Rag outrage

So Rwanda, an African success story whose president, Paul Kagame, currently chairs the African Union and just hosted the launch of the Continental Free Trade Area, faces US trade sanctions. Reason? Kigali has chosen not to import clothing woven and sewn in Asia, worn and tossed out in America, then sorted and cleaned in India before finally being dumped into East Africa.

Apparently the reluctance of Rwanda and its East African Community partners, their combined GDP less than Hawaii’s, to welcome unlimited container loads of the rich and careless world’s detritus has been doing the US a damage. We are told it is  threatening the livelihoods of some 200 000 Americans and costing the “industry” that would employ them $124 million a year in lost sales.

That, at any rate, is what the industry’s Washington swamp rat, the Secondary Materials and Recycled Textiles Association, or SMART, would have the office of the US Trade Representative believe, pulling the numbers from one of its anatomy’s darker places. The lobby presents no basis for its claim other than untested “member surveys”.

Donald Trump’s trade enforcers have accepted this hogwash. Previous administrations, receiving similar petitions, have politely tossed them into their round files, suppressing gag reflexes as they did so. But not the minions of a president who describes the continent in scatological terms. Nothing can make them gag.  They have gone to bat for the scavengers.

Their bludgeon is denial of access to the world’s largest market under the African Growth and Opportunity Act. Do as we say or we will drive away the very investment in garment manufacture AGOA was meant to help you attract. We will force you to thrust back into poverty the thousands of women employed in the factories we gave you incentives to build.

What is particularly galling is the way in way the new US Trade Representative, Robert Lighthizer, has used the AGOA cudgel to divide the East African Community, all of whose members initially stood together to protect their nascent industries from America’s degrading hand-me-downs. But one by one, Kenya, Tanzania and Uganda have been bullied into kissing Washington’s ring. Rwanda alone has stood firm.

It was alright for Alexander Hamilton, America’s first treasury secretary, now the subject of a Broadway musical to which no ordinary mortal can afford a ticket, to erect tariffs behind which a fledgling US industrialised. But let Africa erect a wall against products that America does not make, only soils, discards and sends to India to refurbish, and Africa must be punished.

Of course, the argument is made that used clothing is all many people in EAC countries can afford at this point and, besides, provides livelihoods to countless traders. But that is precisely the colonial paradigm from which Africa is surely trying to break free, which is why the EAC acted as it did.

Without industrialisation and the emergence of robust regional value chains and markets, the majority of African nations are likely to remain exporters of raw commodities and importers of goods to which value has been added elsewhere. Isn’t breaking out of that  dead end historical path what the Continental Free Trade Area is all about?

Not all of Washington is as narrow-minded as Trump’s trade heavies. Congress, thanks to the leadership of old-fashioned Republicans like House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce and Democrats like Delaware’s Senator Chris Coons (a statesman when not in the thrall of Big Chicken) are pushing through measures to fund investment in Africa’s economic integration.

But they are having to deal with a demoralised, deskilled bureaucracy headed by a reality TV star/failed casino owner whose views on trade are no more sophisticated than those of a heroin hustler fighting for his turf in the Bronx he came from.

 

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