Feature - Cost of political crisis borne by poor

More than a year since President Marc Ravalomanana took power in Madagascar, close to an estimated one-third of the residents in the capital, Antananarivo, remain mired in poverty.

"The truth is that nothing has changed. But I still believe President Ravalomanana will do something," said 36-year-old Aimeline Razanadrosoa. "We need everything - food, water, clothes; but also some money so that my children can go to school."

Ansoybe, just east of the city centre, is one of Antananarivo's poorest neighbourhoods. A microcosm of inner city decay, the low-lying suburb is a hodgepodge of makeshift mud dwellings, where unemployment is widespread and crime on the rise.

Without basic sanitation facilities or medical care, the 7,000 residents are constantly at risk of contracting infectious diseases. Malnutrition rates are high, with some 48 percent of children suffering from stunting.

Already struggling to cope, last year's political crisis - which pitted election winner Ravalomanana against incumbent Didier Ratsiraka - did nothing to alleviate the hardship. The urban poor were dealt a severe blow when an estimated 400,000 jobs were lost following the closure of factories across the island as the economy ground to a near halt during the nine-month long political stand-off.

Without formal employment, many residents in Ansoybe have taken to the streets. The roadside is littered with stalls made of corrugated iron sheeting. It is quite possible to almost simultaneously purchase a bowl of steaming chinese noodles and a sparkplug for your vehicle.

But the reality, as one aid worker pointed out, is that the poorest, like Razanadrosoa, did not lose their jobs in the formal economy: They simply had none to begin with.

All the odd jobs they usually relied on, like water portering, doing laundry or charcoal selling, were mainly middle class services. A lot of their usual customers lost their jobs during the crisis, which split the country between Ravalomanana- and Ratsiraka-controlled provinces, and have had to carry their own water.

With seven children to care for, Razanadrosoa has been kept afloat by the food-for-work (FFW) programme run by the NGO Care International with the support of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP).

"Most of my children cannot go to school because there is no money. My eldest child works in the market which does help but it is not enough. The food-for-work programme has really helped me," she said.

CARE's FFW programme targets the poorest parts of the city which, because they are low-lying, are frequently flooded.

The work involves the clean-up of the area and some light construction of walkways. In return workers are given a ration of maize, rice and oil at the end of each week to sustain a family of five.

"The FFW programme has impacted positively on the way people see themselves. There is a transfer of skills which has already benefited the residents. In the short term the programme assists those that have no other means of surviving," CARE project officer Rogier Rakotosorobo told IRIN.

The crisis last year could not have come at a worse time for shop owner Marcelline Razafimalala. Barely two months after opening her tiny neighbourhood store, the political upheaval began to impact on local businesses.

"We opened the shop, thinking that the troubles would last for a month or two. But it just went on and on. It was a very difficult time, not only for us but also for other shops in the area. There were many times when we thought of closing down. We were making just enough money to keep the store open," she told IRIN.

After Ravalomanana declared himself president, Ratsiraka supporters set up an armed blockade on the road linking Antananarivo
to the country's major port of Toamasina, some 200 km away, cutting off vital supplies, especially fuel.

"It was very frustrating because there was no fuel which meant that we had to walk to the markets and carry the products back to the shop. And even then the supermarkets did not have enough oil or rice which meant that we had to go without," Razafimalala added.

She admits that some of her produce is out of reach for the majority of Ansoybe residents, who barely get by on less than US $1 a day.

"The mark-up on the goods is slightly higher than that at the supermarkets in the city centre but we have to make some profit. But even though we are a bit more expensive, people in area prefer to buy from us because we live here. We also understand how difficult it is for people," she said.

Asked if business has picked up since last year she commented: "In the last couple of months some of the factories that closed down have reopened. This means that a few people have some money but I think that it is going to take some time before people get back on their feet."

It is still unclear what the impact of the 2002 crisis has had on household food security in Madagascar's urban centres. At the height of the political standoff, WFP had to extend its feeding programme to the urban population. The UN food agency reported at the time a sharp rise in malnutrition rates among children under five years. Also, an increasing number of families found themselves on the streets, having exhausted many of their coping mechanisms.

But the slow pace of progress appears not to have affected Ravalomanana's support among Antananarivo's poor, many of whom told IRIN that it was still too soon to assess whether the once political outsider has made good on his promise of improving living conditions for the majority of Malagasy.

"Most people will tell you that their lives have not changed at all. Nothing has improved, only that the situation in the country has returned to what it was before the troubles started. People still don't have jobs and their children are still out of school. But we hope that Ravalomanana will make a difference. In the meantime, however, I must do what I have to do
and help myself," Razafimalala said.