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Fighting poverty with education: Why school reforms are urgently needed in Madagascar

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Children at public primary school in the rural village of Ambohidratrimo, Antananarivo. Photo: Dia Styvanley/World Bank Children at public primary school in the rural village of Ambohidratrimo, Antananarivo. Photo: Dia Styvanley/World Bank

The numbers on poverty in Madagascar are alarmingly high. More than 24 million people lived on less than 4,000 ariary ($0.89) per person per day in 2022 in Madagascar, setting the national poverty rate at just over 75% of the population. Our just-published Madagascar Poverty Assessment Report shines a light on why this is and provides an account of the evolution of poverty and living conditions in Madagascar in the last decade (2012-2022).

This new assessment, which results from a joint study conducted over the past two years by the World Bank and INSTAT, Madagascar’s national statistics institute, goes beyond traditional economic analysis by taking into account such non-monetary aspects of well-being as access to education, healthcare, and basic services like drinking water and electricity. It also considers psychological variables such as satisfaction with life and optimism about the future. By integrating these diverse factors, our study aims to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced picture of poverty in Madagascar over the last decade.  We hope it will help decision-makers and development partners implement better, more targeted and effective policies to address the human and cultural dimensions of poverty and ultimately to improve the living conditions of the Malagasy population.

Throughout our research, we met with numerous residents of thirteen municipalities across the country's six provinces to understand how poverty is affecting them in their daily lives. Their stories confirmed what our analysis of household surveys and census data suggested regarding the root causes of poverty—lack of education is a big one.  For instance, Mrs. Sahondra (her name has been changed for privacy), a mother of four who lives in an impoverished district of Antananarivo, Madagascar’s capital, shared with us the challenges she faces both as a single mother and a rickshaw puller, a male-dominated profession in the country. She explained how much she has been struggling to lift her family out of poverty. "I can’t read or write," she said, "and I've been unable to find a job other than rickshaw pulling to feed my children, despite the difficulties and the stigmatization of those around me, because it's a man's job. My greatest sorrow is that my children can't go to school because I don’t have enough money and they don't have birth certificates, like me. We are hopeless and isolated from everything. But what else can we do?"

Mrs. Sahondra’s testimonial highlights how education, in terms of both access and quality, is an essential factor in breaking the cycle of poverty. There is a significant correlation between an individual's level of education and their poverty level.  Based on our research, illiterate individuals have a poverty rate of 97%, while those who have completed primary education have a poverty rate of 83.5%. However, individuals who have completed secondary education have a significantly lower poverty rate of 46%, and those with higher education have an even lower rate of just 17%.

Although Madagascar has achieved a net enrolment rate of over 95% in primary education, and a significant reduction in illiteracy, retention remains a major problem as less than a third of children make it from grade 1 to grade 5. More importantly, the education system lacks sufficient means to equip young people with the skills they need for productive employment. In 2019, for instance, 97% of Malagasy children aged 10 were considered "learning poor," meaning that they could not read and comprehend a simple text, a higher proportion than the 87% rate observed in sub-Saharan Africa and 90% across low-income countries. Children who do complete primary school (by finishing grade 5) may still lack basic competencies, with only 17.5% of them showing adequate proficiency in literacy and 21.6% in numeracy. The education system in Madagascar needs additional inputs to improve student outcomes, including enhanced teacher support, training, and pay, as well as sufficient learning materials, and investments in remedial education.

The situation is particularly concerning for girls. Even though more girls complete elementary school than boys, poverty and gender inequalities often prevent them from continuing their education to secondary school, and many are forced to work or get married and pregnant at an early age.

The school calendar is an additional obstacle to children completing basic education: by mirroring the European school calendar, rather than matching the local agricultural and cyclonic seasons, it pushes many children out of school at harvest time, increases teachers’ absenteeism, and forces schools to close during cyclones and heavy rains. There is evidence that aligning the school calendar with the agricultural season can significantly increase school attendance and educational levels, particularly in rural areas where agriculture is a primary economic activity.

During our group discussions, the topic of education and school performance came up repeatedly and was recognized as being of the utmost importance. Participants stressed that the low levels of education among young people contribute to the perpetuation of poverty, along with other challenges such as urban demographic pressure, a lack of productive employment opportunities, widespread corruption, and the isolation of rural communities. These issues appear to be interconnected and participate in hindering development and worsening the country's economic situation.

Our assessment provides important insights. By emphasizing how poverty is often passed down from one generation to the next, for instance when an illiterate mother is unable to provide her children with a good education, it illustrates the self-perpetuating nature of the poverty cycle. In order to break this cycle, our study highlights the importance of improving the quality of education beyond just increasing enrollment numbers. Prioritizing quality education would allow Madagascar to boost the productivity and potential of future generations, and to progress towards a sustainable and inclusive development path.  Education is a beacon of hope in the fight against poverty, and a call to invest in today’s children to forge a brighter tomorrow.


Ana María Oviedo

Senior Economist, Poverty and Equity Global Practice, World Bank

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