A Discussion with Ketakandriana Rafitoson, Transparency International Initiative Madagascar
February 14, 2023
Background: Madagascar faces multiple challenges among which climate change and weak governance are prominent. It is a notably religious society, and the Catholic Church plays prominent roles. Ketakandriana Rafitoson is a determined and fierce advocate and scholar working for better governance, and she spoke at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) held in Washington, DC, in December 2022. In follow-up discussions with Katherine Marshall (via Zoom), Rafitoson delved into the background that led her to the advocacy work she does today. She emphasized the continuing and central role that the Catholic Church has played in her life. She sees important, though as yet limited, roles for Madagascar’s religious organizations in efforts to work for better governance and integrity in public life. In November 2022, Rafitoson blew the whistle about potential corruption in the Malagasy lychee trade, and she now faces criminal charges, along with the chair of Transparency International (TI) Madagascar. However, the case is still open. This judicial harassment against TI Madagascar leaders provoked a public outcry and foreign embassies (United States, United Kingdom, France, Norway, European Union) in Madagascar, along with Amnesty International, released statements calling for it to stop.
A question we are addressing is whether people at the parish level might be mobilized: is there sufficient awareness about the duties of citizens coupled with the duties of the Christian? If we are to say that we have a duty to save our country by our own efforts, can we translate that into action?
Good evening! Where are you speaking from today?
I’m in Antananarivo, in Madagascar, right now. It’s the evening here and the electricity is not working very well, as usual. We have a cyclone right now. It is raining hard, so we might have a power outage, but it works for the moment, so I’m happy.
Wonderful. My objectives today are to learn more about what you’re doing, especially the link that you highlighted at the International Anti-Corruption Conference between churches and your anti-corruption work.
Why don’t you tell me a bit about your story. How you got to where you are, your work with Transparency International, and so on.
I think that I am a pure product of the Catholic Church, and it is something I’m very proud of. I was born to Catholic parents.
Where were you born, and where did you grow up?
Here in Madagascar, in Tana. I lost my dad when I was 11, so my mom raised us, my brother and I, in this culture of faith. And faith and work. You have to work hard in order to become someone and to achieve your dreams. Because I am coming from a poor background, it is essential to work, work, work. And pray. This is everything that we had. And we did it well. I studied.
I began my studies with the Jesuits at high school, at College Saint Michel Amparibe, which is very famous here. I discovered something important there. I was 14 at the time. None of my friends were very curious to learn more about social justice, or things like this. But we had a course, a weekly course, teaching us about the topic. It focused on values, the Jesuits’ values. My friends were, for the most part, listening with the behavior of their age. But I was interested in it, and started to read The Social Contract, by the philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. My passion for democracy started there, and it led me to many questions about equality as well. Why is the world unequal? Why is there so much inequality in the world? That question triggered my reflection at the time.
After I finished high school, I started to study at the Catholic University of Madagascar. I chose to do political science, not with the idea of becoming a politician, but to understand the “science” of politics: What does politics and policy do to reduce inequalities in the world? I faced a lot of injustice in our family, in the society, and had many personal stories that moved me to think.
At the Catholic University, I started to write about democracy, about human rights. We founded a journal; it was, naturally, rather artisanal, but it still exists today. It is called ECOPOLIS. In that journal, we tried to analyze some philosophical texts and to include thought pieces about Madagascar’s realities. Once again, why so many inequalities? I began to think that it is the way of doing politics in Madagascar that is so wrong. Because I was studying political science, obviously I encountered lots of very good theories.
I was also discovering Catholic social teaching at the time, because it was a mandatory subject at the Catholic University. I was struck by, for instance, Saint Augustine’s teaching, as well as other saints and philosophers from the Catholic Church. I also appreciated ordinary, non-religious people who wrote about the topic. Social justice really matters to me, and I found in the teachings something that I had been striving for, the end purpose.
Did you do all your academic studies in Madagascar?
Yes, all my studies were in Madagascar, except a few masterclasses I did on occasional travels.
After my master’s studies, I entered the national competition to become a judge (that was my mother’s dream). As I had studied political science and public law at the same time, and was very good at that, this seemed [like] a good opportunity. I won the contest. I was the first among thousands of candidates in the country. They only select 10 people in each cohort (on the administrative court track) and I finished first. My mom was very proud!
But when I started to learn and study, went through the training, and began to work, I discovered how the judiciary really works in Madagascar. And it is full of corruption. People say openly that as a judge, you receive calls from ministers and people in power telling you that in this such case you have to do this and that, despite what the law says.
I decided to resign. I quit. And I’m the only Malagasy person who has ever quit the judiciary, because becoming a judge here is the guarantee for fame and fortune. But that didn’t match my values, and I could not see practicing law this way. I preferred to quit.
I started two other master’s programs, one in population and development and one in international relations. At the same time, I was working as a consultant in the power sector and still continuing to deepen my engagement in civil society.
