A Time of Opportunity and a Time for Action A Comment on Consumer Response to the Current World Crises

Text of an address by Mr. Anwar Fazal, Regional Director, International Organization of Consumers Unions Office for Asia and the Pacific, at the 2nd All India Consumer Conference, Bangalore, India held on15-18 December 1974.

1.   I bring you greetings from IOCU, the International Organization of Consumers Unions, which links the work of about 90 consumer organisations in some 50 countries. Mr. Peter Goldman, President of IOCU, has asked me to convey to you his sadness at not being able to be present here today; another prior commitment also on behalf of consumers has prevented him attending this most important and significant gathering of consumer leaders held in India since you met in Bombay in 1972. He sends you his best wishes and looks forward to receiving and reading the deliberations and recommendations of this meeting.

2.   There have been few times like today where three million consumers all over the world are going through in some degree or other, the most difficult and harrowing times. But never has the situation been more frustrating and more unacceptable because we live in a world that has in the last two decades seen tremendous strides in technology, in the physical sciences, in communications, in agricultural science, space research, in medicine. And yet, with all these bright lights, the world is still groping to give its citizens a fair deal in achieving human dignity – in food, clothing, shelter, in health and education, employment, mobility and recreation.

3.   The guarantee of these human rights is often the easiest given and the most often dishonored.

4.   These are times also where the focus on the idealism and hopes and the economic and social needs of the Third World countries is now dimmed while the world turns its belated and helpless attention to a more painful and pathetic situation in the Fourth World – developing countries that are suffering critical shortages of food and energy supplies. I will not be telling you a secret if I stated that India, this great nation that has given birth to whole civilisations and has some of the finest minds in both the humanities and sciences, is classified, by those who like classifications, into the poverty of that Fourth World.

5.   It is the stark cruel reality of this yawning gap between scientific and humanistic knowledge and the privations and degradation, malnutrition and starvation, and death, in the Fourth World that we must most urgently attend to and develop forthright, honest and constructive recommendations and activities. In other words, we must seek ways and means as concerned citizens, as representatives of the consumer interest, to giving practical expressions to the fundamental needs of the citizens.

6.   The title and theme of this conference, “Food, Clothing and Shelter for Every Indian” is therefore most appropriate and timely and I must congratulate the organisers, the Karnataka Consumer Service Society, and all those responsible for making this important event possible.

7.       I am reminded today of another important consumer meeting that was held 10 months ago in Singapore. Representatives from 30 consumer organisations, 24 of them from Asia and the Pacific, addressed themselves to the very same basic issues. We had the benefit of the experience and wisdom of three consumer organisations in India – the Consumer Guidance Society, the Consumer Council of India and the Karnataka Consumer Service Society.

8.       At that seminar which was entitled “Consumer Education for Consumer Protection” and supported by ECAFE (now ESCAP) and UNESCO, the participants noted that the current world situation could not be just explained away by the weather or natural climates.  Nor often are many other reasons given for the unprecedented high prices and shortages understandable or acceptable.

9.       The world economic system, if it can be called a system at all, has not worked to further the quality of life of the ordinary citizen, of the consumer.  It has worked instead to benefit capricious and unscrupulous groups at all levels, international, regional, national and local.  Profiteering, massive profiteering, has become a deliberate activity and a profitable game of many a corporation, individual and even state, and at the tail end of the game provided an opportunity to the retailer for a quick rupee through manipulating the economic law of scarcity value.

10.   Last month, perhaps the most important gathering of world leaders took place in Rome, to discuss food.  Like the world Population Conference, it finished raising more questions than answers.  More seriously, this conference highlighted the issues as never before and have strengthened the will for more action by concerned and progressive citizens, organisations and governments. I urge that you study the recommendations of these meetings and seek out an appropriate role for your organisations, however modest and humble it may be.

11.   Some of you will know that the President of IOCU made an important statement to the World Food Conference, a statement that I must urge all concerned groups to read.  In this statement, Mr. Peter Goldman said:

“Consumers throughout the world need appropriate and nutritive diets, reasonably steady in supply and price.  IOCU submits that this conference can succeed in guiding national and international efforts to this end, only if it tackles the faulty mechanisms of distribution through which countless millions of consumers are currently deprived.”

12.   Quoting the report of the 17th Session of FAO (November 1973) which stated: “it is not clear to what extent the recent price rises were due to such factors as general inflation, currency changes, speculation and higher transport costs, as well as to shortages”,

The President of IOCU said

“Consumers in developing and industrialised countries alike justly surmise that they are being cheated – by pot-hunting speculators, by profiteering middlemen, by irresponsible multinational corporations, by the often weak and erratic policies of governments and the limited, sometimes non-existent attention paid to the marketing process in socio-economic development.”

