Import substitution industrialization

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Import substitution industrialization (ISI) is a trade and economic policy which advocates replacing foreign imports with domestic production.[1] ISI is based on the premise that a country should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through the local production of industrialized products. The term primarily refers to 20th-century development economics policies, although it has been advocated since the 18th century by economists such as Friedrich List[2] and Alexander Hamilton.[3]

ISI policies have been enacted by countries in the Global South with the intention of producing development and self-sufficiency through the creation of an internal market. In ISI the state leads economic development through nationalization, subsidization of vital industries (agriculture, power generation, etc.), increased taxation, and highly protectionist trade policies.[4] Import substitution industrialization was gradually abandoned by most developing countries in 1980s and some after the fall of the Soviet Union due to its failure in providing development[5] and, thereafter, the insistence of the IMF and World Bank on their structural adjustment programs aimed at the Global South.[6][7]

In the Todaro & Smith fourfold category, Import Substitution is a "secondary inward" approach to development. Countries that suppress imports as a policy might have to keep exchange rates high and thus eventually create an indirect tax on exports as well. It can lead to rent seeking activities by local industries.[8] On the other hand, an outward looking developmental policy encourages free trade and flow of capital along with movement of worker, student and enterprise. Some countries also take a selective approach using ideas from both inward and outward looking approaches and target some sectors.[9]

In the context of Latin American development, the term "Latin American structuralism" refers to the era of import substitution industrialization in many Latin American countries from the 1950s until the 1980s.[10] The theories behind Latin American structuralism and ISI were organized in the works of Raúl Prebisch, Hans Singer, Celso Furtado, and other structural economic thinkers, and gained prominence with the creation of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC or CEPAL). While the theorists behind ISI or Latin American structuralism were not homogeneous and did not belong to one particular school of economic thought, ISI and Latin American structuralism and the theorists who developed its economic framework shared a basic common belief in a state-directed, centrally planned form of economic development.[11] In promoting state-induced industrialization through governmental spending through the infant industry argument, ISI and Latin American structuralist approaches to development are largely influenced by a wide range of Keynesian, communitarian, and socialist economic thought.[12] ISI is often associated and linked with dependency theory, although the latter has traditionally adopted a much broader Marxist sociological framework in addressing what are perceived to be the origins of underdevelopment through the historical effects of colonialism, Eurocentrism, and neoliberalism.[13]


Average Tariff Rates for Selected Countries (1913-2007)
Tariff Rates in Japan (1870–1960)
Average Tariff Rates in Spain and Italy (1860-1910)
Average tariff rates (France, UK, US)
Average Tariff Rates in USA (1821–2016)
U.S. Trade Balance and Trade Policy (1895–2015)
Average Tariff Rates on manufactured products
Average Levels of Duties (1875 and 1913)
Trade Policy, Exports and Growth in European Countries

Even though ISI is a development theory, its political implementation and theoretical rationale are rooted in trade theory: it has been argued that all or virtually all nations that have industrialized have followed ISI. Import substitution was heavily practiced during the mid-20th century as a form of developmental theory that advocated increased productivity and economic gains within a country. This was an inward-looking economic theory practiced by developing nations after WW2. Many economists at the time considered the ISI approach as a remedy to mass poverty: bringing a third-world country to first-world status through national industrialization. Mass poverty is defined thus: "the dominance of agricultural and mineral activities – in the low-income countries, and in their inability, because of their structure, to profit from international trade," (Bruton 905).

Mercantilist economic theory and practices of the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries frequently advocated building up domestic manufacturing and import substitution. In the early United States, the Hamiltonian economic program, specifically the third report and the magnum opus of Alexander Hamilton, the Report on Manufactures, advocated for the U.S. to become self-sufficient in manufactured goods. This formed the basis of the American School in economics, which was an influential force in the United States during its 19th-century industrialization.