It was through my engagement in civil society that I crossed the path of the Jesuits again. I found that there was a social center here in Madagascar, in Tana, called the Arrupe Center, named after Father Arrupe, the former superior general of the Jesuits. I started to interact with them through conferences. As a social organizer, I was part of spreading the word about civil resistance. I benefited from a short training course in the United States with the International Center for Non-Violent Action, located in Washington, DC. They chose me for the Fletcher Summer Institute at Tufts University in Boston. There, I learned about civil resistance. That made a deep impression on me.
I began to dream about a revolution in Madagascar. Everybody is so poor here; we are living in extreme poverty. I wondered if perhaps people could trigger a revolution against greed, politicians, corruption, everything. Things could change. With a few friends, we started a movement called Wake Up Madagascar in 2013, dreaming of an uprising against all kinds of scourges, hoping for people power to reverse the negative trend in our country. But this revolution has not happened, despite our efforts. It can be frustrating, because there is so much to complain about. But complaining is not enough: we have to act as citizens and also as soldiers of faith. If you believe in God, that is just helping you, but you have to do the main stuff. You have to strive for change.
So, in 2018 I decided to quit my job within the power sector because it was also so crooked that I could not stand it any longer. I was pretty much jobless.
How did you come to be involved with Transparency International?
Transparency International in Madagascar called me just at that point, when I had left my job, looking for an executive director, and asked if I might be interested. I had not known that they were hiring. I went for the interview. They chose me because of my activist profile, and because I had always been very vocal about what I think. I tried to bring a fresh lens, a fresh look at the anti-corruption work that they’ve been doing in Madagascar.
I continued, meanwhile, to interact with the Jesuits. I finished a first Ph.D. in 2019, in political science. I was looking at the contribution of Madagascar’s civil society to the democratization process, though it has not yet been achieved in the country. I then did another Ph.D., this time with the Catholic University. Thus, I went back to my roots.
How do you organize your different roles, academic and activism?
I have been lecturing at the Catholic University, on social justice and local democracy, for four years now. My second Ph.D. is focused on Catholic social teaching as a potential lever for change in Madagascar. The question I am addressing is how to translate what is written and taught in Catholic social thought into action, and why so little that is envisaged is actually happening on the ground in Madagascar. People used to think that Catholic social teaching was very complicated material, written by popes and scholars, and in a very inaccessible language. But there are ways to take some elements from it and use them in politics.
For development, look at the teaching of Pope Francis, for instance. If we apply what he’s saying, then there will be hope. So, this is [the] kind of thing I’m talking of in the book I am thinking about. I would like to complete it and publicize it. But I don’t know yet how.
In a word, I’m trying to couple my engagement with Transparency International in Madagascar with my beliefs and with my academic work. I am convinced that churches in Madagascar have a duty in the fight against corruption. They have to do something. Even talking about anti-corruption during the homilies during the Sunday’s Mass would be something. They are in touch and in contact with lots of vulnerable people. They have to spread the word of anti-corruption and do more. I know that they are already doing good things, but it’s not enough for me. But there is a vested relationship as well between the churches, especially the Catholic Church, and politicians, and I don’t know how to break this.
How are the churches involved in Transparency International? Is there any formal link? Are they on the boards? Do they come to meetings?
Not really. There is no formal link between TI and the Church, because TI is a non-partisan and neutral association (and movement), open to any kind of constituency, religious or not. But the Church, especially the Jesuit part, is doing what they call "social and ecological apostolate." They have a political branch, a program for accompanying, for instance, Catholic members involved in politics. They try to train them in Catholic social values. I’m not sure that they have positive results, so I am looking to find ways to empower them, to help them. I’m lecturing for them on topics of good governance, accountability, transparency, and integrity, thus bringing the work of Transparency International into their own curricula.
At the university, you mean?
Yes and no. The Jesuits have a brand-new university called U-Magis and I dream of teaching there. But for now, I’m still lecturing mainly at the Pedro Arrupe Center, targeting people—vulnerable people, young people—who come there, and also continuing my lectures at the Catholic University.
This year in Madagascar, we will have presidential elections. The current regime is trying to bribe the churches, including the Catholic Church, because they are huge reservoirs of voters. The president is promising everything: to build new churches, give to specific causes. I feel it’s not sincere and I’m afraid Christians will be used for political purposes, as it already happened before. I’m very upset about that and have urged the bishops to beware. Electoral corruption is already happening, “so please don't bring yourself into that.”
In short, the situation in Madagascar is very complicated with respect to relationships between politicians and churches. I think it’s always complicated—not only here—but I would like to bring change here, and I don’t know how to do that.
In what areas is the Catholic Church most important? Is it education, health? Is it the community relationships
Education first. It’s what matters most to them. Social reconstruction or reinsertion is also important, because people are very poor. They try to teach them to do practical things and to give them means to make ends meet, at least.
Part of the Jesuit engagement is around the implementation of environmental measures, like ecology, as taught in Pope Francis’ Laudato Si. Madagascar is badly hit by climate change. There is a lot of deforestation and trafficking of natural resources. This is also part of my TI work, as fighting against that is very important here. Trafficking of rosewood going to China, for instance, is a serious challenge, along with other illegal wildlife trade. I do believe there are ways to collaborate on this point, I mean with the Jesuits and other components of the society who are doing much the same work.
