Collaborating for better (global) consumer protections – National Consumers League

By Terry Kush, NCL Senior Director of Operations and Finance

Two weeks ago today, I stood waiting in the Cairo airport anxious to return to Washington, DC. While in Egypt, I participated in two workshops (one in Luxor and another in Cairo) on behalf of the National Consumers League. The workshops, titled “Regional NGO Capacity Building Workshops,” was sponsored and coordinated by the United States Department of Commerce’s Commercial Law Development Program (CLDP) in cooperation with the Egyptian Consumer Protection Agency (ECPA), and funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID). I was joined by our colleagues from Consumers Union, Consumers Federation of America, and Consumers International.

According to CLDP, the purpose of the workshops was to “strengthen management skills, build confidence of NGOs’ staff to use management tools operationally in implementing their activities, and promote public awareness and spread the culture of consumer protection.” However, I believe it is the exchange of “best practices” and shared experiences along with the various strategic planning, market surveillance and capacity building tools that made these workshops very participatory in nature, and; therefore, beneficial to everyone. In Luxor, we hosted roughly 20-25 NGOs from 7 surrounding districts. These organizations represented those new to the consumer movement and those in operation for 1 – 2+ years. In Cairo, an even bigger turn out, we had close to 30-35 NGOs representing 7-8 outposts.

In 2006, the Egyptian government instituted a consumer protection law, which resulted in the creation of the Consumer Protection Agency. Their role is “to protect consumers by implementing the consumer protection law in coordination with other governmental entities concerned with its implementation.” Sounds familiar?! Well, of course it does. They used the framework established in the 1960’s by a speech given by President Kennedy, in front of Congress (March 15, 1962), pointing out “Consumers, by definition, include us all,” and outlined his vision for consumer rights. These governing principals include eight consumer rights:

  • The right to satisfaction of basic needs
  • The right to safety
  • The right to be informed
  • The right to choose
  • The right to be heard
  • The right to redress
  • The right to consumer education
  • The right to a healthy environment

What I found astonishing is that Egypt has a consumer protection agency at all; and, while the United States works through — maybe — the kinks of re-establishing the consumer protection agency in the White House, consumers remain, as President Kennedy noted, “… the only important group… whose views are often not heard.”

What I also found interesting is some of the similarities that my own organization shares with the umbrella organization ECPA. Like ECPA, the National Consumers League houses a fraud center that consumers can use to file complaints. ECPA, as do we, receives complaints electronically, via fax and in writing. They track unfair practices in the marketplace such as durable goods, car safety and Internet fraud. Many of the smaller NGOs work to educate the consumer about his/her rights as a consumer. Like America, product safety is a never-ending battle. Egyptians would argue that their cases of unsafe products are much higher and a bigger problem than in the United States, since many of the products that come into the country do not have restrictions or guidelines that must be adhered to. At the end of the day, there was a common theme among consumer organizations, “How do we deal with inappropriate and false advertising?” to “How do we create consumer awareness and corporate social responsibility?”

These workshops speak to the ever-growing need for collaboration among consumer NGOs, as the issues increase due to the global marketplace and access to services and goods via the Internet. What we will find is that if consumer awareness is a part of both institutional agendas and government mandate we, as consumer organizations, can have a bigger impact on product safety, corporate social responsibility, fair prices in the global marketplace and fair treatment of not only consumers but workers’ rights around the world.

It is my hope that we take this message around the world as we look to create and expand consumer NGOs nationally and abroad.