, with major donors waiting, as is traditional, for the IMF to give its green light in order to resume aid.

The Fund has already lifted one barrier, officially recognising the new government.

Bridi called recognition "an extremely important step," but Madagascar now need needs a formal IMF program to pave the way for large donors.

Tsibouris said that the IMF could provide direct financial support, policy advice, technical assistance and training.

"Everything is now possible, he said.

The IMF has already sent a team quietly to review the economy; there has been no formal IMF evaluation visit since June 2007.

"The fiscal situation has been kept reasonably under control in spite of very intense pressures," according to Tsibouris.

The country has a wealth of assets that could underpin a revival, from mineral resources to the attractions that could still make it a strong tourist destination.

The country's agricultural potential is also under-exploited: only one-third of the arable land is cultivated, according to the World Bank.

While in the United States President Rajaonarimampianina was also planning to meet executives of ExxonMobil and other oil companies, in hopes of attracting their investment.

But the World Bank said these assets are not enough without effective, transparent management.

"The problems of governance have been a major brake on local and foreign investment," said Bridi.

Rajaonarimampianina said: "My priority is to restore the rule of law in Madagascar, which will serve underpin sustainable development."

Anti-poverty group Oxfam applauded international reengagement with Madagascar, stressing that new programs should be targeted to help the country's poorest people.

"Too often the decision to cut or restore aid to a country are made without listening or taking into account the needs of the population," said Nicolas Mombrial, chief of Oxfam's office in Washington.

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