Werner Baer contends that all countries that have industrialized after the United Kingdom went through a stage of ISI, in which the large part of investment in industry was directed to replace imports (Baer, pp. 95–96).[14] Going farther, in his book Kicking Away the Ladder, Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang also argues, based on economic history, that all major developed countries, including the United Kingdom, used interventionist economic policies to promote industrialization and protected national companies until they had reached a level of development in which they were able to compete in the global market, after which those countries adopted free market discourses directed at other countries to obtain two objectives: open their markets to local products and prevent them from adopting the same development strategies that led to the developed nations' industrialization.

Theoretical basis[edit]

As a set of development policies, ISI policies are theoretically grounded on the Prebisch–Singer thesis, on the infant industry argument, and on Keynesian economics. The associated practices are commonly:

  • an active industrial policy to subsidize and orchestrate production of strategic substitutes
  • protective barriers to trade (such as tariffs)
  • an overvalued currency to help manufacturers import capital goods (heavy machinery), and
  • discouragement of foreign direct investment.

By placing high tariffs on imports and other protectionist, inward-looking trade policies, the citizens of any given country, using a simple supply-and-demand rationale, will substitute the less-expensive good for the more expensive. The primary industry of importance would gather its resources, such as labor from other industries in this situation; the industrial sector would use resources, capital, and labor from the agricultural sector. In time, a third-world country would look and behave similar to a first-world country, and with a new accumulation of capital and an increase of TFP (total factor productivity) the nation's industry would, in principle, be capable of trading internationally and competing in the world market. Bishwanath Goldar, in his paper ‘Import Substitution, Industrial Concentration and Productivity Growth in Indian Manufacturing’ wrote: "Earlier studies on productivity for the industrial sector of developing countries have indicated that increases in total factor productivity, (TFP) are an important source of industrial growth," (Goldar 143). He continued: "a higher growth rate in output, other things remaining the same, would enable the industry to attain a higher rate of technological progress (since more investment would be made) and create a situation in which the constituent firms could take greater advantage of scale economies;" it is believed that ISI will allow this (Goldar 148).

In many cases, however, these assertions did not apply. On several occasions, the Brazilian ISI process, which occurred from 1930 until the end of the 1980s, involved currency devaluation as a means of boosting exports and discouraging imports (thus promoting the consumption of locally manufactured products), as well as the adoption of different exchange rates for importing capital goods and for importing consumer goods. Moreover, government policies toward investment were not always opposed to foreign capital: the Brazilian industrialization process was based on a tripod which involved governmental, private, and foreign capital, the first being directed to infrastructure and heavy industry, the second to manufacturing consumer goods, and the third, to the production of durable goods (such as automobiles). Volkswagen, Ford, GM, and Mercedes all established production facilities in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960s.

The principal concept underlying ISI can thus be described as an attempt to reduce foreign dependency of a country's economy through local production of industrialized products, whether through national or foreign investment, for domestic or foreign consumption. Import substitution does not mean eliminating imports; indeed, as a country industrializes, it will naturally import new materials that its industries need, often including petroleum, chemicals, and raw materials.

Local ownership import substituting[edit]

In 2006, Michael Shuman proposed Local ownership import substituting (LOIS), as an alternative to neoliberalism. It rejects the ideology of there is no alternative.[15] Shuman claims LOIS businesses are long term wealth generators, are less likely to exit destructively and have higher economic multipliers.[16]

Latin America[edit]

Import substitution policies were adopted by most nations in Latin America from the 1930s until the late 1980s. The initial date is largely attributed to the impact of the Great Depression of the 1930s, when Latin American countries, which exported primary products and imported almost all of the industrialized goods they consumed, were prevented from importing due to a sharp decline in their foreign sales. This served as an incentive for the domestic production of the goods they needed.

