Being sold short
The birth of the consumer movement in the Third World cannot be easily pinpointed. But the chaotic and often unregulated economies of Africa, Asia and Latin America are very similar to the marketplace anarchy of the USA that sparked off the first consumer organisation in 1929. In the developing world short measure, adulteration, dangerous products and plain cheating can make buying a nightmare for the unwary. Back in the 1920s Colston Warne, founder of the American Consumers’ Union, spoke of the spectacular impact of radio commercials on consumers. Today television does the same job. It has penetrated shanty towns and distant villages. In one slum community on the outskirts of Bangkok there are only two television sets.
Mr Narong is the proud owner of one and happy to share it with his neighbours. Every evening his home is packed.
The women are pleased to learn that they only have to use a certain brand of soap for their complexion to be as smooth and fair as their favourite film actress. A swimming pool right in your own home, they note with amazement while watching Dallas and think of their daily trips to the community tap. Whether through the adverts or the imported soap operas, directly or indirectly, the message is the same. The way to find happiness, says the TV, is to buy and consume trivia. The lack of such basics as clean water, adequate food and decent shelter are real consumer needs not promoted by television, commerce or politicians. For politicians find the poor of little interest. The shanty-town dwellers are silent, powerless and few feel confident enough to vote.
So when consumer organisations open their doors with offers of help, many come in. And dealing with complaints is a large part of their work. However, even encouraging people to come forward is a victory. ‘You know the district officers are busy and important people, too tied up with bigger problems to look after my affairs.’ commented one villager despite conditions made dangerously insanitary because nightsoil hadn’t been collected. ‘We are poor people, there is nothing we can do. It is Allah’s will.’ explained a fisherman after his nets were destroyed by a poaching trawler. ‘You ask us to protest, we might get into trouble. You say "Visit a lawyer", but we’ve never seen one in our lives.’ said small farmers whose crops were destroyed when road construction companies caused an avalanche.
Passivity, fatalism, lack of self-confidence, too much respect for social superiors: all this is the legacy of centuries of feudalism and kowtowing to colonial musters. These Asian consumer groups are trying to change this, to help people win self-respect. Thus simply rectifying a grievance can have a significance well beyond the immediate problem. ‘Whenever we help someone who has never before dared to fight those in power win a case,’ says the chair of the Indonesian consumer group Yayasan Lembaga Konsumen, ‘we observe that suddenly he or she has new confidence. It is empowering work we are doing.’
Some groups go out and find the consumers. One of the early projects of the Bombay-based Consumer Guidance Society of India was the operation of a kiosk at one of the busiest markets in the city. In the kiosk were two pieces of basic equipment: an accurately calibrated weighing machine and a basket with half a dozen bottles of common chemicals, some test tubes and a white porcelain plate. The weighing machine? The reason is obvious. The basket? It contained the means to detect adulterants commonly added to saffron, and other spices.
Blatant fraud through short-weight and adulteration is common. One Indian consumer agency discovered a factory which made small stones to be added to rice grains to make up the weight. Another Malaysian group found instant coffee with under 10 per cent of the powder originating from coffee beans. Yet all this largely escapes the attention of government enforcement agencies. They are ‘indifferent, ‘incompetent’ and ‘corrupt’, complain frustrated shoppers.
Local circumstances vary. Yet one thing Third World consumer groups share is a feeling that they cannot just imitate their sister organisations in the West. ‘We won’t tackle the quality of toilet paper or bacon,’ explained Mary Mananzan, a nun and founder of the Manila-based Citizen’s Alliance for Consumer Protection (CACP). ‘We must choose to deal with issues that affect the majority of our people - the poor. When soft drinks and beer take a substantial slice of Filipinos’ food budget something has to be done. So CACP works on nutrition education, in the schools and on the street. ‘Is Your Stomach a Junkyard?’ is the question posed in a punchy slide-show projected to hundreds of schoolchildren. It continues by explaining that soft drinks are a waste of money and a major cause of tooth decay.
