Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Breaking ground in the fight for consumer rights in Asia Pacific and Middle East

Following the success of World Consumer Rights Day, Indrani Thuraisingham, Head of CI Office for Asia Pacific and the Middle East, explains why it’s an exciting time for the region.


World Consumer Rights Day (WCRD) is a great opportunity to see the strength of our members in the Asia Pacific and Middle East region. This year, WCRD focused on consumer choice in financial services. Members from more than 23 countries in our region participated in events to mark the occasion.

Even the newly-formed, one-month-old consumer organisation in Afghanistan, the Consumer Rights and Services Organization (CRSO), (who is in the process of applying for CI membership) joined in by having the first-ever WCRD celebration in their country.

I travelled to Bangladesh to celebrate WCRD with the Consumers Association of Bangladesh, a CI member. There are more than seven million Bangladeshis working overseas and these workers often face high charges of between 5% and 20% every time they send money home.

We are working on this issue as part of our Global Money Transfers project.

In Bangladesh, if you want a copy of your bank statement urgently, you would need to pay USD10 for it. If you’re willing to wait up to five days, then you would need to pay only USD3. All this for your own bank account statement!

Our Consumers for Fair Financial Services campaign fighting for this to be something everyone should be entitled to for free.

The following day I was in India where I was one of the guests of honour at CI member Consumers Association of India’s 10th anniversary international conference on the theme, ‘Is the consumer really the king?’ Here I talked about the need for consumer organisations to use Facebook and other social media tools to raise awareness on consumer rights and responsibilities.

Come and ‘like’ CI’s Facebook page and see how we are using social media to raise awareness of consumer issues around the globe.

The CI regional meeting for Asia Pacific and the Middle East
Our office for Asia Pacific and the Middle East hosted the regional members’ meeting and conference: ‘Consumers in the Information Society: Access, Fairness and Representation’ in Kuala Lumpur. Fifty-one participants representing 37 organisations from 20 countries attended this meeting.

In-depth discussions were held on CI’s new strategic direction for the next four years and the five priority programmes that CI will focus on: financial services, food, consumers in the digital age, sustainable consumption, and consumer protection and legislation. In addition, our new strategy has a renewed focus on organisational empowerment; where CI helps members to help themselves.

Member organisations were reminded to be in continuous communication with CI on their activities in relation to CI’s priority programmes as well as emerging issues and concerns. This gives us the strength as a unified voice to collectively bring changes in terms of policy as well as corporations’ behaviour and practices.

One of these areas was taken up at the conference by CI's Director General Helen McCallum, who delivered a speech on emerging ICT technologies. The speech considered the networks we use to communicate (such as the Internet); the devices we use to do so (such as smartphones and computers); and the rules that regulate content passing through these devices and networks (such as intellectual property rights and privacy law). All of these are major issues for consumers in our region.

This office will work towards building a CI brand that is synonymous with consumer rights and protection. We will encourage and ensure all members from the region belong to at least one priority programme that is relevant to their work.

It’s an exciting time. We will form partnerships with relevant stakeholders to achieve our objective of bringing change, and look for strategic members to further strengthen our presence as the sole global consumer voice championing consumer rights.

We do this work because CI belongs to its member organisations; organisations that are fighting for consumer rights across the Asia Pacific and Middle East region.

Monday, 2 April 2012

Are portable bank account numbers the answer to the switching conundrum?

 CI's Head of Campaigns, Justin Macmullan, looks at three ways to encourage consumers to change banks

Consumer surveys conducted by several CI members to mark World Consumer Rights Day last month threw up some interesting results. One of which was that allowing consumers to take their bank account number with them should they decide to leave their bank may be the best way to get them to make the switch.

In a nutshell, the surveys revealed that the majority of consumers who have switched banks found the process relatively straightforward and easy, however, of these, a significant minority experienced problems. The perception among consumers who haven’t switched is that it is going to be difficult, risky and time consuming.

My own straw poll of friends and colleagues backed these findings up. One colleague who recently switched bank accounts claimed it was “a doddle” (a not very technical British term for ‘very easy’), but the overwhelming response was a slight frown and, “I’ve been meaning to do that for ages”.

