The Well-Being of the Crouching Malagasy

A conversation with my daughter

(The original version of this piece was published in the AmCham Post in the Express de Madagascar on September 29, 2014)

My seven-year-old daughter recently pointed out to me: “In Antananarivo, I see a lot of people that crouch all day long in the streets. I wonder why.” I did not quite understand. “What do people do?” I asked her. “Crouch. You know. Sitting like this.” And she showed me. Keeping her heels on the ground, her feet slightly apart, she fully bent her knee until her buttocks nicely rested on the back of her calves. “Oh, I see. Come on, they don’t all sit like that!”

I tried to explain to her the benefits of crouching. For a lot of people, it is considered a very comfortable resting position. They think it is better than sitting, standing, or even lying down. It allows them to play cards or fanorona, eat vary sy laoka, and do pretty much anything without the need for a table or a chair. And a table and a chair can cost you an arm and a leg these days.

“But why do a lot of people crouch around all day long in the street?” she insisted. I realized that I have completely missed the depth of her question. It was one of those multi-layered questions only a kid can come up with. It was in fact three questions combined into one: Why are there so many people in the streets of Antananarivo? Why are they in the street all day long? And, of course, why are they crouching?

As far as I can remember, Antananarivo has always been busy, but in the last five years the streets have grown increasingly crowded. One obvious explanation is a high rate of population growth: around 3 percent in Madagascar compared with 0.5 percent in neighboring Mauritius. Another reason is the accelerated rate of rural-to-urban migration as (physical and food) security in the countryside has markedly worsened during the transition. There is also the closure of several export processing zones in 2009–2010 due to the post-coup international sanctions that forced thousands of workers into the street. All these factors, plus others, have caused people to flood into the streets of Antananarivo.

“A lot of those people,” my daughter observed, “seem to be just sitting around for most part of the day.” They don’t seem doing anything in particular (productive or not), maybe having a conversation, occasionally sharing one or two cigarettes. They just sit there. Probably jobless. Seemingly purposeless. “That is so sad,” my daughter concluded. I agreed.

This made me think of Madagascar’s poor ranking in the 2013 Gallup-Healthways Global Well-Being Index. In that global survey of individuals’ perceptions of their well-being, it ranked 130th out of 135 countries: only 6 percent of Malagasy adults consider themselves as “thriving” in the various elements (purpose, social, financial, community, and physical) of well-being.

Madagascar seems to be particularly struggling in “purpose wellbeing” (i.e., liking what you do each day and being motivated to achieve your goals) and “social wellbeing” (i.e., having supportive relationships in your life). According to these survey results, a vast majority of Malagasy (compared to citizens of other countries) do not feel a sense of purpose, they don’t really enjoy what they are doing, they have no motivation, and they don’t feel like they live in a supportive society — which is quite puzzling for a society based on the concept of fihavanana.

This is not only sad. It is troubling. Citizens with low well-being are less productive, and are not motivated to contribute to the development of their country. One may disagree with different aspects of the Gallup-Healthways index, but at least it has the merit of (hopefully) reminding Malagasy policymakers of what their only priority should be: Improving the well-being of the 22 million Malagasy citizens. This would include formulating and implementing policies that would create jobs and instill a sense of purpose for, among others, those people, that my daughter has observed, crouching all day long in the streets of Antananarivo.

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