The first steps in import substitution were less theoretical and more pragmatic choices on how to face the limitations imposed by recession, even though the governments in Argentina (Juan Domingo Perón) and Brazil (Getúlio Vargas) had the precedent of Fascist Italy (and, to some extent, the Soviet Union) as inspirations of state-induced industrialization. Positivist thinking, which sought a "strong government" to "modernize" society, played a major influence on Latin American military thinking in the 20th century. Among the officials, many of whom rose to power, like Perón and Vargas, industrialization (especially steel production) was synonymous with "progress" and was naturally placed as a priority.

ISI gained a theoretical foundation only in the 1950s, when Argentine economist and UNECLAC head Raúl Prebisch was a visible proponent of the idea, as well as Brazilian economist Celso Furtado. Prebisch had experience running his country's central bank and started to question the model of export-led growth.[17] Prebisch came to the conclusion that the participants in the free-trade regime had unequal power, and that the central economies (particularly Britain and the United States) that manufactured industrial goods could control the price of their exports.[17] These unequal powers were taking the wealth from third world countries leaving them with no way to prosper.[18] He believed that developing countries needed to create local vertical linkages, and they could only succeed by creating industries that used the primary products already being produced domestically. The tariffs were designed to allow domestic infant industries to prosper. In doing so Prebisch's predicted many benefits, the dependence for imports will lower and they will not be forced to sell agricultural goods for low prices to pay for industrial goods the income rate would go up, and the country itself would have a strong growth.[18]

ISI was most successful in countries with large populations and income levels which allowed for the consumption of locally produced products. Latin American countries such as Argentina, Brazil, Mexico, and (to a lesser extent) Chile, Uruguay and Venezuela, had the most success with ISI.[19] This is because while the investment to produce cheap consumer products may be profitable in small markets, the same cannot be said for capital-intensive industries, such as automobiles and heavy machinery, which depend on larger markets to survive. Thus, smaller and poorer countries, such as Ecuador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, could implement ISI only to a limited extent. Peru implemented ISI in 1961, and the policy lasted through to the end of the decade in some form.[20]

To overcome the difficulties of implementing ISI in small-scale economies, proponents of this economic policy, some within UNECLAC, suggested two alternatives to enlarge consumer markets: income redistribution within each country, through agrarian reform and other initiatives aimed at bringing Latin America's enormous marginalized population into the consumer market, and regional integration through initiatives such as the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC), which would allow for the products of one country to be sold in another.

In Latin American countries in which ISI was most successful, it was accompanied by structural changes to the government. Old neocolonial governments were replaced by more-or-less democratic governments. Banks and utilities and certain foreign-owned companies were nationalized or had their ownership transferred to local businesspeople.

Many economists contend that ISI failed in Latin America and was one of many factors leading to the so-called lost decade of Latin American economics, while others[who?] contend that ISI led to the "Mexican miracle," the period from 1940 to 1975, in which annual economic growth stood at 6% or higher.

As noted by one historian, ISI was successful in fostering a great deal of social and economic development in Latin America:

"By the early 1960s, domestic industry supplied 95% of Mexico's and 98% of Brazil's consumer goods. Between 1950 and 1980, Latin America's industrial output went up six times, keeping well ahead of population growth. Infant mortality fell from 107 per 1,000 live births in 1960 to 69 per 1,000 in 1980, [and] life expectancy rose from 52 to 64 years. In the mid-1950s, Latin America's economies were growing faster than those of the industrialized West."[21]


Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) policies were implemented in various forms across Africa from the early 1960s to the mid-1970s, as a means of promoting indigenous economic growth within newly independent states. The national impetus for ISI can be seen from 1927, with the creation of the East African and Central African common markets within British and French colonies. These markets recognised the importance of common trading tariffs in specific parts of the continent, and aimed to protect domestic manufacturing from external competitors.[22]

Colonial economies[edit]

