[Marxism] Thrift shop imperialism

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Jun 3 11:38:47 MDT 2004

NY Times, June 3, 2004
Trade Theory vs. Used Clothes in Africa

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 
more money.

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 
can survive."

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 
imported goods.

"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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