July 1981

An Interview with Anwar Fazal

Bureau Europeen Des Unions De Consommateurs (BEUC); The European Consumers Organisation, Monthly Magazine; July 1981

Anwar Fazal has been President of the International Organisation of Consumers Union (IOCU) since 1978. He was elected to this office at the 10th World Congress of IOCU which was held in The Hague from 22 - 26 June. He is also the Director of IOCU's Asia and Pacific Regional Centre, which is based in Penang, Malaysia.

BEUC News (BN): This congress still has two days to run. But could you tell us at this stage what you consider to be its salient features?

Anwar Fazal (AF): I feel that two points stand out very clearly. Firstly, the consumer organisations are increasingly concerned about problems with a global dimension. Right from the start of the congress, the focus has been on issues like the dumping of hazardous products on third world countries, setting up a Dangerous Products Interpol and an international consumer Court of Justice. It is a very good thing that the conference so quickly focused on these kinds of global issues and tried to solve them The second most impressive feature of these discussions had been the solidarity between all the consumer groups, from both the developed and developing countries. Until now, certain groups have been more concerned about their domestic problems than about global issues. This is no longer the case: international sense has now become part of the consumer personality.

BN: You have just been re-elected President of IOCU. How do you see your job over the next three years?

AF: Basically, two things are very important. Firstly, we must continue to strengthen the consumer organizations, not only in those countries where consumer protection is still poorly organized, but also in the countries where the consumer movement has traditionally been strong, as all what we have achieved could easily be wiped out. We have just shown how this can be done in Israel and the Pacific. We have shown how we can carry off a major international victory on the infant feeding formula issue. It is by collaborating with other groups (non-governmental organsations, for example) that our action will become effective.

Secondly, we need to select issues which are part of the problem at the global level. Our major issue for the last three years has been the infant formula issue. This will continue to be a major issue as there are still governments, like the United States' government, which refuse to accept the code voted by WHO on the 21st of May. The battle will now be waged at the various national levels to ensure that governments are respecting the code which has been adopted.

Another campaign to be waged is in the field of pharmaceutical products. On the 29th of May in Geneva, the IOCU and several non-governmental organizations launched an international network for social action - "Health Action International" (HAI) - whose aim is to help consumers to resist the many and varied pressures exerted by the multinational companies which manufacture and distribute pharmaceutical products. HAI comprises of 50 organisations from 27 different countries. This is a most significant historical development, as consumer associations from both developed and third world countries have joined forces and are fighting side by side to improve the situation in the sector of pharmaceutical products.

We are also concerned about the problem of dangerous products in general. WE hope to make a significant contribution in solving this problem by setting up a consumer alert system : a big campaign will be devoted this.

BN: How do you envisage this consumer alert system for dangerous products?

AF: We will probably be elaborating structures which will link up very closely with the information networks already operating. But obviously we cannot stop at just exchanging information : this is, in fact, already being done in many sectors. It is direct action that is needed. The aim of the Dangerous Products Interpol will be to develop our capacity for action, at both regional and international level. In this connection we should set up an international tribunal under the auspices of the IOCU and other interested organizations. One of its tasks would be to bring into the public arena the issues surrounding a particular product.

: Don't you feel that the great diversity of the IOCU's members is a stumbling block to your work?

AF: On the contrary, I feel that it is the IOCU's diversity which constitutes its strength, as consumer problems call for a wide diversity of action. We have, for example, groups in the IOCU with strong technical capabilities. Parallel to this, we have groups with excellent organizational abilities as regards taking direct action. These two qualities combine perfectly to the IOCU's advantage.

BN: Yes, but there are nevertheless substantial differences, not only between the organizations of the developed countries and those of the third world, but also between the context in which these have evolved.

AF: There is a deep-seated solidarity between all our associations, whether we belong to developed countries or not. I sense no tension here. This is illustrated by the fact that the IOCU's President comes from the third world. This shows to what extent our objectives coincide. Many of the new organizations belong to the third world; they need funds and advice which are partly provided by the developed countries' organizations. This goes to strengthen our solidarity and our co-operation. Another concrete example of this is the campaign against substitutes for mother's milk. This is not just a third world problem, but a universal problem of interest to all women from all countries.

BN: Generally speaking, what tactics do you advocate to improve consumer defense in the third world?

AF: The most important thing is to ensure that the third world associations have the strength to act without fear. Many of these are in countries whose governments are not very tolerant and have vested interests in the business world. In these conditions, being courageous involves risk; this is why the solidarity provided by an international movement is very important, and also the support which we can give the people in these groups.

BN: How do you feel about protectionism?

AF: Obviously we would like to see the maximum amount of exchange of products between countries. WE want to see all consumers benefiting from the widest possible choice of products. If you block this movement, then you create marketing systems which are not efficient. But it is most important that the free circulation of goods should also benefit the third world countries. Their role cannot be reduced to being exploited, and producing goods destined solely for the developed countries : in certain cases it would be preferable to use our workers to provide housing and food rather than producing textiles or electronic components for Western consumers. While fighting protectionism, it is also very important to monitor the structure of international trade. We must ensure that multinational economy does not develop to the detriment of consumers in both the third world countries and the developed countries.

BN: To conclude, what are the main thinking points which we as consumers should be concentrating on in 1981?

AF: Firstly, I would say that consumption should be approached from a more humane angle. When we consume certain products, we should ask ourselves how this is affecting other human beings elsewhere in the world. Are we not exerting some influence over the lives of other human beings, particularly the poorest, merely by having certain eating habits or using certain technologies? Take the example of asbestos : we, as consumers, can exercise our right and our power not to buy products which have an in-built "violence": this power which we can exercise is going to be increasingly important.

Secondly, I would like to stress the impact of all our consumption on the environment. WE must conserve as well as consume. Finally, there is one field to which we should give special attention : the appropriateness of the products we consume. How can we ensure that a product or machine really serves the needs of consumers? How can consumers try to influence not just the end of consumption line, but also the beginning of the chain, at the research and development stage? Herein lies an important challenge. If we fail to meet it, we will continue to be confronted by the same problem : we see a baby drowning in a river. We rush to save it and resuscitate it. But them we see another baby drowning. We rescue that one too. Then we see a third, then a fourth, and while we are busy rescuing them, we have no time to think about the main who is up-stream, throwing these babies in.

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