Over the weekend, BBC Africa did a report on the second-hand clothing industry in Africa and looked at some possible negative consequences of donating clothes to poor countries.
BBC Correspondent, Ann Soy, describes a flea market in Malawi. She says that it is “vibrant, noisy and crowded with customers hunting for bargains and cheap clothes. It is the key market from where most Malawians living in the city buy their clothes and shoes – all of them already worn in Europe and north America and then donated by their first owners to charity shops.” Local shopper, Grace Gondwe enjoys the chance to purchase luxury clothes at a low price. She says that the clothes are “durable and unique…when you buy clothes from the [local] shops you’ll find many people wearing the same clothes.”
However, not all Malawians are benefiting from these donated clothes. Osman Kabere, who started making suits in 1978, says that cheap second hand clothes have essentially killed the once profitable tailoring business. He also says that Chinese imports have hurt his business: “The Chinese [suits] are cheaper than ours because when you get the fabric from the shop and when we charge our labour it’s about $60 per suit compared to the Chinese is $24… So people prefer to go to the Chinese.”
Matin Mpata, general manager of Malawi’s main textile manufacturer, fears the repercussions from cheap Asian imports and donated clothing, he says: “If it continues and companies close, then there will be no employment and where will people go?” Weison Gondwe does not see things this way. He once sold radios, but realized he could make a lot more selling underwear at the flea market. He says that for the last six months that he’s been selling clothes at the market, he’s been doing well and making a profit.
Does donating used clothes hurt the poor? Yes, it hurts local tailors, but it benefits some local shoppers and sellers. This flea market shows the complicated nature of charity and ways we try to help others: donated clothing has already put and will continue to put some people out of business, but it also has given others a new opportunity to provide for themselves and their families. Acton discussed this issue in the Impact Campaign a few years ago. You can see the PDF about used clothing here. For more information about charity and effective means of alleviating poverty, check out PovertyCure.org.