Early attempts at ISI were stifled by colonial neo-mercantilist policies of the 1940s and 1950s, which aimed to generate growth through the export of primary products to the detriment of imports.[23] The promotion of exports to the metropole was the primary goal of the colonial economic system. The metropolitan governments aimed to offset colonial expenditure and attain primary commercial products from Africa at a significantly reduced rate.[24] This was successful for British commercial interests in Ghana and Nigeria, which saw a 20-fold increase in the value of foreign trade between 1897 and 1960 due to the promotion of export crops such as cocoa and palm oil.[25] Such economic growth occurred at the expense of indigenous communities, who had no say over which crops were produced and retained marginal profits from their agricultural output.[26] This model also expanded ‘monocultures’, where economies were centred around a single crop or natural resource for exports. ‘Monoculturing’ was prevalent in countries such as Senegal and Gambia, where groundnuts accounted for 85% to 90% of earnings throughout the 1940s.[27] This economic model rendered the post-colonial state vulnerable to unstable export prices and did not promote diversification of the economy. Post-colonial Governments were also sceptical of reliance on multinational corporations for economic development, as they were less likely to pay taxes and exported capital abroad.[28] Thus, ISI policies were adopted as a means of redirecting African economies towards indigenous growth and industrialisation.

Post-colonial economic situation[edit]

The underdeveloped political and economic structures inherited across post-colonial Africa created a domestic impetus for ISI. Marxist historians such as Walter Rodney contend that the gross underdevelopment in social services were a direct result of colonial economic strategy- which had to be abandoned to generate sustainable development.[29][30] Rene Dumont supports this observation, arguing that African states were administratively overburdened as a result of colonialism.[31] These initial, unchanged conditions created discontent in states such as Ghana and Tanzania during the early 1960s, over the fall in wages and employment opportunities. The unrest culminated in a series of mass strikes and tensions between governments and trade unions.[32] Dissatisfaction with the poor economic progress upon decolonisation made it clear to African leaders that they could no longer rely on rhetoric and tradition to maintain power, and could only retain the support of their political base through a coherent economic model, aligned with their political interests. The culmination of these political and economic issues necessitated the adoption of ISI, as it rejected the colonial neo-mercantilist policies that they believed led to such underdevelopment.

Ideological foundation[edit]

For leaders of post-colonial African nations, it was imperative that their economic policies represented an ideological break with the imperialist models of development. To achieve this, some newly independent states pursued African socialism to build indigenous growth and break free from capitalist development patterns.[33] Through the adoption of African socialism, leaders such as Kwame Nkrumah, Julius Nyerere, and Leopold Senghor hoped to establish a model of development based around consciencism, an intellectual and cultural revolution and most importantly, a ‘big push’ in industrialization towards rapid development for the continent.[34] One of the main aspects of this ‘big push’ towards development was the growth of parastatals from 1960 to 1980.[35] These state-owned trading corporations were given control over the import-export business as well as the retail-wholesale distribution.[36] This allowed post-colonial states to nationalise industries and retain the profits from their output, rather than allow capital flight to the west through multinational corporations.

The growth of African socialism in the pursuit of ISI can be seen in the 1967 Arusha Declaration (Tanzania), where Nyerere argued that: ‘we cannot get enough money and borrow enough technicians to start all the industries we need and even if we could get the necessary assistance, dependence on it would interfere with our policy on socialism’.[37] This need for indigenous development formed the core of the African socialist vision, whereby the state would manage a planned economy to prevent it from being controlled by the free market, which was regarded as a form of neo-imperialism.[38] In line with this economic vision, Tanzania engaged in the nationalization of industry in order to create jobs and produce a domestic market for goods, while maintaining an adherence to African socialist principles, exemplified through the ujamaa program of villagization.[39] The unaffordability of industrial products and increased tensions between managers and settlers of these villages contributed to a ‘colossal failure’ of ISI in Tanzania, leading them to abandon the villagization project and focus on agricultural development.[40]

