The Washington Diplomat / March 2005
By Larry Luxner
Madagascar, the world's fourth-largest island, is home to 17 million people and thousands of plant and animal species that live nowhere else on Earth. Yet most Americans know absolutely nothing about the place — and the country receives fewer than 8,000 U.S. visitors a year.
That could change dramatically, however, thanks to next month's release of "Madagascar," an animated film produced by Steven Spielberg's company, Dreamworks.
The movie tells the story of three animals that escape from a zoo in New York and "try to adapt themselves to the environment," says Rajaonarivony Narisoa, Madagascar's ambassador to the United States.
"Even though it's a cartoon, it was developed from research about Madagascar that shows how beautiful our landscape is," Narisoa told the Washington Diplomat.
"We expect that with the release of this movie, we could register as many as one million tourists a year, up from 200,000 a year at present. We think it can be a tool to promote tourism and especially Madagascar's biodiversity," he said, noting that 80% of the island's flora and fauna are endemic to Madagascar.
That's why meeting Spielberg at Dreamworks' Los Angeles studios was such a priority for Madagascar's president, Marc Ravalomanana, during his visit last month to the United States. Ravalomanana was also invited to President Bush's National Prayer Breakfast, and he met with business leaders in Texas as well as 24 Malagasy students attending Abeliene Christian University.
Speaking at a Washington event organized by the Corporate Council on Africa and the Millennium Challenge Corp., Ravalomanana said that last year, Madagascar registered 8% annual GDP growth while reducing tariffs and customs duties.
Even more impressively, Madagascar ranked first in the Wall Street Journal/Heritage Foundation's 2004 index of economic freedom among emerging markets.
"We want to create jobs for our people, strengthen industry and make the most of our natural beauty," said the president. "We still have a steep road to climb, but we need support from our friends. I am counting especially on Ameria to help us, because Americans are not afraid of new frontiers. We need the spirit to fight poverty, build roads and ensure clean water for our people."
On the other hand, he said, "businessmen will only come to Madagascar if we offer three things: security, stability and profit. I know the businessman's mentality very well. We cannot force them to come to Madagascar. We must create a new investment climate."
Ravalomanana, 55, is originally from Imerikasinina, a village east of Madagascar's capital, Antananarivo. One of eight children, he turned his family's small yogurt operation into an agribusiness giant and, in the process, became one of Madagascar's richest men.
He entered politics in 1999 as a candidate for mayor of Antanarivo and won by a large margin. Ravalomanana's popularity as mayor — particularly his improvements in hygiene and sanitation — helped get him win the presidency only three years later.
"I was elected in 2002 because the people wanted a change," said Ravalomanana. "Madagascar is trying hard to control corruption, and good governance is on its way. Our accomplishments are frequently cited by other countries."
They're also cited by Paul Applegarth, CEO of the Millennium Challenge Corp.
The MCC is a nonprofit organization which provides assistance to countries that achieve specific levels of progresss in civil liberties, political rights, transparency in government and other criteria.
"We are very optimistic about Madagascar," said Applegarth. "First of all, President Ravalomanana is a self-made man. He sold yogurt from the back of his bicycle. Within two years, he secured a loan from the World Bank to start a yogurt factory. Since becoming president, he's become the guiding force in fighting corruption.
"At its heart, the MCC is about reducing poverty through substantial economic growth," he added. "Growth occurs fastest in countries like Madagascar that adopt good policies. Countries compete for our assistance. Those who win the competition rank highest among their peers. In fact, Madagascar has made so much progress that it's among four countries in the world in the final stages of a compact with the MCC, along with Nicaragua, Honduras and [the ex-Soviet republic of] Georgia."
Helping the president achieve his goals is the recently formed U.S.-Madagascar Business Council, headed by Earl Young. Other entities involved in the effort include ExxonMobil, Texas Children's Hospital and Boeing Corp.
At present, some 80% of trade between Madagascar and the United States consists of textiles, thanks to opportunities that exist under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), passed during the Clinton administration. And even though Ravalomanana said, in response to a question from the Washington Diplomat, that "we're not afraid of Chinese competition," others are clearly concerned that, once U.S. global textile quotas are lifted, a flood of imports from China will devastate Madagascar's fledgling garment industry.
"We must make sure China doesn't take over the whole world," said Stephen Lande of Manchester Trade Ltd., a Washington consulting firm with long experience in Africa. "Secondly, AGOA must be strengthened, particularly with regard to textiles. We will do whatever is necessary to make sure that happens."