Third-world consumer groups chalk up steady successes

In Africa, Asia, and Latin America, consumer awareness and the strength of consumer groups is growing. Among the evidence: A Kenyan poultry farmer noticed his chickens were not gaining weight. He complained to the government Bureau of Standards, which helped bring a suit against the chicken feed manufacturer for a deficient product. The company settled the case out of court, paying the farmer about $4,100.

More than 12 developing nations have banned most of the ``dirty dozen'' pesticides, such as DDT, whose use is opposed by citizen groups.

In Malaysia and a number of other Asian countries, citizen groups are campaigning to educate people about the low nutritional value in many bottled drinks and some prepackaged ``junk'' foods.

A radio program in South Korea focusing on such consumer issues has become quite popular.

In the developing world in the past few years there has been a ``proliferation of citizen groups speaking out'' on consumer issues, says Anwar Fazal, a leader in the International Organization of Consumers Unions (IOCU), a federation of consumer organizations.

``We IOCU member groups are in 70 countries. We attend United Nations meetings. The consumer movement is not a fringe movement,'' says Mr. Fazal. The consumer movement is growing worldwide, but the biggest growth in recent years is in developing nations, says Fazal.

While much of the emphasis of the consumer movement in the West is on product reliability, in developing nations the focus is more often on ``survival issues such as food, water, housing, and transportation,'' he says. There is also an expanding environmental movement in Africa and Asia, a movement that ``five years ago was nascent.''

Fazal, another IOCU official, Jean-Pierre Allain, and several Kenyans, were interviewed after Fazal and Mr. Allain addressed a recent gathering of Kenyan government consumer protection officials and members of private consumer groups.

Fazal and Allain work in the IOCU's regional office in Malaysia. The central office is in the Hague. Fazal, director of the IOCU's Asia and Pacific office, was president of the IOCU from 1978 to l984, a period when the organization greatly expanded its membership and activities.

One factor spurring the strength of consumer groups is the growing ``south-south'' cooperation between such groups in developing nations, says Allain.

Allain and Fazal point to some major successes in recent years in consumer efforts, partially as a result of consumer groups in developing nations.

In 1985, the United Nations adopted guidelines for consumer protection. The same year, the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization adopted an international code aimed, in part, at halting the sale of unsafe, Western-manufactured pesticides around the world. Earlier, in 1981, the World Health Organization adopted a code aimed at curbing marketing tactics discouraging breast feeding and encouraging bottle feeding.

Consumer groups in developing nations are also focusing on the sale of medicines which have been found ineffective in the West.

But even in cases where international codes have been adopted on an issue, gaining compliance is tough, consumer leaders say.

Despite adoption of the pesticide code, for example, most manufacturers of controversial pesticides are ``still not modifying practises'' of marketing them to developing nations, Fazal says. The IOCU trains people to monitor a nation's compliance with the code.

About 400 consumer groups in 18 countries have started campaigns against pesticides banned or restricted in Western nations that are being ``dumped'' in developing nations says Fazal.

Africa is lagging in the pesticides campaign, says Allain. ``Most African nations don't have ready information on what's banned.''

Kenya has done more than many African nations to protect consumers, but it, too, faces problems of lack of paid staff for groups such as the Kenya Consumers Organization.

There has been an increase in of consumer activism in recent years, says the group's volunteer secretary, Francis Orago. Various consumer organizations focus on the environment, legal rights, health, and the promotion of breast feeding, among other issues.

For its part, the Kenya Bureau of Standards, a government organization, has adopted 600 consumer product standards, 200 of which are mandatory. But standard-making is a slow process. The potential is for 10,000 standards, says KBS acting director, N. K. Njugi. But enforcement of legal standards depends in part on citizen willingness to pursue violators to court, Njugi says, something few people are willing to take the time to do. Only about 20 cases a year in Kenya go to court regarding product quality, he says.

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