Thursday, May 31, 2012

Your chance to quiz the top people in the consumer rights movement

CI’s Head of Communications, Luke Upchurch, on what to expect from the CI President’s Webinar

CI’s very first President’s Webinar – which I will be hosting on 7 June at 12:30 GMT – is a unique opportunity for CI member organisations, and the public at large, to put questions to those at the very top of the global consumer rights movement.

To coincide with our Annual General Meeting and the launch of our new Your Rights, Our Mission: Strategy 2015 materials, we’re seeking to meet our objective of using web technologies to strengthen relations with our members.

But more than that, I see this as a genuine chance to hold the CI President and Director General to account for the future direction of our international movement.

It’s the chance for all to hear why we are focusing our advocacy efforts on areas such as Financial Services, Food, and Consumers in the Digital Age;what we plan to do to promote Consumer Justice and Protection around the world; and how we hope to empower our members so that they can perform as more effective organisations.

It is also the opportunity to ask the tough questions too. These are austere times for many non-profit organisations, and, like others, CI has to make tough decisions about where to focus limited resources – decisions that should rightfully raise questions and answers.

The webinar is an open opportunity to explore all these areas, and more. I’ll be putting a selection of your questions to CI President Jim Guest and CI’s DG Helen McCallum, so please email Webinar@consint.orgto register with us and secure your place.

If you want to pose a question, you can do this when you register, during the Webinar itself, on our Facebook event page, or via twitter at @Consumers_intusing #CI2015. We’ll try and touch on as many of your issues as we can.

I do hope you will join us.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

How group action is reinventing consumer activism

Richard Bates, from CI member Consumer Focus, explains how social technologies are revolutionising consumer action—an important lesson for consumer groups around the world

Here’s a theory I’m sure you’re familiar with: foster competition within a market and its benefits – prices held down, service driven up and thriving innovation – will follow, as engaged consumers work to maximise their own interest and seek out better deals.

It’s a notion that underpins our energy, telecoms and financial services markets here in Britain. 

And here’s a reality that I suspect won’t be unique to Britain: mass inertia is the norm across these sectors. It’s a predictable and understandable consumer response in markets where engagement is not a high priority and which suffer from being archetypal ‘confusopolies’.

The result is an impasse. Consumers stay put and competition gives way to complacency on the provider side. The benefits that competition should deliver for consumers are then in short supply. The fabled invisible hand is, well, all too invisible.

But, what if we created an alternative, much simpler, more powerful way of making these markets work for consumers? One where an intermediary works on behalf of consumers to:
  • Provide a focal point around which consumers who want better value, but reject the conventional ‘go it alone’ route to market can cluster
  • Convert mass inertia into a competitive impetus by grouping participating consumers’ aggregate demand into a winnable block of market share
  • Leverage that aggregate demand to secure a better deal
  • Manage the mass switch of participating consumers to the provider who makes the best offer to the group
In a new reportfor Consumer Focus, I’ve argued the possibility of doing just that. The report expands on a trend I termed ‘Get it, together’ in a previous CI blog. At the core of this trend are the opportunities for new forms of group action enabled by social technologies.

Of course, coming together as a group in order to pursue a shared objective is nothing new. 

History is rich with examples of people organising in groups and using the consequent power of numbers to advance collective interests and press for change – whether social, political, or economic.

But the costs associated with large-scale group formation and, subsequently, the co-ordination and management of group action meant that only large organisations with hierarchies and management structures could act in this way. And only then if the benefits achieved outweighed the costs incurred.

Instances of people collaborating as a group outside the bounds of an organisation were mostly limited to small scale, local initiatives.

But social technologies have eroded those costs, meaning it’s not only easy for people to form groups now, it’s also easy for the group to achieve critical mass and to co-ordinate and synchronise its actions to achieve a shared goal.

As a result, we are seeing a proliferation of new kinds of groups, including consumers working together or through intermediaries to achieve a shared objective in the marketplace. The Bank Transfer Daycampaigns in the USA harness precisely these dynamics, as do local Carrotmob initiatives.