‘Yes, such consumer work is political,’ says Anwar Fazal, Director of the International Organization of Consumers Unions Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific, ’and we would be foolish to say otherwise. We are dealing with established power structures.’ The establishment is aware of the potential influence of the consumer movement. Many would like to confine it. But the groups won’t be shackled. When CACP in the Philippines campaigned against the country’s US-imported nuclear reactors being sited in an earthquake zone, they were fighting for local residents worried about radiation leaks. Recently a two-million-dollar royal monument was erected in Thailand. In its shadow was a squatter township built on a marsh with broken duckboards to pave the alleys. Most of the children suffered from gastro-enteritis due to infected water from the standpipes. Thai consumer groups questioned the country’s priorities. And that needs courage. For seven people have been imprisoned for being critical of the Thai royal family. And everyone remembers the 3 00-600 students killed in the military coup d’etat of 1976 (Amnesty International figures).
Yet being part of an international community of consumer groups has its advantages. For instance when campaigning against the dumping of dangerous products by multinational corporations or their mendacious advertising claims, co-operation from consumer groups in the industrialised world provides extra and sometimes decisive clout. For instance, one morning Malaysians woke up to see a photo of three generations - from baby to grandparents - say ‘We like it!’ in full page newspaper adverts. The product they ‘liked’ was monosodium glutamate (MSG), a powdered flavour enhancer made by a Japanese firm - Ajinomoto. Serious questions have been raised about the safety of MSG, it has been linked to asthmatic attacks and the ‘Chinese Restaurant Syndrome’ of hot flushes and feeling faint. The UN has recommended that it should not be used in children’s food. Yet the insignia of both the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization were displayed on the advert. Consumer groups in Malaysia acted fast. The UN organisations and consumer groups in Japan were informed. The Malaysian Ajinomoto subsidiary was reprimanded for unauthorised use of UN agency logos. Pressure by the Japanese consumer groups on Ajinomoto’s Tokyo headquarters brought published apologies in the Malaysian newspapers. The advert was not used again.
This kind of international pressure works best by networking - the loose grouping of consumer groups and voluntary agencies around issues. With the help of a small overseas grant, the Regional Office of IOCU co-ordinated a survey by more than 17 consumer associations in 12 countries on the marketing of anabolic steroids. The horrific side-effects of these drugs include masculinizing effects, that is, changing girls into boys and stunting children’s growth. The survey found that while the drug was tightly controlled in Western countries - it is banned for children in Britain - the picture was very different elsewhere. In a number of Asian countries the Dutch-based pharmaceutical company Organon had been actively promoting the steroids for malnourished children. The story made international headlines and Organon was even censured by its fellow Dutch pharmaceutical firms.
The International Baby Food Action Network was the first to get off the ground. in 1979. Focussing on the inappropriate marketing of baby foods which tempted mothers away from breastfeeding in developing countries, groups in the network collected evidence of unethical promotion. This proof demonstrated that the companies were saying one thing to expert committees in Geneva and New York but doing another in clinics thousands of miles away. Their action prompted the UN to endorse a marketing code banning advertising and the giving of powdered milk samples to nursing mothers.
The Health Action International network followed in 1982. It brings together groups working to promote safe, rational and economic use of drugs. In a third coalition, Consumer Interpol, participants form an information network on newly discovered dangerous products and work to stop the export of suspect goods. The youngest of the global groupings is Pesticide Action Network, prompted by the casualties from the overuse and misuse of chemicals on humans, wildlife and the environment.
These networks are making their presence felt. An industry newsletter, Business International, recently warned, ‘Multinational Corporations Beware: A Big Critic is Watching You’. Obviously companies are beginning to feel uncomfortable. For the networks aim to make them accountable for their actions in previously unprotected communities thousands of miles away.
The Third World consumer movement is ultimately a product of genuine needs - for good health, decent food, adequate shelter and the basic right not to be ignored by bureaucrats or exploited by business. By educating, campaigning and researching hard evidence of marketplace irresponsibility, these consumer groups are giving strength and a voice to people too often overlooked and undervalued.
Foo Gaik Sim is the head of information & research at the Regional
This first appeared in our award-winning magazine - to read more, subscribe from just £7