The ‘Import-Substitution’ Policy in Post-colonial Countries: A Review


By Dr. Kalim Siddiqui

I. Introduction

Post-colonial countries are those who were former colonies, and most of them, except China and those in East Asia, remain in poverty. All their economic development indicators are on the wrong side of progress and prosperity, such as rising inequality, high unemployment and low productivity, alongside corruption, capital flight, and failure of institutions which can all be widely observed in most developing countries. (Siddiqui, 2019a; also 2019b)

However, in the face of these challenges, international financial institutions and rich countries still continue to support the adoption of ‘neoliberal economic policy’ (i.e., pro-market reforms) in developing countries, including privatisation of the education and health sector, despite a lack of clear empirical evidence.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further showed the importance of the health sector, and public investment is very important to expand this sector, which would certainly be beneficial to the poorer sections of the society. Recently in India, private hospitals have miserably failed during the current Covid-19 pandemic crisis, and their charges have risen sharply, while at the same time the services have deteriorated. To alter the present critical situation and to improve living conditions for the majority of people in developing countries, the role of the government once again becomes crucial. It is argued here that to improve economic conditions, economic sovereignty in developmental policy matters remains very important, and it is the role of the state to formulate such policies to benefit local communities in developing countries. (Siddiqui, 2021a)

The socio-economic crisis is deepening i.e., rising unemployment, inequality and poverty in the developing countries since the adoption of neoliberal economic reforms more than three decades ago. I find critical enquiry is essential to enhance knowledge.

This article investigates the importance of ‘import substitution strategy’ also known as ‘import substitution industrialisation’ on the economic performance of the developing countries. Economic development involves government initiative and policy that are directed towards improving the economy, increase investments, trade and job creation. Empirical evidence suggests that the road to industrialisation by the advanced economies emerged from a series of state intervention to promote manufacturing in the past.

Empirical evidence suggests that the road to industrialisation by the advanced economies emerged from a series of state intervention to promote manufacturing in the past.

Soon after independence, there was widespread concern about the extensive poverty in the former colonies. Choosing an appropriate policy was considered important to eliminate mass poverty. It was suggested that poor countries must alter their structure. Poor countries were highly dependent on the primary sector for the income of the majority of their population and thus it was said that there was a need to industrialise and diversify their economies. Hence the poor countries needed to protect their economies from the importing of industrial goods from rich countries. (Siddiqui, 2021b; also 2020b)

Therefore, the question was raised: what strategies should be adopted for their economic development? There were two strategies which were often discussed among international agencies and the leaders of both rich and poor countries. The first proposed policy option was ‘Export-led growth’ and the other was called ‘Import-Substitution-Industrialisation’ (i.e. import substitution policy). The former policy had the full support of international organisations and Western countries. But the latter one was supported by those leaders who struggled for independence and considered that to improve economic conditions an industrialisation policy must be adopted. (Burton, 1998)

The difficulties with the ‘Export-led Growth’ policy were that it had to focus on export, and then there were two major challenges. (Siddiqui, 2019a; World Bank, 1993) Firstly, it had to rely on foreign markets and secondly, soon after independence, the former colonies had very weak industrial sectors, meaning focusing largely on export was primary commodities. However, the terms of trade were already not in their favour, and further increasing the primary commodities supply led to the over-supply of these commodities. Therefore, the most appropriate solution was seen as adopting an industrialisation policy, but the major challenge was a lack of funds.

Indeed, until the mid-18th century, there were hardly any differences in per capita income and living conditions between Europe and Africa, Asia and the Americas. Differences began to emerge after this period, which coincided with the expansion of industries (i.e. industrialisation) in Europe, while at the same time de-industrialisation took place in their colonies. European countries were able to diversify their economies and transfer a large proportion of their population from agriculture to manufacturing, but this did not happen in the colonies. This created a new international division of labour, and the inequalities between colonies and colonizers widened. Industrialisation in Europe led to arise in productivity and wide use of technologies, while this process of development was hindered in the colonies. This unequal economic relationship continued even after they were formally independent.

II. Why Import Substitution Policy?

After the independence, many leaders in the developing countries believed that the prospect of their countries achieving economic growth through trade was slim. Therefore, it was viewed that the former colonies could achieve higher economic growth rates by discouraging imports of manufactured goods and by promoting domestic industries and also it was said to reduce imports and balance of payment difficulties. (Irwin, 2021)

The ‘import substitution’ (IS) policy is a developmental strategy, which has been used by the rich countries in their early stage of development. For instance, in the US context this developmental strategy was supported by Alexander Hamilton’s Report on Manufactures to the US Congress in 1790. Generally Britain has been said to have followed ‘open economy’ model, but such argument has been questioned. (Chang, 2007; Amsden, 1989) The aim of the IS strategy was to increase relative size of manufacturing sector. It was expected that such policy will provide a number of advantages to the country. For examples, it may help the country to save foreign exchange by reducing imports and avert balance of payment crisis, especially for these countries that largely rely on exports of primary commodities. It would help to diversify their economy and expand employment opportunities.