What’s more, in the past effective group effort often depended on a division of labour that assigned all members a task to undertake in pursuit of the group’s aims. Not anymore.

An active intermediary can now work on behalf of the group and harness the power of its numbers - rather than the efforts of its members - to achieve the shared goal. Other than aligning with the group and signalling assent to an action being undertaken on their behalf, individual members can now be effective in aggregate while remaining largely passive in practice.

In a consumer context, this solves the problem of inertia and minimises the costs of market participation for consumers, offering them the attractive proposition of better outcomes for less effort.

Today, we’re seeing the first wave of initiatives that look to put these ideas into practice and disrupt the markets to which they’re applied. Within the next three to five years collective switching could well turn the status quo on its head and create a situation where providers will have to work much harder to win and retain the custom of large groups of consumers.

Already, collective switching pioneer iChoosr has secured significant savings on energy bills for hundreds of thousands of consumers in Belgium and the Netherlands. Consumentenbond has also applied the approach successfully in the Dutch energy market. Which? has just overseen the first instance of collective switching in the British energy market, resulting in a straightforward route to an average saving of £123  for up to 200,000 participating consumers. Choice provided a much needed jolt to the Australian mortgage market by applying a variation of the approach there. 

As you may have noticed, three of those four initiatives have been offered by consumer bodies. The success of the exception, iChoosr, has been built on working in partnership with community organisations that consumers know and trust.

This suggests that integrity – a quality with which consumer and community bodies are strongly associated – will be key for consumer adoption of this approach. That’s hardly a surprise given that having the confidence to engage with an intermediary platform on a novel approach to markets that can represent a major financial commitment, will be a key issue for consumers.

Collective switching and wider initiatives harnessing the group dynamic have the potential to disrupt and rebalance how power and information flows in markets. Therefore, existing players who have most to lose are likely to resist the sea change rather than make the running in developing this kind of service.

Bodies working in the consumer interest therefore have vital roles to play as catalysts for collective switching. This could take the form of supporting pioneering intermediary services that work on behalf of consumers in markets; or, wherever necessary, involve the direct development and deployment of the platforms that can open this alternative approach up for consumers.

Richard Bates leads the Consumer Empowerment Programme at Consumer Focus @rchrdbts

Thursday, May 10, 2012

A new vision of European consumer policy

Monique Goyens, Director General of the European Consumer Organisation BEUC, outlines the thinking behind a new vision for EU consumer policy

For consumer activists around the globe, the year 1962 is irrevocably linked with President John F. Kennedy’s address to the US Congress in which he formally raised the issue of consumer rights. But 1962 was also the year in which consumer organisations from six European countries came together to found The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC). This year marks the 50 anniversary of both occasions.

When we discussed how best to celebrate our anniversary, we quickly decided that the best present one of the oldest lobbying organisations in Brussels could give itself was to make a – hopefully – lasting contribution to shaping policy making in Europe. Thus the idea was born to develop a ‘Vision Paper’ which would set out guidelines for a future European Union (EU) consumer policy.

We wrote our Vision by keeping the following guidelines in mind:

Evidence-based: We asked our members to identify, on the basis of their interaction with consumers in their country, the main challenges consumers are facing today.

Inclusion: OurVision is the result of a consultation exercise with our members which allowed all of them to voice their concerns and prospects.

Openness: We shared our results with a consumer strategy panel, composed of representatives from EU institutions, industry stakeholders and academics, where our ideas were constructively confronted with different analyses and viewpoints.

The results of this collective work provide a thorough analysis of the difficulties European consumers face in the context of the globalisation of our economies, the digitalisation of our societies, the threats to our planet, the ageing of our population, as well as of the current shortcomings of the Single European Market to properly address these difficulties.

This in-depth investigation has led to the identification of several recommendations that should guide EU – and national – decision makers in the pursuit of their public policies. But they are not limited to specific consumer policy initiatives.

