Computers aid third-world consumers to claim rights

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.

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.

If he is in Malaysia, for instance, and wants to get something to eat with some friends, he has a choice. He can go to the Hilton International Hotel and pay its hefty prices. Or he can go to the so-called ''informal sector'' in the shadow of the hotel, and for one-quarter of the price buy from a small food stall. By buying from the latter he has a much more direct economic impact on the country than if the money were spent in the foreign-run hotel. With the money saved, says Fazal, he can do other good works in the country.

The leadership for the third world's consumer movement is not confined to one sector of society, Fazal notes. It may begin with the more economically established people, who have the time and resources to devote to it. That's the ''first phase.'' ''But you also find groups coming out of the community itself, '' Fazal said. ''They may not formally organize a consumer group, but they articulate consumer concerns and even take action. We help them recognize what they are doing as consumer action. So you find this growth going on in the middle class or the affluent sector in the third world; you find it growing among people who are concerned with human rights, people who are concerned with the way in which the economy is organized, groups concerned with ecology.''

Even in countries that are ostensibly democratic, Fazal observes, governments may not look very kindly on consumer activism - especially if it appears to conflict with their development goals. A campaign in Indonesia against the manufacture of monosodium glutamate, a flavor enhancer, ran into some governmental interference, Fazal says. A consumer advocate in the Philippines, where such groups have been very active, was threatened with arrest and had to leave the country.

This kind of conflict is bound to occur, Fazal says. Consumer groups know it is risky, ''and there are consumer groups who will take these risks. We say, 'Be brave and angry.' Because without being brave and angry you're not going to see change. And that is the spirit of many consumer groups in the third world. . . .''

''The more you can work with traditional community structures without asking them to make a new, formal group,'' the less unfavorable response is likely, he commented. ''We don't need to be more specific, because people take risks by being active. In the third world they take very great risks, which often subject them to harassment of a kind which can even lead to death. So you organize them in ways which the community is used to and don't worry about labels or formal structures as such.''

This is where global communication - ''networking'' - comes in handy.

''There's a whole new face to the movement globally - a whole new energy. And this energy has also been due to working with groups of all kinds of different concerns, trying to identify common interests, and working together without worrying too much about structures of the traditional, formal kind - which we find have been a big handicap very often in making change.''

In this loose kind of global relationship, which is primarily a communications network, national and local interest groups can be informed and even guided without formal affiliation. Infan, the international baby food network, was formed in response to the marketing of infant formula in areas where breast feeding is traditional, and usually better for mother and child. Health Action International came into being as a response to pharmaceutical companies' selling items abroad that had been banned in other countries. The global Pesticide Action Network brings together various groups working against the sale of pesticides in third-world nations without proper safeguards. There are numerous other groups - those concerned with how communities are changing, antihunger groups like Oxfam, women's organizations - all coming together on the consumer issue.

The networks are informally structured. There is no ''chairman'' of Infan, for example. The strength and ability of these organizations comes down to the constituent community groups, Fazal says. ''The more participating groups there are, the more they are concerned about the issues, the more thay take their own positions with regard to what should be done, the better and stronger the consumer movement is.

''So we say, 'If nothing is happening in the pesticide campaign globally, what are you going to do about it?' Don't wait for any other group. Move ahead and we will provide a communication process so that if you are going to take action you must know there is someone somewhere else doing the same thing - that there is interest elsewhere in the same thing. If a group says, 'We are going to have a battle,' others can decide whether they want to join in this particular battle.'' IOCU can network with perhaps 600 groups on an issue.

This is a major new step. ''Where before groups might have felt they were working in isolation, we can now give a multinational response to multinational problems in a way that was never possible in the consumer movement before. The communication process will be provided by networking.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.