Attempts at industrialisation via the ‘import substitution’ strategy were followed in many developing countries of Asia, Africa and Latin America until the mid-1980s.The arguments were based on the historical experiences of advanced economies, which shows that higher industrial growth was achieved through ‘import substitution’. Prebisch (1950) emphasised the importance of economic diversification for developing countries. Diversification aimed to reduce industrial and technological dependence on the advanced economies and also build indigenous ‘capacities to create wealth’. This would narrow the gap in centre-periphery and reduce uneven development, which was built historically.

Raul Prebisch (1951) did take into account the benefits of promoting manufacturing and also to raise exports. He presented Japan’s developmental experience to the developing countries. He argued: “Japan was able to assimilate modern techniques rapidly but did not raise wages to the levels of the great industrial countries… Japan’s incomes thus remained lower than those of other industrial countries; nevertheless, through industrialization Japan was able to increase considerably per capita productivity with an evident net increase in income, which would probably not have been possible without expansion of exports.” (Prebisch, 1951: 77) Prebisch further continued his efforts to emphasise on importance of building manufacturing and minimising the gaps among the developing countries during the 1950s and to encourage exports of manufactured goods instead of primary goods. He suggested ‘the absolute necessity in of building up trade in industrial exports’. And further added that exports of manufacturers ‘ought to have been the natural complement of the industrialization of the peripheral economies’. (Prebisch, 1964: 20)

The ‘infant’ industries argument means to protect domestic industries from foreign competition and allow them to grow at a faster rate, it is hoped that as industries mature, protectionism will be gradually withdrawn, and domestic manufacturing could be assisted through government subsidies, or by raising tariffs. The Singer-Prebisch model argues that the elasticity is generally greater for manufactures than for primary commodities and indeed greater than unity for manufactures in general. Prior to industrialisation, a country will naturally be largely importing manufacture products and exporting primary commodities. For instance, a country initially exports only primary commodities and imports manufactures. Any rise in income will entail a more than proportional growth in purchases of manufactured goods i.e., imports. However, the extent to which increases in imports will be possible depends on export demands and the country’s potential output per head growth within the primary sector. This possibility is limited due to exports of primary commodities, and it may rise irregularly. Therefore, exclusive dependence on manufactured imports will seriously limit the possibilities of income growth. (Toye, 2006)

Moreover, the Engel Curve seems to apply, which means income elasticity of demand for agricultural products and raw materials in the rich countries declines as income increases and higher living conditions are achieved. If exports lag behind the growth of income in the poor countries for this reason, then IS policy must be adopted to protect the BoP, or economic growth will deteriorate. (Irwin, 2021)

Sea Ship Transport Vehicle

It is a well-known fact that industrialisation and export of manufacturing leads to modernisation and prosperity. In support of such arguments, Hans Singer said that exporters of primary commodities who had witnessed a secular decline of terms of trade of their exports, and been forced to increase production further, only will lead to the global over-supply and collapse of export prices. During the colonial period, Prebisch (1950: 10) argued, “While the centres kept the whole benefit of the technical development of their industries, the peripheral countries transferred to them a share of the fruits of their own technological progress.” However, he stressed the importance of export to earn foreign exchange and exports produced the foreign exchange that was necessary to pay for imports of capital goods that were important for local investment. He further argued (1950: 46), “It should therefore not be forgotten that the greater the exports from Latin America the greater may be the rate of its economic development.” He stressed in the developing countries industries would not grow by itself without government support. Prebisch (1954: 10) further emphasised that: “The economic development of a country demands, as a general rule, a continuous substitution of imports by domestic production, insofar as foreign markets cannot, without a perceptible deterioration in the country’s exports to satisfy its entire demand for imports. This process of substitution normally requires measures of protection and development to stimulate private enterprise and place it in a position to compete with foreign activities having a greater productivity achieved during earlier stages of development and maintained through their higher capital density and their easier access to modern techniques.”

Prebisch (1954) explained that the gains from productivity growth in the rich countries resulted in rising wages, not falling prices due to monopoly power of both labour and firms in the rich countries. While the poor countries depended on export of agricultural and mineral commodities and in the primary sector there was lower productivity growth and wages were kept down due to the existence of surplus labour and competition among the exporter countries.

