‘Cloth­ing of calamity’

Some East African na­tions want to curb im­ports of hand-me-downs but face sharp back­lash from the United States

Honolulu Star-Advertiser - - WORLD - By Kimiko De Frey­tas-Ta­mura

In Kenya, they are called the “clothes of dead white peo­ple.” In Mozam­bique, they are the “cloth­ing of calamity.”

They are nick­names for the un­wanted, used cloth­ing from the West that so of­ten ends up in Africa.

Now, a hand­ful of coun­tries in East Africa no longer want the for­eign hand-me-downs dumped on them be­cause they’re try­ing man­u­fac­ture their own clothes.

But they say they’re be­ing pun­ished for it — by the United States. In East Africa, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tan­za­nia, South Su­dan and Bu­rundi have been try­ing to phase out im­ports of sec­ond­hand cloth­ing and shoes over the last year, say­ing the in­flux of old items un­der­mines their ef­forts to build do­mes­tic tex­tile in­dus­tries. The coun­tries want to im­pose an out­right ban by 2019. Rwanda, in par­tic­u­lar, is seek­ing to curb the im­port of sec­ond­hand clothes, not only on the grounds of pro­tect­ing a nascent lo­cal in­dus­try, but also be­cause it says wear­ing hand-me-downs com­pro­mises the dig­nity of its peo­ple.

But when coun­tries in East Africa raised their im­port tar­iffs on used gar­ments last year — to such a high level that they con­sti­tuted a de facto ban — the back­lash was sig­nif­i­cant.

Ap­ply­ing pres­sure

In March, the Of­fice of the U.S. Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive threat­ened to re­move four of the six East African coun­tries in­cluded in the Africa Growth and Op­por­tu­nity Act, a pref­er­en­tial trade deal in­tended to lift trade and eco­nomic growth across sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa. (Bu­rundi and South Su­dan, gripped by up­heaval, had al­ready been ex­pelled from the trade deal be­cause their gov­ern­ments were ac­cused of per­pe­trat­ing state vi­o­lence.) Un­der the deal, prod­ucts like oil, cof­fee and tea are al­lowed ac­cess to U.S. mar­kets with low tar­iffs. But the White House has the right to ter­mi­nate the agree­ment with a coun­try if it feels that the re­la­tion­ship doesn’t ben­e­fit the United States. Rwanda’s pres­i­dent, Paul Kagame, who has been the most vo­cal leader about the used-cloth­ing ban among the East African na­tions, said that the re­gion should go ahead with the ban even if it meant sac­ri­fic­ing some eco­nomic growth. “We have to grow and es­tab­lish our in­dus­tries,” Kagame said in June. “This is the choice we find that we have to make. We might suf­fer con­se­quences. Even when con­fronted with dif­fi­cult choices, there is al­ways a way.”

East Africa im­ported $151 mil­lion worth of used clothes and shoes in 2015, mostly from Europe and the United States, where con­sumers reg­u­larly buy new clothes and dis­pose of old ones, of­ten giv­ing them away to char­i­ties. At least 70 per­cent of do­nated gar­ments end up in Africa, ac­cord­ing to Ox­fam, a Bri­tish char­ity that also sells used, do­nated clothes to the con­ti­nent. The U.S. threat, of­fi­cials in the re­gion say, is an ex­am­ple of a Western na­tion bul­ly­ing coun­tries that are try­ing to move beyond what the con­ti­nent is typ­i­cally known for: ex­port­ing raw ma­te­ri­als, not fin­ished prod­ucts.

Wrong move

For coun­tries like Rwanda, a small land­locked state with few nat­u­ral re­sources to ex­tract and ex­port, build­ing lo­cal man­u­fac­tur­ing is vi­tal for de­vel­op­ment, of­fi­cials con­tend. “Po­lit­i­cally and mo­rally it is wrong,” Mukhisa Ki­tuyi, the sec­re­tary-gen­eral of the U.N. Con­fer­ence on Trade and De­vel­op­ment and Kenya’s for­mer trade min­is­ter, said of the U.S. threat to re­move coun­tries from the trade deal. “The lead­er­ship of Rwanda and East Africa is right and should not lose sight of the big­ger pic­ture they have in mind.”