We hope them to be taken into account for the definition and implementation of all policies that have a direct or indirect impact on consumer welfare, such as energy, health, environmental, transport, agricultural or digital policies. They reflect the fundamental concept that underlies our Vision Paper and permanently guide our actions.

In the current difficult economic situation, consumer policy is too often and wrongly considered a luxury and, therefore, downgraded by too many policy makers. Whereas we believe that it constitutes a key element of growth and economic performance: Confident consumers boost markets.

For markets to deserve this confidence, they have to directly address consumer needs and expectations. Where this is not done spontaneously by market forces, policy makers have to intervene to correct market failures.

BEUC’s EU Consumers’ 2020 Vision intends to share with policy makers our best analysis of the tools that contribute to the correction of these failures and to the promotion of the consumer interest for a vibrant marketplace!

Together with our 42 members – well respected, national consumer groups from 31 European countries – we will now work to make our analysis common knowledge among decision makers in Europe.

Our birthday wish is that it will not take another 50 years to become reality.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Freed consumer activist speaks of hope for human rights in Malawi

John Kapito, consumer rights activist and human rights defender, talks about his recent detention by the late President of Malawi.

I have been an activist for the past 20 years.

Advocacy and the promotion of rights is at the centre of the work of the Malawi Human Rights Commission for which I am chairperson and of CI member organisation the Consumers Association of Malawi for which I am executive advisor.

In both of these organisations, we are driven by our passion to work with the most vulnerable members of our society by ensuring that their rights are protected at all times. We are seen to be the voice of the voiceless, who are many in the developing world. 

The Commission, with support from the Consumers Association, made a number of public statements attacking the state on its continued disregard for good governance and various human rights abuses that included the limitation of the rights of people to demonstrate, to have freedom of speech and total elimination of space for consumers to speak and make demands for a better quality of life. 

In Malawi, like many African and developing countries elsewhere, the distribution of goods and services is under state control and, as such, the majority of the poor are unable to speak against the state for fear of being intimidated and victimised. Because of this, the landscape for participatory advocacy is very limited. 

I have had many disagreements with my state President, the late Bingu wa Mutharika. During the many meetings I held with him over the years, he continuously threatened to dismiss me from the Commission and even threatened my life and the lives of my family.

The President’s advisors recommended that the time had come for me to be eliminated. I challenged the President that what was said by his advisors was hate speech which must be condemned. The President accused me of insulting him and said that this was reason to eliminate me.

Two days later, I was told the President had died.

My detention

On 17 March, I was approached by a group of policemen outside a hotel in the capital city, Lilongwe. They searched my car and said they were looking for seditious materials that they believed I was printing and taking to Geneva for the annual meeting on human rights at the Human Rights Council.

I was taken to police headquarters and I was denied access to my lawyer at that point. I was moved between four police stations before I was charged with sedition and possession of illegal foreign currency.

They then acquired a search warrant for my house. Close to midnight, they took me home and searched my house until the morning.

I was then taken back to the police station where I was told that the authorities advised that I be granted bail on my charges of possessing alleged seditious materials and ‘illegal’ foreign exchange. I managed to get my passport back and was also allowed to travel to Geneva after two days.

Upon my return from Geneva, I was scheduled to meet the President for the human rights briefings. That meeting was very tense, with the President accusing me of undermining him and behaving as if I was an elected President.

I was also accused of taking human rights reports to the international bodies and, in so doing, I was responsible for the economic meltdown in Malawi due to my revelations of
human rights abuses to the international community.
It has been a long and painful battle with the state. It has caused many friends to avoid me for fear of being associated with the tough positions I took. 

But today I am glad to say that I have become a darling of many Malawians who continue to celebrate the death of the President for his hard autocratic policies. It is exciting once again to be a respected activist. The battle goes on for economic and social justice for our people.

The latest news from Malawi is that the new President, Joyce Banda, a former activist, is saying that Britain, the biggest bilateral donor to Malawi, is now planning to resume aid and normalise diplomatic relations.