The critiques of IS strategy argue that it has in-built inefficiencies; the resources are supposed to be mobilised by the government, but in many developing countries, government institutions are often weak and corrupt. This means rent-seeking activities could be pursued on a massive scale, and the development of monopolies created or protected by government policies, and these rent-seekers, could form special lobby groups to fight for their interests and pressure governments to protect these monopolies’ interests. Therefore, this could lead to higher costs of production and inefficiency. It is also argued that rates of tariff protection were too high and small and medium firms were created that could only serve domestic markets, less competition and higher costs could hinder their entry into overseas markets.

Mainstream economists argue that IS policy may hinder building internationally competitive industries, and the developing countries products may be lower quality and higher price. (World Bank, 1993) Moreover, for the last twenty-five years, many developing countries have joined the WTO, which opposed IS policy and therefore, it will be difficult to pursue such a policy. The WTO and other international institutions advocate in favour of ‘Export Promotion’ or ‘Outward-Oriented’ strategies, which implies policies favouring exports of available resources. In developing countries it means promotion of the primary sector, and attracting foreign capital and technology to boost exports.

Arthur Lewis (1954) argued that in the poor countries there exist dual economy, which consisted of a small modern or capitalist sector and a large traditional sector. The former was modern in terms of technology, productivity and capital intensity. The traditional sector was more labour intensive and the use of technology was less and productivity was lower. Lewis emphasised that new investment should be done in modern sector so that with the growth of this sector the labour would be transferred from traditional sector to modern sector and the expansion of modern sector would absorb surplus labour.

Indeed, India soon after independence adopted IS policy and the state undertook a leading role in investing in heavy industries, infrastructures, power and irrigation. It was hoped that there will be positive effects on productivity growth created by the domestic capital goods sector. India aimed to create economic independence which required the building of its own large-scale capital goods sector. In 1950, the Planning Commission was set up with the Prime Minister Nehru as its Chairperson. The planning commission spells out how the resources of the nation should be put to use; these were called five-year plans. The goals of the five-year plans are: growth, modernization, self-reliance and equity. The Second Five Year Plan (1956-61) was launched under the leadership of P.C. Mahalnobis. It was accepted that large-scale comprehensive state planning rather than the ‘free-market’ would be the government policy in terms of directing appropriate investment towards key industries. (Siddiqui, 2018a; 2018b)

The pursuing of IS policy in most of the developing countries over nearly two decades (i.e. 1960-80) has resulted in the expansion of the industrial sector, rising life expectancy at birth, and declining infant mortality. Infrastructures including roads, irrigation, and schools improved. The manufacturing sector rose as a proportion of the GDP and imports of industrial goods began to change to reflect the aims of ISI, and imports increased too due to a rise in imports of oil, new technology and luxury goods.

The IMF, World Bank, and rich countries strongly advocated in favour of ‘Export-led Growth’. The World Bank’s book The East Asian Miracle (1993) stated the benefits of ‘export-led-growth’. The international financial institutions were convinced that exports, along with minimal government intervention, explain the success of South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Thailand. (Siddiqui, 2012b; 2016a)

It was said that this strategy would perform the same ‘miracle’ for other developing countries. However, this has been questioned by a number of researchers in recent years (Amsden, 1989).

By the mid-1980s, many developing countries were experiencing balance of payment problems and debt crisis and at the same time few East Asian economies performed much better in terms of rising exports of manufacturing goods, expansion of industries and living conditions. Hans Singer emphasised that it is a combination of the two that is desirable: “We want export promotion but the exports must be based on indigenous inputs. Otherwise… the balance of payments contribution of these exports will be very small and so will be their contribution to the learning process and the indigenous technological capability. In the same way, the development of import-substituting industries with a secure home market can, with proper policies, be the best basis for subsequent exports…. But like export promotion, it can also be self-defeating if it itself develops a voracious appetite for imported capital goods and intermediate goods….” (Singer, 1986: 4)

III. Market Solutions

The global economic crisis during the Great Depression, adversely affected primary commodities’ prices, which at that time constituted (and still constitute) the major exports of developing countries. Prebisch argued that the low demand and inelastic supply led to a decline in prices of primary commodities, which most of developing countries rely on; therefore, it becomes very important to diversify economies and boost exports of manufacturing goods. It is impossible to export manufacturing goods without industrialisation. There are several pieces of empirical evidence which show that to achieve economic diversification, industrialisation is the first step. Evidence from advanced economies suggests that economic diversification and building of industries should be carried out with the help of import substitution (i.e., high import duties on manufactured goods, exchange rate differential etc.) helping the countries to achieve the perquisite factors required to build industries and embark on the competitive export of manufactured goods. In order to diversify an economy, it is important to enhance indigenous technological capabilities, and to achieve this, there is a need for strong government intervention, and in the early phase of industrial development some form of protectionism is inevitable.