While ISI under African socialism was purported to be an anti-western development model, scholars such as Anthony Smith argued that its ideological roots came from Rostow's modernization theory. This theory maintains that commitment to economic growth and free-market capitalism is the most efficient means of state development.[41] Kenya's implementation of ISI under state capitalism exemplifies this model of development. Tom Mboya, the first minister for economic development and planning aimed to create a growth-oriented path of industrialization, even at the expense of traditional socialist morals.[42] Kenya's Sessional Paper No. 10 of 1965 reinforced this view, claiming that ‘If Africanization is undertaken at the expense of growth, our reward will be a falling standard of living’.[43] Under such a development path, multinational corporations occupied a dominant role in the economy, primarily in the manufacturing sectors.[44] Economic historians such as Ralph Austen argue that the openness to western enterprise and technical expertise led to higher GNP in Kenya than comparative Socialist countries such as Ghana and Tanzania.[45] However, The 1972 World Bank ILO Report on Kenya, claimed that direct state intervention was necessary to reduce the growing economic inequalities that had occurred as a result of state capitalism.[46]


In all countries that adopted ISI, the state oversaw and managed its implementation, designing economic policies that directed development towards the indigenous population, with the aim of creating an industrialised economy. The 1972 Nigerian Enterprises Promotion Decree exemplifies such control, as it required foreign companies to offer at least 40% of their equity shares to local people. A state-controlled economy has been critiqued by scholars such as Douglas North, who claim that the interests of political elites may be self-serving, rather than for the good of the nation.[47] This correlates with the theory of neo-patrimonialism, which claims that post-colonial elites used the coercive powers of the state to maintain their political positions and increase their personal wealth.[48] Ola Olson opposes this view, arguing that in a developmental economy, the Government is the only actor with the financial and political means to unify the state apparatus behind an industrialization process.[49]


Sub-Saharan Africa's experiment with import-substitution industrialisation created largely pessimistic results across the continent by the early 1980s. Manufacturing, which formed the core of the ‘big push’ towards industrialisation, accounted for only 7% of GDP across the continent by 1983.[50] The failures of this model stemmed from various external and domestic factors. Internally, efforts to industrialise came at the expense of the agricultural sector, which accounted for 70% of the regions workforce throughout the 1970s.[51] This neglect was detrimental to producers as well as the urban population, as agricultural output could not meet the increasing demands for foodstuffs and raw materials in the growing urban areas. ISI efforts also suffered from a comparative disadvantage in skilled labour for industrial growth.[52] A 1982 World Bank Report stated that: “There exists a chronic shortage of skills which pervades not only the small manufacturing sector but the entire economy and the over-loaded government machine”.[53] Tanzania, for example, had only two engineers at the beginning of the import-substitution period.[54] This skills shortage was exacerbated by the technological deficiencies facing African states throughout industrialisation. Learning and adopting the technological resources and skills was a protracted and costly process, something African states were unable to capitalise on, due to the lack of domestic savings and poor literacy rates across the continent.[55] Externally, the oil shocks of the 1970s and subsequent economic stagnation of the west reduced the ability of oil exporter states such as Nigeria, to balance their payments through oil production.[56] The global ramifications of these oil shocks also reduced the imports of capital and intermediate goods into African economies, as donor states became increasingly inward looking throughout an economically tumultuous period.

The failure of Import-substitution Industrialization to generate sufficient growth in industrialisation and overall development led to its abandonment by the early 1980s. In response to the underdeveloped economies in the region, the IMF and the World Bank imposed a ‘neo-classical counter-revolution’ in Africa through Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) from 1981.[57] The new economic consensus blamed the low growth rates on over-protectionism in the industrial sector, as well as a neglect of exports and low agricultural productivity.[58] For the IMF and the World Bank, the solution to the failure of import-substitution was a restructuring of the economy towards strict adherence to a neoliberal model of development throughout the 1980s and 1990s.


