How to make East Africa poorer: ban imports

This really does have to be one of the sillier pieces of economic policy now being tried out. The East African Community has proposed banning the import of second hand clothes.

In February, however, the East African Community (EAC), an intergovernmental organisation, proposed a ban on imported used clothes and shoes. The aim is to encourage local production and development within member countries: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda.

The problem here is that people are not understanding the most basic point about trade, poverty and jobs. Imports are the purpose of trade, poverty is the inability to consume and jobs are a cost of doing something. Thus this is nonsense:

Many orthodox economists disagree with banning imports because it goes against the principles of free trade. Rather than having the freedom to choose imported used clothing, east African consumers will have to buy higher priced local goods or new clothes imported from Asia. 

Increasing the cost of clothing will hit east Africa’s many low-income consumers, but the shock effect could be reduced if a ban was imposed gradually. If a tax on used clothing imports was introduced before an outright ban, this could subsidise local production and increase local manufacturing capacity.

A revitalised local market would ultimately boost the EAC’s economy by providing more jobs than the second-hand sector while retaining money that currently goes to Europe and the US to pay for second-hand imports.

It's not that economists oppose this in order to support free trade. It's that economists understand all three of those points. Poverty is reduced when people can consume more in return for less of their labour. This ban will lead to more jobs locally, yes it will. But it will also lead to all local people having to expend more of their labour in return for being clothed:

It is important to emphasise, however, that turning off the supply of used clothing alone will not enable the growth of local manufacturing. The proposed ban on imports doesn’t include new clothing imports from outside the EAC. While foreign garments will be more expensive than used clothes, they are likely to be cheaper than locally manufactured clothes as has been found in South Africa.Efforts to ban used clothing imports are therefore unlikely to be beneficial for the local economy unless there are similar controls on new clothing imports. This would require the strengthening of customs and borders.

That is, all people in the EAC will have to labour more hours in order to gain the same amount of clothing. Or, if you prefer, they will have less clothing for the same amount of labour. That is, they will be poorer.

And no, it's not the correct goal of economic policy to make some of the poorest people in the world poorer. 

If banning imports did make people richer then places with very few to no imports would be rich places, wouldn't they? And the examples of Cuba and North Korea don't seem to bear that out. This is a ludicrous idea and they really, really, shouldn't do it.