After the end of colonialism the plan was for Africans to produce their own clothes and other basic goods to help industrialise and develop economies as happened in China and South Korea. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, clothing industries declined and imports of used clothes increased.
African leaders were forced to liberalise their economies under political pressure from banks and governments in the west who had earlier lent them money, and to whom they owed massive interest repayments. Liberal economic reforms to the market meant the removal of barriers to trade, such as import taxes and quotas, which had protected new factories. Once fragile economies were open to imports – like cheap second-hand clothes – there was a wholesale collapse of vast swathes of local industry. Cheaper imported goods flooded African markets and workers in clothing factories lost their jobs.
Meanwhile, the debt crises as well as the long-term decline in the price of agricultural products, such as cotton, led to falling incomes across the continent. One of the sad ironies of today’s globalised economy is that many cotton farmers and ex-factory workers in countries such as Zambia are now too poor to afford any clothes other than imported second-hand ones from the west, whereas 30 or 40 years ago they could buy locally produced new clothes.
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