13.   Another viewpoint, cogent to some, and unpalatable to others, was reflected most pointedly on the address by President Luis Echeverria Alvarez of Mexico, the first head of state to address the World Food Conference. He said, “The rise in prices, the confrontation of markets, and the crisis of raw material cannot be attributed to the Third World. In the final analysis, this situation has been determined and brought about by the inability of the great industrial nations to submit their production systems of international solidarity and shared development and interdependence based on equity and justice.” He continued:

“The famine that today is paralysing the activities of entire nations has been manufactured with the same detachment as that employed in the construction of the atomic bomb.”

“The progressive transformation of cereals and grains into meat that makes over consumption of meat in certain affluent areas of the world destroys the possibility of a sufficient amount of protein in other parts of the world.”

14.   Lester R. Brown, a senior fellow of the Overseas Development Council in Washington USA, also attending the Conference, commented that sorghum, a grain high in nutrients, feeds cattle in the United Sates. Asserting that it takes up to eight pounds of grain to produce one pound of meat, Mr. Brown estimated that a 5 percent reduction in meat consumption in the United States would free six million tons of grain.  This, he said, was equivalent to 60 percent of the present food gap of 10 million tons in the parts of the world on the brink of starvation.

15.   You will be interested to know that in fact moves have been made in the United States to organize national fasts to raise money to help needy people in the Fourth World.  One such project last month organized by Oxfam-America is reported to have got the support of over 200,000 Americans.  It is this sort of practical demonstration and real contribution that is needed more and more.  However, no amount of help is going to make much difference in the long run if the recipient countries themselves do not take their future in their own hands and build up their own resources and their capability to feed their own people.  This is what we must achieve if we are not to be slaves to those who use food as a tool in their diplomatic kit.

16.   What can we do? The lack of will and impotency of many public agencies to secure for their citizens basic essential goods at prices they can afford provides consumer organizations with a time of opportunity, a time for action.

17.   Consumerism is taking on a greater significance and achieving new recognition everywhere. Consumer leaders are now also under the most severe test utilising their greatest opportunity to play a real, meaningful and constructive role as a mass social movement for the alleviation of the suffering of the consumer and in providing them with resources for self-help.

18.   Consumer organisations have this responsibility as democratic social organisations operating exclusively in the consumer interest, and because they are non-profit making and non-commercial, the two basic conditions for full membership of IOCU, what is critical is that such organisations are independent in action, are free to investigate fearlessly and, where necessary, to criticise government policies and activities.

19.   Consumer organisations have therefore a constructive role to play by representing consumer interest on public agencies, by consumer education, information through comparative testing and survey, mobilising public opinion and, if necessary, boycotting. This role is already recognised by many governments and many international agencies. The “Group of Eminent Persons” in a recent report to the United Nations Secretary General stated:

“that national consumer organisations in both developed and developing countries should be encouraged and given the necessary facilities towards achieving their goals.”

20.   Further, the 29th session of the UN Commission on Human Rights, held in Geneva in February 1973, emphasised that “people must know and assert their rights as consumers if they are to get maximum benefit from the development process.”

The Commission considered the following four rights to be most important:

-          the right to safety

-          the right to be adequately informed about products and services and the conditions of sale

-          the right to choose among alternative goods of satisfactory quality at fair prices

-          the right to be heard in the decision-making process of government.

21.   Consumer organisations present here can and must play a determined and active role to lead, to act as catalysts; to be agents of change. You must not let this time of the consumers greatest need pass away in quiet suffering and inactivity.

22.   At the Population Tribune held in conjunction with the World Population conference at Bucharest this year, Rene Dumont of the Institute National Agronomique, Paris, stated:

“it will be said that this conference met on the eve of the greatest famine in the world and that this conference did not recognize this. It will be judged for this by future generations.”

23.         This 2nd All India Conference will also be judged. The vitality of the people of India, the ingenuity of its community leadership, and the encouraging developments in the consumer movements in India lead me to believe that all of you gathered here will not let this opportunity pass, that you will raise the voices of conscience and work out a practical programme to spread that voice and let it be heard, loud and clear.

24.         IOCU and particularly the Regional Office in Singapore will help you within its limited means to achieve that.

25.         On behalf of IOCU, I wish to thank you for this opportunity to address such a distinguished gathering. I like to thank particularly Mrs. Mandana and the Karnataka Consumer Service Society for the wonderful work they have done to make this meeting a reality. I wish all of you a successful conference.

Thank you.

December 15, 1974

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