[Marxism] Thrift shop imperialism
lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 3 11:38:47 MDT 2004
NY Times, June 3, 2004
Trade Theory vs. Used Clothes in Africa
By CARTER DOUGHERTY
KAMPALA, Uganda - Today's globalized economy boasts few unrepentant
protectionists, but Eyasu Sirak does not deal in gentle euphemisms of
"fair trade" or "level playing fields." He wants his government to ban
imports of used clothing simply so he can sell more apparel and make
His business, Eladam Enterprises, makes safari suits and police and army
uniforms, which he sells out of a small shop in downtown Kampala. But
Mr. Sirak looks longingly at Ugandans who buy their clothing at bustling
markets stocked with European and American castoffs.
"As long as these clothes are here," he insists, "no textile industry
The rich world's hand-me-downs offer visitors some of Africa's more
peculiar sights. One afternoon in Kampala, Uganda's lively,
diesel-fume-laden capital, a young man wore a black T-shirt that
boasted: "I am what you fear the most: United States Marine." Another
proclaimed its owner's allegiance to the "Watkins Warriors," presumably
some small-town sports team.
The scene repeats itself in towns and villages across Africa, from
Mozambique in the south to Mali in the north, thanks to donated clothing
from the West that is sold by the charitable entities that receive it to
exporters, pressed into bales and shipped to Africa. Though it starts as
charity, the declared value of American secondhand clothing exported to
Africa was $59.3 million in 2002, according to the International Trade
About $2.3 million of that went to Uganda, where mivumba, as used
clothing is known in the Luganda language, accounts for about 81 percent
of garment purchases, according to the Uganda Manufacturers Association.
Yet Mr. Sirak's proposal - banning mivumba - falls on incredulous ears
in much of Kampala. Importers and consumers of used garments, who far
outnumber the manufacturers, have castigated the idea of an import ban,
giving rise to a lively debate about whether domestic industries should
get a helping hand before facing international competition.
The old arguments for protective tariffs retain some intellectual
currency, said Gary Hufbauer of the Washington-based Institute for
International Economics. But he said they usually masked a desire to
charge more to consumers who would otherwise have access to cheaper
"Protection might create a local industry that can compete in world
markets, and the subsequent gains might be large enough to pay back the
costs incurred on account of the protection," Mr. Hufbauer said. "In
practice, however, not more than one case in 10 meets these two conditions."
American policy here has been against trade barriers. The Africa Growth
and Opportunity Act, passed in 2000, seeks to integrate the continent
into the world economy. By offering easy access to the American market,
the act preaches growth through exports, not through national
self-sufficiency, and accounted for $1.2 billion in apparel exports from
Africa in 2003, according to the Commerce Department.
Washington has little sympathy for banning secondhand imports, and
contends that new and used clothing appeal to very different consumers.
"The reason this market is so huge is because most people live on a
dollar a day," said a United States trade official.
South Africa, the continent's economic powerhouse, has thrown its lot in
with protectionists. Bowing to pressure from local manufacturers and
labor unions, its government cut off imports of used clothing in 1999.
Nigeria, Ethiopia and Eritrea have imposed their own prohibitions, while
Kenya has flirted with a ban.
"The scourge of secondhand clothes from the United States and Europe
deprives us of jobs and food on the table for the family," said Brian
Brink, executive director of the South African Textile Federation.
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