Import substitution industrialization

Import substitution industrialization

Import Substitution Industrialization (also called ISI) is a trade and economic policy based on the premise that a country should attempt to reduce its foreign dependency through the local production of industrialized products. Adopted in many Latin American countries from the 1930s until the late 1980s, and in some Asian and African countries from the 1950s on, ISI was theoretically organized in the works of Raúl Prebisch, Hans Singer, Celso Furtado and other structuralist economics thinkers, and gained prominence with the creation of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (UNECLAC or CEPAL). Insofar as its suggestion of state-induced industrialization through governmental spending, it is largely influenced by keynesian thinking, as well as the infant industry arguments adopted by some highly industrialized countries, such as the United States, until the 1940s. ISI is often associated with dependency theory, though the latter adopts a much broader sociological outlook which also addresses cultural elements sought to be linked with underdevelopment.


Even though ISI is a development theory, its political implementation and theoretical rationale are rooted in trade theory. Baer contends that all countries which 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). [Baer, Werner (1972), "Import Substitution and Industrialization in Latin America: Experiences and Interpretations", Latin American Research Review vol. 7 (Spring): 95-122.(1972)] 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 in order to obtain two objectives: to open their markets to local products and to prevent them from adopting the same development strategies which led to the developed nations' industrialization.

Theoretical basis

As a set of development policies, ISI policies are theoretically grounded on the Singer-Prebisch thesis, on the infant industry argument, and on keynesian economics. From these postulates it derives a body of practices, which are commonly: an active industrial policy to subsidize and orchestrate production of strategic substitutes, protective barriers to trade (e.g. tariffs), an overvalued currency to help manufacturers import capital goods (heavy machinery), and discouragement of foreign direct investment.

In many cases, however, these postulates 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, governmental 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 in Brazil in the 1950s and 1960's.

The major and unifying postulate of 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. It should be noted, as well, that import substitution does not mean "import elimination": as a country industrializes, it begins to import other kinds of goods which become necessary for its industry, such as petroleum, chemicals, and the raw materials it may lack. The real objective of import substitution is therefore not to eliminate trade, but to lift it to higher stage – that of exporting "value-added" products, which are not as susceptible to economic fluctuations as raw materials, according to the Singer-Prebisch thesis.

Outward and inward development

Conceptually, ISI could be outward-looking in that it promotes exports (like in Asia, especially South Korea) or inward-looking without significant links to world markets (like in Latin America). The decision to adopt one or another perspective is frequently determined by external factors. The industrialization of South Korea and other Asian Tigers, for example, was in line with the United States's geopolitical strategy of building a "contention belt" of capitalist countries around China and other communist states in Asia, which involved the granting of incentives for these countries to export to the United States. In contrast, Latin American countries, which were outside the main areas of geopolitical concern, did not receive these incentives – despite requests that they be extended to them, for example in the Pan-American Operation proposed by Brazilian President Juscelino Kubitscheck. Consequently, Latin American countries concentrated on producing for their domestic markets, or on building expanded areas which could absorb scale-production, such as the Latin American Free Trade Association (ALALC) and the Latin American Integration Association (ALADI), which were never fully implemented.

Both in inward and outward-oriented ISI, however, external competition by imports in the markets of the targeted industries are discouraged, by tariffs, devalued currencies and other factors. Hence, policies to pursue ISI have a strong protectionist component and are not favored by advocates of absolute free trade.

Latin America

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 largely untheoretical and based on pragmatic choices of how to face the limitations imposed by recession, even though Populist governments in Argentina (Perón) and Brazil (Vargas) had the precedent of Fascist Italy (and, to some extent, of 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 (specially steel production) was synonymous of "progress" and was naturally placed as a priority.

ISI only gained a theoretical foundation 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 believed that developing countries needed to create forward linkages domestically, and could only succeed by creating the industries that used the primary products already being produced by these countries. The tariffs were designed to allow domestic infant industries to prosper.

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 (Blouet and Blouet, 2002). This is so because while the investment to produce cheap consumer products may pay off in a small consumer market, the same can not be said for capital-intensive industries – such as automobiles and heavy machinery –, which depend on larger consumer markets to survive. Thus, smaller and poorer countries, such as Ecuador, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic, could only implement ISI to a limited extent.

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 distribution 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 where 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 transferred ownership to local businesspeople.

Many economists contend that ISI failed in Latin America, being one of many factors leading to the so-called Lost Decade of Latin American economics. Other economists contend that ISI led to the "Mexican Miracle," the period that lasted from 1940 to 1975 in which economic growth of 6 percent or more.

East Asia

The inward-looking variant of ISI was rejected by most nations in East Asia in the 1960s, and some economists attribute the superior performance of East Asia in the 1970s and 1980s to this difference in policies. Indeed, Asian policies are most commonly not referred to as ISI, even though some would argue the rationale and execution of policy design largely followed those recipes.