But perhaps the most revealing comment came when I explained the results to a non-switching friend and their response was, “Yes, but I don’t want to be part of that minority that has a problem”.

Of course these surveys were only conducted in a relatively small number of countries, but if we really want to encourage more people to switch there is a message in there for every country.

Basically, three things need to happen.

First, the minority of cases where there are problems needs to become absolutely as small as possible. People are always more likely to hear about failures than successes, and, understandably, one of the last things people want to take any risk with is their bank account.

In many countries there are plenty of recommendations and guidelines for improving the process of switching but banks need to implement them better. See this report from CI’s European sister organisation BEUC for examples.

Second, consumers need some encouragement and advice – see, for example, the online efforts of these CI members in Spain, Italy, Portugal, and Belgium.

Third, the introduction of portable bank account numbers, something a number of CI members are calling for, could make a major difference. This would not only make it easier for the consumer, but it could radically change consumers’ perceptions according to the surveys.

With this system, the consumer would keep a personal number and the banks would be responsible for making all the behind-the-scenes changes and linking their new account to that number. The consumer could then continue to use the same number for all transactions. .

A similar idea has already been introduced in Sweden and, with help from consumer organisations, the concept is gaining ground in other countries too, for instance India. There is even some evidence that banks’ opposition to the idea appears to be weakening somewhat.

What I did find striking in my own straw poll was the number of people who said, “I’ve been meaning to do that” not “I’m happy with my bank”.

In many countries, banks and other financial service providers are the focus of a very high number of complaints. And CI members are regularly highlighting how consumers could get a better deal if they switched, including in the US and Belgium to name just two.

It certainly appears that many consumers would like to change banks and the act of changing banks would, in turn, encourage better service and lower charges. That’s why portable account numbers are well worth considering.

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Less salt, more consumer information please!

As part of her work for World Salt Awareness Week, Public Health Nutritionist Clare Farrand explains the need for clear food labelling on a global scale.

We are all eating too much salt, and it’s damaging our health. Salt puts up our blood pressure, which leads to strokes and heart attacks, and is also linked to kidney disease, stomach cancer and osteoporosis. I can’t remember the last time I picked up a salt shaker, or caught a glimpse of the white stuff (people tend to hide it when I visit), but just because I don’t use it doesn’t mean I don’t have to worry about my salt intake. That’s because most of the salt that we eat (75%) is hidden in the foods that we buy. 

And I’m not just talking about the foods that taste salty; it’s in the most surprising places such as bread, breakfast cereals, soups, sandwiches, cheese, biscuits, and pastries. Of course, as a nutritionist, I am trained in the art of cracking over-complicated food labels, translating ‘sodium’ to ‘salt’, and know how much salt is high, medium or low, so I should be able to understand what is in my food. But for everyone else, how can you  choose to eat less salt?  

This is why clear food labelling is so important. If  nutrition information was presented in a consistent, easy-to-use way across all products, in all supermarkets, in all  food establishments (eg, restaurants, fast food chains, cafes, and takeaways) in all the land, then we would be able to find out what we are eating. But it is not. Even in the UK where most of the food that we buy in the supermarkets is labelled, the language on the label is often so complicated that most consumers are left confused rather than informed. 

In my opinion, the food industry has a responsibility to tell us what they are putting in our food so that we know what we are eating. In fact, not only do they have a responsibility to tell us what is in our food, they also have a moral obligation to ensure that what they do put in our food is not going to damage our health. 
What is worrying though is that if we did have clear and consistent labelling, and all of our food was shown to be high in salt, fat, and sugar, we STILL wouldn’t have a choice

That said, in the UK there has been lots of good work going on to tackle this issue. Many food manufacturers are now starting to gradually reduce the amount of salt in our foods; old favourites such as Kellogg’s Cornflakes and HP Sauce are much less salty than they used to be, also new brands of lower salt foods like Seabrook reduced-salt crisps and Hampstead Farms no-salt sauces are now available.