All the charges against Jon Kapito have been dropped.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Un grand changement se profile-t-il à l’horizon pour le mouvement consommateur au Malawi?

John Kapito, militant des droits des consommateurs et défenseur des droits humains, raconte sa détention récente par l’ancien président du Malawi.

Je milite depuis 20 ans.

Le plaidoyer et la promotion des droits sont au cœur de la mission de la Commission des droits humains du Malawi que je préside et de l’Association des consommateurs du Malawi (organisation membre de CI), pour laquelle je suis conseiller exécutif.

Dans ces deux organisations, nous sommes portés par notre passion de travailler avec les membres les plus vulnérables de notre société, en veillant à ce que leurs droits soient protégés à tout moment. Nous sommes considérés comme la voix des sans-voix, dont beaucoup se trouvent dans les pays en développement.

Avec le soutien de l’Association des consommateurs, la Commission a plusieurs fois attaqué publiquement l’État pour son mépris continu de la bonne gouvernance et pour diverses violations des droits humains, notamment la limitation du droit de manifester et de la liberté d’expression, ainsi que la suppression totale d’espaces permettant aux consommateurs de s’exprimer et de revendiquer une vie meilleure.

Au Malawi comme dans beaucoup d’autres pays africains et en développement, la fourniture des biens et services est contrôlée par l’État et, de fait, la majorité des pauvres ne peuvent pas critiquer l’État, de peur d’être intimidés et victimes de représailles. En conséquence, la place du plaidoyer participatif est très limitée.

J’ai eu beaucoup de désaccords avec Bingu wa Mutharika, le feu président de mon pays. Durant nos nombreuses rencontres au fil des ans, il a continuellement menacé de me renvoyer de la Commission et m’a même menacé de mort, moi et ma famille.

Ma détention

Le 17 mars, j’ai été approché par un groupe de policiers devant un hôtel de Lilongwe, la capitale du pays. Ils ont fouillé ma voiture à la recherche de matériels séditieux que, selon eux, j’aurais imprimés et que j’emmenais à Genève pour la réunion annuelle du Conseil des droits de l’homme consacrée aux droits humains.

J’ai été emmené au poste de police où l’on m’a interdit de contacter mon avocat. J’ai été transféré dans quatre postes de police avant d’être inculpé de sédition et de possession illégale de devises étrangères.

La police a ensuite obtenu un mandat de perquisition et vers minuit, ils m’ont emmené chez moi et ont fouillé ma maison jusqu’au matin.

On m’a ensuite ramené au poste où l’on m’a annoncé que les autorités avaient décidé de me libérer sous caution, étant toujours accusé de possession de documents prétendument séditieux et de devises « illégales ». J’ai pu récupérer mon passeport et ai obtenu l’autorisation d’aller à Genève au bout de deux jours.

De retour de Genève, je devais rencontrer le président pour parler des droits humains. Ce fut une réunion très tendue, le président m’accusant de vouloir l’affaiblir et de me comporter comme si j’étais un président élu.

J’ai également été accusé d’envoyer des rapports sur les droits humains aux organismes internationaux et d’être responsable de la crise économique au Malawi, en raison de mes révélations de violations des droits humains à la communauté internationale.

Ce fut un combat long et douloureux contre l’État. Nombre de mes amis m’ont évité, de peur d’être associés aux positions fermes que j’avais prises.

Mais aujourd’hui, je suis heureux de dire que j’ai la faveur de beaucoup de Malawites qui continuent de se réjouir de la mort du président et de ses politiques autocratiques austères. Je suis très heureux d’être redevenu un militant respecté. Le combat en faveur de la justice économique et sociale pour notre peuple continue.

Aux dernières nouvelles, le nouveau président du Malawi, Joyce Banda, un ancien militant, annonce que la Grande-Bretagne, premier donateur bilatéral du Malawi, prévoit de relancer son aide et de normaliser les relations diplomatiques.

Tous les chefs d'inculpation contre John Kapito ont été abandonnés.