Africa’s Giant Flea Market

What development failures led to Africa becoming a dumping ground for the rich world’s secondhand goods?

June 22, 2009

What development failures led to Africa becoming a dumping ground for the rich world's secondhand goods?

Perhaps the most remarkable example of Zambia's deindustrialization is its textiles sector.

Used clothing began to arrive here almost immediately after the government repealed import taxes in 1992.

Since no duties are charged for used clothes, officials listed their value at zero. Wholesalers realized they could create a new market by buying surplus clothing donated to charities like the Salvation Army for only pennies per pound, then shipping them by the bale to sub-Saharan Africa, where they are sold at markups of as much as 400%.

Not especially efficient, Zambia's textile factories were overmatched by wholesalers delivering affordable, passable clothing, often made with subsidized materials in rich nations, without paying production costs, tariffs or customs.

About 30,000 of the industry's 34,000 jobs disappeared, according to the Zambia Association of Manufacturers, and were replaced by a loose but crowded network of roadside and flea-market vendors beckoning shoppers to "rummage through the pile," or “salaula,” in the language of Zambia's majority Bemba tribe.

The bales of old clothing shipped to sub-Saharan Africa by the United States alone account for nearly $60 million in sales annually and are by now so familiar that entirely new idioms have emerged. Partly in derision and partly because many Africans once assumed that the clothing belonged to the recently deceased, Ghanaians refer to the imports as "dead white man's clothing." Tanzanians dubbed the garments "dyed in America," and in Zambia the used-clothing stands are called "bend-down boutiques."

In the two generations since Africans began to free their countries from colonial misrule, nearly 40 countries on the continent have liberalized their markets as part of the "structural adjustment programs" peddled by Western donors such as the World Bank and the IMF.

In doing so, the continent has abandoned the industrial strategies designed to strengthen the puny manufacturing sectors left behind by European settlers, transforming Africa into a dumping ground for what the industrialized world no longer needs or wants, a deluge of secondhand clothes, used cars, old furniture, tools and weapons. The continent's transformation into a giant flea market is the trailer for a very bad movie.

From the African savanna to the Andean Mountains to the American Midwest, global capital has taken a wrecking ball to the Rust Belt, its smokestacks, payrolls and labor unions. The old economy favored production; the new economy favors retail, speculation, deal-making.

Sub-Saharan Africa's 800 million people represent more than 10% of the world's population but account for only 2% of global trade, a share that is smaller than it was even 50 years ago. Since 1990, manufacturing activity has declined by a third, per capita income by a quarter. During that same period, the growth of global trade has added nearly $1 trillion to global income.

Shortly after I first arrived in Africa in 1999 as a foreign correspondent, I began exploring a simple line of inquiry with academics, diplomats and people in think tanks in Washington, D.C., and New York. Why is poverty so inert, so resolute on this continent? Why do Africans remain so stubbornly poor, their economies more primitive now than those of their parents?

The answers most often proferred to me pointed to Africans' corruption, a cultural ethos that does not encourage hard work or education like the West's, and the continent's abiding failure to prostrate itself at the altar of globalization. But the facts I saw on the ground bore witness to an altogether different failure.

This border town on the banks of the Zambezi River demonstrates how globalization got it all wrong right from the start. Trade expansion does not trigger development, but rather widening trade follows domestic investment in infrastructure and industry. Africa in the 21st century remains in this sort of interregnum, surfacing from colonialism's indifference only to find its growth stunted again by another imperialist movement.

"We've made the mistake of confusing the free market with development," said Fred M'membe, executive editor of the Post, Zambia's only independent daily newspaper. "I'm not saying we should isolate ourselves from the world the way we once did, but we are not looking at how to develop our country.

“We are looking at how we can market our country to outsiders so they can come develop it for us. We are getting back to the same colonial equation where, in the land of our birth, Africans own nothing, control nothing, run nothing. We are soon to be aliens in our own country."

Editor's Note: This feature is adapted from "Flat Broke in the Free Market" by Jon Jeter. Copyright 2009 by Jon Jeter. Reprinted with permission of W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.

Takeaways

Africa in the 21st century remains in a sort of interregnum, surfacing from colonialism's indifference only to find its growth stunted again by another imperialist movement.

Africans once assumed that the clothing belonged to the recently deceased. Ghanaians refer to the imports as "dead white man's clothing."

Africa in the 21st century remains in a sort of interregnum, surfacing from colonialism's indifference only to find its growth stunted again by another imperialist movement.