Consumer Diaries, October 15, 2011

By Simon Ng’ona

If Zambia is to harness enlargement in economic activities, government should invest more in consumer protection related activities, particularity in institutions that are mandated to enforce consumer protection laws. Effective consumer protection is an essential element to the well functioning of the economy as a whole.

The citizens of Zambia will judge the success of any economic policy, by the extent to which the potential benefits of that policy are translated into tangible results. Consumer protection measures, because of their direct impact on ordinary people, can be a powerful way of demonstrating concretely the advantages of any policy that hinges on human development and economic growth-steered at micro level.

The daily choices of individual consumers about what to buy create, collectively, strong competitive pressures in the economy. Those companies offering better choice, higher quality and best value for money reap their reward in the form of higher demand for their products. Those that fail to provide a satisfactory deal to consumers, sooner or later lose out. This competitive pressure is essential for the market to function effectively.

One might ask what consumer protection mean. Consumer protection entails all measures that work to the satisfaction of a consumer and these are both remedial and preventive. The latter looks at the kind of institutional framework a country has in place to prevent consumer related violations. Among these institutions include the Competition Commission, Bank of Zambia (BoZ), Zambia information and Communication Authority (ZICTA), Pharmaceutical Regulatory Authority of Zambia (PRAZ), Zambia Weights and Measures (ZWMA) etc. The remedial aspects involves the kind of laws and redressal mechanisms to guarantee full compensation when one’s
rights have been violated. And most of these laws, of which most of them have been amended to align them to the current consumer protection demands, are being enforced by the above mentioned institutions.

Alas, what has stalled effectiveness of consumer protection measures, besides weak regulatory frameworks, is ineffective implementation necessitated by limited participation of different stakeholders especially consumers at individual level due to limited knowledge levels about their rights and obligations.

If consumers are not in a position to make the right choices, for example because the regulatory framework does not ensure that they have access to the information required to make a properly informed choice, then incentives are distorted, and the economy as a whole suffers. So, well-informed, consumers are good for the economy.

CUTS International has strongly played a part in the evolution of policies that hinge on consumer protection such as the Competition and Consumer Protection Policy (2010) and other sector specific documents which are consumer conscious. What is of exigency is to bring these polices closer to the people through effective implementation and people’s participation will only be guaranteed if they are knowledgeable about such policies vis a vis their rights and obligations.

Government should leverage more resources towards consumer educational programmes and CUTS is willing to partner with any institution to champion this cause. Consumer education will enable individuals to develop the ability to become critical consumers. Consumer education catalyse action as it teaches people for example to make reasoned appraisal of advertisements and other activities through which consumers are influenced to consume particular products and services.

Lastly and more importantly, Government, through the Ministry of Education, Science and Vocational Training, should incorporate consumer education as a separate subject and as a mandatory part of the school curriculum. Today, young children have enormous direct and indirect spending power. Not only do they receive pocket money and birthday presents, but they influence parental spending on household goods and food stuffs. Early consumer education is important in giving children the skills and knowledge to participate responsibly and effectively in the market place while also contributing to the development of sustainable consumption in the society.

The author is the Acting Centre Coordinator at Consumer Unity and Trust Society (CUTS) International, Lusaka

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