In order to diversify an economy, it is important to enhance indigenous technological capabilities, and to achieve this, there is a need for strong government intervention, and in the early phase of industrial development some form of protectionism is inevitable.

The IS policy initiative was criticised by the neo-classical economists e.g. Balassa (1971), Bhagwati (1978) and Kruger (1978) and international institutions such as IMF, the World Bank. However, economic history suggests industrialisation was achieved through state initiative in the past. As Chang argues, “Almost all of today’s rich countries used tariff protection and subsidies to develop their industries in the early stage of their development. It is particularly to note that Britain and the USA, the two countries that are supposed to have reached the summit of the world economy are actually the ones that most aggressively used protection and subsidies.” (Chang, 2012: 44). For example, Britain allowed gradual free trade policy only after 1846 with the abolition of Corn Laws. During the Henry VII in the 16th century, its industrial policy protected infant industry that eventually its industries achieved global competitiveness. The US dates back from the mid-19th century and high tariffs to protect domestic industries continued until 1930s. The US President Grant in 1870s as Chang states: “Within 200 years, when America has gotten out of protection all that it can offer, it too will adopt free trade.” (Chang, 2012: 45) Others like, Holland, Germany, Japan and South Korea all adopted IS policy in their early phase of their industrialisation.

Let us examine experiences of IS policy in the developing countries. For example, at the beginning of the 20th century, Argentina specialised in the production of primary commodities and the country was highly integrated in world trade, however, during the inter-war period, terms of trade worsened. This led to rethinking the importance of industrialisation. As a result, the industrial sector grew faster but its integration into the world market was weak. The amount of employment in the manufacturing sector rose and the protectionist policy was further strengthened as the sector began to play a significant role in the country’s economy compared to the previous decades. Argentina, soon after World War II, embarked on an ambitious process of import-substitution that resulted in cycles of economic expansion followed by sharp recessions. However, under the debt crisis of the late 1970s and 1980s, the IS strategy was dismantled and replaced by an export-led policy. The sharp decline in growth rates and the adoption of a neoliberal policy led to further uncertainty. Between1979-81, capital flight amounted to around 20% of the GDP, leaving the government with increased external debts. Throughout the 1980s, the economic crisis deepened, domestic investment collapsed, and per capita GDP decreased by nearly 20%. Between 1980 and 1990, the inflation rate was above 100% annually. Both external debts and the debt-to-export ratio increased sharply. The Dollarization of Argentina’s economy deepened and as a result its finances became more fragile. Both political and economic uncertainty increased, and inflation deepened and became uncontrollable by the end of the 1990s.

Brazil embarked on the protection of local industries in the 1930s during the global economic recession. In the early 1950s when President Vargas was in power, he promoted indigenous technological development and industries. He was also able to build appropriate linkages between agriculture and manufacturing. The IS policy continued under President Kubitschek (1954-61), who assisted domestic industries and targeted a few industries for further state assistance. President Medici (1968-73) extended support of IS policy and also encouraged the export of industrial goods. He put more emphasis on building heavy industries in the country. As a result, the tax to GDP ratio increased sharply. This led to building a more attractive investment environment for foreign capital in the industrial sector. Later, foreign capital asked for more and more concessions i.e., economic openness.

South Korea was developing at rapid growth rates averaging about 10% annually during the 1960s and 1970s. It continued to grow at that rate for another seventeen years. It seemed that the government was determined to sustain rapid industrialisation and began building the vast Hyundai shipyard at Ulsan from scratch, which soon became among the world’s top ranking ship-builders. It would not have been possible without government support and determination to build it. The government strongly believed in its ability to achieve global competitiveness. Along with industrial sector growth, exports were also given priority. And in merely one generation, South Korea moved from being poor and war stricken into progress and prosperity, which was very different from Africa, South Asia and Latin America.

After the communist revolution in China in 1949, under Mao’s leadership the country fully embraced economic planning, with the state taking the lead in investments and building industries, which was followed by radical land reforms, tight market control, central planning, and the compulsory purchase of domestic produce. The industrial infrastructure was launched under the slogan of ‘walking on two legs’. China had also witnessed the disastrous polices of the ‘Great Leap Forward’ and ‘Cultural Revolution’, which reversed growth rates and halted developmental efforts. However, after Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping gradually reversed the economic policies and encouraged pro-market policies including attracting foreign investment and encouraging exports. The state played a critical role in leading the industrial policy and investments. This policy was very similar to what was earlier adopted by Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. The prudent Chinese policy of industrialisation and modernisation in the last four decades has resulted in positive outcomes in terms of removing poverty, raising incomes and employment, and successful industrialisation.