In recent years, the policy of import substitution due to tariffs, i.e. the replacement of imported products by domestic products, has been considered a success because it has enabled Russia to increase its domestic production and save several billion dollars. Russia has been able to reduce its imports and launch an emerging and increasingly successful domestic production in almost all industrial sectors. The most important results have been achieved in the agriculture and food processing, automotive, chemical, pharmaceutical, aviation and naval sectors.[59]

From 2014, customs duties were applied on imported products in the food sector. Russia has considerably reduced its food imports while domestic production has increased considerably. The cost of food imports has dropped from $60 billion in 2014 to $20 billion in 2017 and the country enjoys record cereal production. Russia has strengthened its position on the world food market and the country has become food self-sufficient. In the fisheries, fruit and vegetable sector, domestic production has increased sharply, imports have declined significantly and the trade balance (difference between exports and imports) has improved. In the second quarter of 2017, agricultural exports are expected to exceed imports, making Russia a net exporter for the first time. [60][61][62]

Thanks to the policy of import substitution by tariffs, many other industries have been developed: for example, in the aviation industry, Russia is developing a significant range of new aircraft. The aerospace industry is expected to reach an annual turnover of $50 billion by 2025. In 2017, the pharmaceutical industry represents $5 billion and will probably double in 2022, whereas ten years earlier the country's medical industry was negligible. The country has set itself the objective of producing 90% of the drugs deemed "vital" on its territory.[59] In 2017, Russia spends only $6 billion on imported cars, while the value of imports reached $20 billion in 2007. The energy sector is also booming: the country has succeeded in developing its own technology and has continued to develop oil drilling and gas production centres.[citation needed]


While import substitution policies might create jobs in the short run, as domestic producers replace foreign producers, both output and growth will be lower than it would otherwise have been in the long run.[citation needed] Import substitution denies the country the benefits to be gained from specialisation and foreign imports. The theory of comparative advantage shows how countries will gain from trade. Moreover, protectionism leads to dynamic inefficiency, as domestic producers have no incentive from foreign competitors to reduce costs or improve products. Import substitution can impede growth through poor allocation of resources, and its effect on exchange rates harms exports.[63]


Despite some apparent gains, import substitution was "both unsustainable over time and produced high economic and social costs."[64] Given import substitution's dependence upon its developed and isolated markets within Latin America, it relied upon the growth of a market that was limited in size. In most cases, the lack of experience in manufacturing and the lack of competition, reduced innovation and efficiency, which restrained the quality of Latin American produced goods, and protectionist policies kept prices high.[64] In addition, power was concentrated in the hands of a few, which decreased the incentive for entrepreneurial development.

Contrary to its intent, import substitution exacerbated inequality in Latin America.[failed verification] With a poverty rate greater than 30%, the internal demand that import substitution relied upon was not available. Protective policies and state ownership reduced the incentives for business risk, resulting in decreased efficiency.[citation needed]

Lastly, the large deficits and debts resulting from import substitution policies are largely credited for the resulting Latin American crisis of the 1980s.[65]

See also[edit]


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  63. ^ Import Substitution and Industrialization in Latin America: Experiences and Interpretations. Baer, 1972
  64. ^ a b Franko, P. M. (2007). The puzzle of Latin American economic development (3rd ed.). Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield.
  65. ^ Jeffrey Sachs (1985), "External Debt and Macroeconomic Performance in Latin America and East Asia," Brookings Papers on Economic Activity 2, pp.523–573.


  • Jeffry A. Frieden: Global Capitalism.

Further reading[edit]

  • Chasteen, John Charles. 2001. Born in Blood and Fire. pages 226–228.
  • Reyna, José Luis & Weinert, Richard S. 1977. Authoritarianism in Mexico. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Institute for the Study of Human Issues, Inc. pages 067–107.
  • UNDP Paper
  • Bruton, Henry J. "A Reconsideration of Import Substitution." Journal of Economic Literature. 36.2 (1998): 903–936. Print.

External links[edit]