We are currently exploring ways to approach the election challenges together, for example mobilizing Christians to monitor the elections on a volunteer basis. I am still unsure how and if this can work. The first rounds of the elections will be around October. A question we are addressing is whether people at the parish level might be mobilized: Is there sufficient awareness about the duties of citizens coupled with the duties of Christians? If we are to say that we have a duty to save our country by our own efforts, can we translate that into action? This is still at the stage of thinking, and I am looking for advice on how to spread the word, how to act together with the other churches. I need more elements. Since you’ve been working on interfaith dialogues, maybe you have advice on this, how to approach the topic.
Are there structures for interreligious work in Madagascar?
The FFKM [Council of Christian Churches in Madagascar] was founded in 1980, but it involves only the Christian churches: the Catholic Church, Lutheran church, the reform church, and one other. They are all Christian, and they are what we term the “senior churches,” all established in Madagascar more than a century ago. It is quite a large structure but does not include more recent or evangelical churches, nor does it have relationships with Muslim people or other religious constituencies. That has been very complicated here, because I have the impression that the Christian churches are afraid of other religions, thinking they might come and invade the country.
There is, however, a constitutional right to freedom of religion and belief. This encourages a respect for the paths that people will choose. You have to work with people instead of fearing them. Despite this framework, I don’t feel that there is this kind of dialogue here right now, and I don’t know how to make this happen for the sake of a better governance driven by citizens.
Are the Jesuits well integrated in the broader Catholic Church?
They are certainly respected, though there the are some dissident elements. I’ve been part of a think tank, for instance, for more than 10 years [the SeFaFi]. We used to write very critical papers directed towards the politicians. The think tank was led by a French Jesuit priest, Sylvain Urfer,* who lived in Madagascar for 40 years. He died in 2021, unfortunately. And he was very much criticized within Church circles, as he was seen as too much a rebel for a priest. But I loved what he did, and I miss him very much. He was my mentor and friend, and he helped me growing this passion for “faith doing justice.” You can find many of his writings on the internet as well as the think tank where we both worked.
I have vivid memories of difficult challenges we worked on in the 1980s in Madagascar, and I am hopeful that progress has been made since then.
Sadly, there has been no improvement. That’s what is very frustrating with Madagascar. We have all the resources we need here. We have the land, we have the people, the resources, but we are not able to manage to do something good with them. And when I say we, we all have a shared responsibility. It is not just the politicians, it’s also us citizens. Of course, we are busy making a living, but that’s not a reason to resign from the civic community and from your duty as a citizen. And that’s why I would like to find a way to wake people up, saying, “Look, we have to do something now. It’s not tomorrow, it’s now.” It has to happen. But people see me like a donkey that has been shot. And say, “No, don’t you have something interesting to do with your life? Go abroad and make the most of your two Ph.D.s.; go find a good job and shut up.” But I just can’t.
What have you found is the most effective work that you do in TI?
Investigative journalism is an important path, and it is one of our greatest successes. It is what I have been talking about at the workshop at IACC last December, taking the example of an investigation we did the land sector.
I am very passionate about this work. It may, I think, be my destiny to work on anti-corruption: I was born on December 9, which is international anti-corruption day! That means something to me.
What I like the most is to empower young people, and there are so many of them. Most people feel defeated by the reality, by poverty, by everything bad happening in the country. They keep saying there is no hope anymore, so we will disappear and die in misery. But for young people, we need to find ways to empower and to make them believe in something better.
At the Catholic University, I have a small group of 20 students at the master’s level in political science. I really try to open up their eyes saying, “You will be in charge of this country tomorrow, so don’t make the same mistakes as your elders. Make wise and smart and good choices, not only for yourself, but for your community, for your nation. Madagascar is counting on you.” I’m lecturing about local democracy and citizenship, and I’m talking a lot about nonviolent civil resistance, social justice, citizenship, and integrity. That’s the most important thing. That is really the antithesis of corruption. We need leaders filled with integrity. But how to have this, that’s a big, big question.
Do you find them responsive?
Yes. I feel that there’s a lot of interest among them. This is the fourth year that I’m teaching there now, and I’m still in touch with previous students. Thus, I have a small cohort of 60 to 80 people still in touch with me. They keep me updated on what they are doing. Some are studying abroad right now; some of them have already started to work here in Madagascar. I do a kind of mentorship volunteer role, and I’m very happy with it. Something that inspires me, a big dream of mine, is to have a place to teach freely all that I’m thinking about.
I’m looking for freedom, so I was very inspired visiting Georgetown.
Anti-corruption has a moral side and beyond the specific work that we are launching every year, there is a huge area that we have to do with people on that moral issue. It’s a key thing to change. I keep trying and trying to find the new recipes for it to work. I am looking for inspiration.
*Sylvain Urfer, teacher and writer, observer of political and social life in Madagascar. In 1989 he founded the Centre Foi et Justice (a French research group on Madagascar), housing a library and study center in Antananarivo. He directed Foi et Justice and was a founding member of SeFaFi (a French-Malagasy-language media platform), known for the positions it took on social and political issues and especially against corruption.