India’s IS policy experience was not very different from other developing countries. The adoption of an IS policy dates back to the early 1950s. In the period prior to independence in1947, India’s economy was characterised as feudal and semi-industrialised, dominated by British-owned industries. There was persistent of mass poverty and illiteracy, and exports consisted of primary commodities. During the post-colonial period, an industrialisation strategy was adopted to develop local capabilities in basic and heavy industries such as power generation, steel and machinery. The scope of IS policy covered almost all large and key industries and this was backed by high import tariffs and quantitative restrictions. This policy began with antagonism with foreign capital, but by the mid-1960s it was softened and by the late 1960s, and as a result of domestic consumption, it expanded leading to increased growth rates. There is clear evidence that that the IS policy helped the country build heavy industries including steel, electrical, machinery and tools and manufacturing goods. But later on, in the 1980s, this strategy experienced crisis and the BoP crisis deepened. India had to approach the IMF in 1991 for a bailout and in return India accepted dismantling IS policy and adopting a neoliberal, i.e., pro-market, policy also known as ‘Structural Adjustment Programme’. (Siddiqui, 2012a; also 2016b)

The IS policy is a development strategy, which is based on concerted state intervention in nascent domestic industries as an alternative to buying foreign manufactured goods.

India’s industrialisation focused on the development of basic and heavy industries, with less emphasis on overseas markets. In the 1950s, its annual growth rate was impressive compared to past decades, but still not as high as South Korea. However, in the 1970s its growth rates fell and income per head grew at merely over 1% annually, experiencing a BoP crisis. The contrast between South Korea’s success and India’s failure was striking. Both countries used protection of domestic manufacturing, yet the orientation of India’s policies was inward-looking and anti-competitive, while that of South Korea had followed IS policy, but local competition and government pressure to perform was much more visible, while in India, the government protected local industries, but no pressure was put to them regarding their performance and therefore, rather than competition, monopoly emerged.

Why were some countries able to industrialise and become rich, while others were unsuccessful and stayed poor? On this very issue, two very prominent development economists namely Erik Reinert (2010) and Ha-Joon Chang (2007) both argue that to achieve rapid and sustained growth, developing countries have to expand their industrial sector and only industrialisation can deliver such growth, because industry is the only sector where productivity growth can have a positive effect on the rest of the economy. Moreover, industrialisation would lead to an upgrade in technologies and productivities. To achieve this for a sustained period, the protection of infant industries is crucial.

IV. Conclusion

The IS policy is a development strategy, which is based on concerted state intervention in nascent domestic industries as an alternative to buying foreign manufactured goods. The intention is to reduce dependence on exporting primary goods and capture more added-value locally. The rationale behind the infant industry argument is that new industries cannot compete with the existing foreign producers and therefore, they will need support from the government to become more competitive. Even if such approach can be justified, the government has to decide which industries can benefit from the IS policy and for what period of time.

The neo-classical economic theory rests on assumptions of static of perfect competition and theory of comparative advantage. However, relying exclusively export-led growth policy, would mean that the developing countries would be locked into disadvantageous patterns of specialising in a handful of primary commodities in exchange for imports of technology and manufactured goods, which would mean keeping them poor and they would never be able to escape from vicious circle of mass poverty.

Critiques argue the IS policy stimulates economic despondency, retards economic growth and undermines competition in the domestic industrial sector. This study however has found that import substitution policy is still very relevant, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, the importance of manufacturing has been realised and the state should play a greater role in building industries which are more appropriate for the 21st century to deal with an environmental crisis. Therefore, it is suggested that developing countries, especially those with a less developed industrial sector, should consider the importance of IS policy and economic sovereignty to achieve economic development and diversification, but it should be adopted according the country’s specific condition, while exports of industrial goods and competition should not be neglected.

The article concludes that all this is possible only with the rejection of neoliberal policy and adopting an active socially-oriented economic policy directed towards innovative growth of the domestic industries. State assistance is vital to assist domestic manufacturing, and industrialisation is the key route to growth. It is thus recommended that less developed countries should adopt this form of economic integration and home-grown import substitution policy to substitute imports in the short run, and embrace liberalisation and gradual openness as a higher level of industrialisation is achieved in the long run.


About the Author


Dr. Kalim Siddiqui is an economist, specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, U.K. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and U.K.


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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.