The trade re­la­tion­ship between the United States and East Africa should be founded on mu­tual re­spect, he added, “and should not go down the way of 19th-cen­tury Eng­land when it started a war with China over opium,” he said of Bri­tain’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to pry open Chi­nese mar­kets to sell drugs. East Africa could ex­port gar­ments worth up to $3 bil­lion an­nu­ally within a decade, ac­cord­ing to McKin­sey, the con­sul­tancy. Be­hind the U.S. re­sponse to the East African ban is a group of 40 used cloth­ing ex­porters, known as the Sec­ondary Ma­te­ri­als and Re­cy­cled Tex­tiles As­so­ci­a­tion. It says that 40,000 U.S. jobs, like sort­ing and pack­ing clothes, are at risk. Cloth­ing thrown away by Amer­i­cans, the as­so­ci­a­tion says, will end up in land­fills in the United States and dam­age the en­vi­ron­ment if not sold abroad.

The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which de­scribes the East African tar­iffs as “tak­ing ad­van­tage of U.S. gen­eros­ity,” lob­bied for the U.S. re­sponse. It did so on the grounds that the East African coun­tries were con­tra­ven­ing rules that re­quire them to show they are “mak­ing progress” to­ward elim­i­nat­ing trade bar­ri­ers to U.S. goods and in­vest­ment. “It’s hard to ar­gue that the U.S. should con­tinue to give pref­er­en­tial ac­cess to its mar­ket if the coun­try is tak­ing steps that harms U.S. com­pa­nies,” said Grant Har­ris, who served as the prin­ci­pal ad­viser to for­mer Pres­i­dent Barack Obama on is­sues re­lated to Africa. While African economies were be­ing pushed by in­sti­tu­tions like the In­ter­na­tional Mone­tary Fund to open up trade, the West pro­tected its tex­tile in­dus­tries by re­strict­ing im­ports of yarns and fab­rics from de­vel­op­ing coun­tries. “Re­mov­ing bar­ri­ers to trade made it eas­ier to im­port and ex­port things but made African economies more vul­ner­a­ble to im­ports, and man­u­fac­tur­ing in­dus­tries in par­tic­u­lar be­came un­com­pet­i­tive,” said An­drew Brooks, au­thor of “Cloth­ing Poverty: The Hid­den World of Fast Fash­ion and Sec­ond-hand Clothes.”

Is­sues of the trade deal

The cur­rent dis­pute over the trade deal, he said, ex­posed “the un­der­belly of glob­al­iza­tion.” Kenya, for ex­am­ple, had half a mil­lion work­ers in the gar­ment in­dus­try a few decades ago. That num­ber has shrunk to 20,000 to­day, and pro­duc­tion is geared to­ward ex­port­ing clothes of­ten too ex­pen­sive for the lo­cal mar­ket. In Ghana, jobs in tex­tiles plunged by 80 per­cent between 1975 and 2000. Many peo­ple in Zam­bia, which pro­duced clothes lo­cally 30 years ago, can now only af­ford to buy im­ported sec­ond­hand clothes.

Although many sup­port govern­ment ef­forts to build na­tional tex­tile in­dus­tries, they say that the

We have to grow and es­tab­lish our in­dus­tries. This is the choice we find that we have to make. We might suf­fer con­se­quences.” Paul Kagame Pres­i­dent of Rwanda


A wo­man shops for sec­ond­hand clothes at the Kimironko mar­ket in Ki­gali, Rwanda. Rwanda, like a hand­ful of other East African na­tions, is try­ing to man­u­fac­ture its own cloth­ing. Such is the case of the women, be­low left, who work in a tai­lor­ing shop at the Kimironko mar­ket.

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