Most East Asian countries, while rejecting the inward-looking component of classical import substitution policies, also maintained high tariff barriers. The strategy followed by those countries was to focus subsidies and investment on industries which would make goods for export, and not to attempt to undervalue the local currency. In pursuing this and to boost its competitiveness in the 1970s, South Korea made large investments into heavy and chemical industries, such as shipbuilding, steel and petrochemicals. This focus on export markets allowed them to create competitive industries.

It should be contended, however, that outward-looking development did not pose as a choice for many countries. As mentioned before, for geopolitical reasons, many Eastern Asian countries received open market policies and incentives for industrialization from the United States government, as a means of creating a "contention belt" of capitalist countries around communist nations in Asia. For instance: from 1953 until 1960, the United States financed 70% of South Korea's imports of commodities, which allowed it to rise from a rural producer to an exporter of manufactured goods in only seven years (Hong & Krueger, "Trade and Development in Korea". Seoul: Korea Development Institute, 1975). With such a clear path for development laid out, Korea naturally invested in educating its population to meet the needs of its exports-driven industry.

Advantages and disadvantages

The major advantages claimed for ISI include: increases in domestic employment (reducing dependence on labour non-intensive industries such as raw resource extraction and export); resilience in the face of a global economic shocks (such as recessions and depressions); less long-distance transportation of goods (and concomitant fuel consumption and greenhouse gas and other emissions). The disadvantages claimed for ISI is that the industries that it creates are inefficient and obsolete, and that the focus on industrial development impoverishes local commodity producers who are primarily rural.

In most manufacturing processes a point of output is reached after which the cost of producing every additional unit of output diminishes. Different types of industries, given their different production functions (combinations of capital and labor, etc.) obtain different scale thresholds or minimum levels of output necessarily to begin accruing cost savings from large-scale output. For example, a mechanical pencil factory may need to sell 5 million units of output (pencils) each year before it can achieve economies of scale of production – efficient level of production. An automobile industry may need to sell 519, 001 units of output (cars) to achieve the same level of efficiency. Clearly, the more units of anything manufactured you can sell the better the chances that your factories (consumer goods and intermediate, and ultimately capital goods) will achieve economies of scale, efficient production. In a free market global economy, industries that produce inefficiently (without obtaining economies of scale of production) under the protections of ISI have been subject to criticism from more efficient foreign industries – a force driving the neo-liberal campaign for open markets.What determines whether a country obtains efficiency – economies of scale in production? Market size (number of consumers, population) and purchasing power (usually but unreliably indicated by GNP/capita). Hence, larger, richer economies were more likely to make ISI succeed efficiently, whereas smaller countries with lower per capita incomes were less likely to succeed with ISI.



*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.


ee also

*International trade
*Commanding Heights for an exposition of the effects of ISI on Latin American economies
*Singer-Prebisch thesis
*Export-oriented industrialization
*Export substitution industrialization

Wikimedia Foundation. 2010.

Look at other dictionaries:

  • import-substitution industrialization — An economic strategy aimed at encouraging national industrial growth so as to reduce imports of manufactured goods. It was associated with the United Nations Commission for Latin America and put into practice during the 1960s. It is now generally …   Dictionary of sociology

  • Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI) — An economic theory employed by developing or emerging market nations that wish to increase their self sufficiency and decrease their dependency on developed countries. Implementation of the theory focuses on protection and incubation of domestic… …   Investment dictionary

  • Export-oriented industrialization — Export Oriented Industrialisation (EOI) sometimes called export substitution industrialization (ESI) is a trade and economic policy aiming to speed up the industrialization process of a country through exporting goods for which the nation has a… …   Wikipedia

  • Economic history of Brazil — The economic history of Brazil covers various economic events and traces the changes in the Brazilian economy over the course of the history of Brazil. Portugal, which first colonized the area in the 16th century, enforced a colonial pact with… …   Wikipedia

  • Economic history of Chile — Colonial era to 1690In colonial times, the segmentation of Chile into latifundios left only small parcels for native American and mestizo villagers to cultivate. Cattle raised on the latifundios were a source of tallow and hides, which were sent …   Wikipedia

  • Free trade — Not to be confused with Free market. World trade A series on Trade …   Wikipedia

  • Infamous Decade — The four presidents of the period: Uriburu, Justo, Ortiz and Castillo History of Argentina …   Wikipedia

  • Economy of Argentina — Infobox Economy country = Argentina width = 250 currency = Argentine Peso (ARS) year = Calendar year organs = WTO, Mercosur, Unasur rank = 23rd gdp = $523.7 billion (2007) [ …   Wikipedia

  • Comparative advantage — Economics …   Wikipedia

  • Latin America, history of — Introduction       history of the region from the pre Columbian period and including colonization by the Spanish and Portuguese beginning in the 15th century, the 19th century wars of independence, and developments to the end of World War II.… …   Universalium

Share the article and excerpts

Direct link
Do a right-click on the link above
and select “Copy Link”

We are using cookies for the best presentation of our site. Continuing to use this site, you agree with this.