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Computers aid third-world consumers to claim rights

By Leon LindsayStaff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / December 9, 1982

San Francisco

Anwar Fazal and the organization he heads are part of what may be a worldwide revolution. It's a militant, but nonviolent, revolution - a product not of the extreme right or left, but of the new ''information age'' being ushered in by Western technology.

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The International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU), of which Mr. Fazal is president, is using the networking ability made possible by computer-era communications to show people at the most basic levels of third-world society how to fight for their needs and their rights - and often win.

So far most of the victories have been relatively small. But they are significant because they were won despite ignorance, seeming powerlessness, exploitation by sophisticated outside organizations, and even government repression.

In a recent interview, Fazal compared the current aims of the consumer movement in the third world to the stand taken in the United States of the 1930s by the newly organized Consumers Union:

''People associate the consumer movement with prices; high prices - value for money,'' he said. ''There is another dimension that has been part of the consumer movement from the beginning that people have forgotten because of affluence. In their first editorial - in 1936, I think - Consumers Union said, 'We as consumers don't want only to get the best price for a product, we want to make sure we also get a safe product. We should equally be concerned about the conditions under which that product is made. If it was made in conditions that were exploitative, we should have that information so that we do not cast a vote for exploitation by buying that particular product.'

''So there was a dimension to buying that went beyound immediate, selfish concerns. The act of buying was an act of voting for an economic and social stand - for particular ways of producing goods. . . . There's a high price we pay for lack of social justice, for waste in our communities.''

Pointing out that since the 1930s American and other advanced societies have developed agencies that more or less effectively deal with product safety, worker rights, and so on, Fazal says that in most of the third world, consumer protection until recently was no better - and often far worse - than it was in the US in the '30s.

The IOCU was founded in 1960 by consumer organizations of five Western nations - Australia, Belgium, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In its early years it was chiefly a coordinating agency for member groups. But recently it has become a forceful international voice for consumers, especially those in third-world nations.

Anwar Fazal, a Malaysian, became the first non-Western president in 1978; he had been regional director for Southeast Asia and the Pacific since 1974. Fazal has transformed the organization, according to one source involved in the movement, into a ''dynamic center for international consumer activity.''

Besides its headquarters in The Hague, IOCU has a regional office for Asia and the Pacific in Penang, Malaysia. It now has some 120 member organizations in 50 countries, according to Fazal. The groups are in countries in every stage of economic and social development.

''In Japan, which has more than 3,000 consumer groups,'' Fazal said, ''we have several members. In Brazil there are 62 consumer groups; in India there are 27; 9 in Thailand; 11 in Malaysia. In 21 years the consumer movement has really become global. It has taken root in developing countries in a way that once was unthinkable.''

People in these societies are not so concerned with the cost of living as they are with the cost of survival. ''If you are beginning to bring into focus issues with regard to poverty, with regard to ecology, in countries that are living in marginal terms,'' Fazal said, ''you need to develop a frame for consumer action that can be used in, for example, a village with no water supply. A consumer group can be organized around the fight to establish a pipe stand in the village.

''In Malaysia we had a situation where the people of a village got a lot of their food from the nearby river. Upstream, an industrial estate was set up that put all its effluents into the river, destroying a lot of the fish. These people were not in the monetized part of the economy - but they had a consumer problem. We worked with the village, set them up, showed them how to organize meetings and petition. As the result of their actions the industrial estate - the factories - were asked to put in all kinds of pollution-control measures. And the village became alive again.''

Fazal says getting value for money is a major concern of consumer groups in advanced societies. ''Value for people'' may be more important in third-world communities, he explains. ''How we organize our economic system becomes critical to the consumer.'' Where you decide to spend your money can have an important impact.