Sadly this is not  the case around the world. Salt reductions have been made in the UK due to the successful programme that has been in effect since 2005, and through the work of CI member organisation Consensus Action on Salt and Health who continually put pressure on the food industry to reduce the amount of salt they add to our food (see recent survey on pizza). 

What we really need to do now is spread this action worldwide. Many food manufacturers that sell foods in the UK are global organisations. Therefore, the reductions they have made in the UK should easily be made elsewhere. There is no reason why the UK should be so privileged! We must continue to demand less salt and call for clearer food labelling – especially in countries where there currently is none. After all, if we are to take responsibility for our own health, we at least need the information to do so. 

Until the food industry removes the excessive amounts of salt they put in our food, I will be cooking from scratch. After all, if I want to eat salt, I can always add it myself.

So this week, World Salt Awareness Week, let’s all ask for “Si’isi’iange masima”, or, “less salt please”.

Clare Farrand is a Public Health Nutritionist for the salt reduction charity, World Action on Salt and Health (WASH), a global organisation with the mission to reduce population level salt intake around the world.  

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

Consumer access to knowledge is vital for Africa's development

Dieunedort Wandji of Consumers International explains why consumer protection in the digital age is so important to Africa and developing countries. 

Although consumer protection is weak in many developing countries, consumers across the Global South will make a giant leap in claiming their rights by effectively benchmarking international advocacy on digital consumer rights issues.

This was the impression I was left with after attending Consumers International’s Access to Knowldge (A2K) meeting (Consumers in the Information Society: Access, Fairness and Representation, 8-9 March, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia).  The diversity of participants and far-reaching content captured the varied and versatile challenges of consumers in the digital age. Many of which are crucial to the developing world. 

As I sat through all these inspiring presentations about consumer protection in the information society and tried to make sense of them from an African perspective, it began to dawn on me that the developing world’s stake in this battle is a double-fold one.

African consumers in particular are poised to benefit more than anyone else from CI’s vanguard approach in the protection of consumers in the information society, as laid out at Kuala Lumpur meeting.

As he plays his games on my laptop, my five-year-old son is still suspicious about my story that, growing up in Africa, it was not until I became a university student that I was able to first set eyes on a computer. I presume the African digital consumer of tomorrow is likely to be unaware of a lot that has come before. While enjoying doing creative work, tomorrow’s African consumer might not realise just how much RMC (Rights Management Corporations) had twisted laws to invade privacy or abused technology to pervert ownership rights. 

I look forward to the time in Africa when the digital consumer will have no knowledge of today’s limitations and frustrations.  This unawareness of past battles will however depend on how quickly and efficiently African consumer rights groups pick up the pace of international advocacy trends today. More precisely, this will depend on their ability to build on CI’s A2K momentum so as to tackle the twin issues currently affecting the African consumer in fast changing digital markets: access and protection.

As any advance in digital technology nowadays carries a global impact, it is of critical importance that the efforts of the consumer movement in the developing world be inversely proportional to the number of actual users of digital products and services.

There are challenges lying ahead for consumer organisations in the developing world. Apart from the necessity for African countries to emulate the policies and regulations of European countries, there is the need to prevent developing countries from becoming retreat bases for failed RMC abuse attempts. In fact, as has been the case with tobacco regulations, there is concern that vulnerable copyright regulatory frameworks can be taken advantage of, to implement abusive policies that could not be pushed through in the developed world. For instance, it has now become illegal in India to share a joke over the internet, without appropriately quoting your sources!

Yet again, as much as the digital consumer needs protection in Africa, campaigning for access remains equally important. The latest CI Global Consumer Survey on Broadband (pdf)  for instance suggests that access to broadband technology is becoming a “prerequisite for consumers’ full participation in civic and cultural life”. At the same time, many experts report that less than 5% of Africans having access to new technologies such as computers, smart phones and other devices that support access to broadband. 

The digital divide seems to be widening and taking on various forms. Instead of being commensurate to local income levels, IT products turn out to be more expensive on African markets. Just as we are revolted by the mere thought that public libraries in their present form would never have existed, had current copyright laws preceded them, it is equally unacceptable that access to collective knowledge in Africa should be hampered through abusive regulations, unfair pricing and contrived technological barriers.