Agenda | Jun 08,2019
Apr 24 , 2021
By Bereket Alemayehu
Consumers, in a market economy, can easily become victims of unlawful and unfair business practices. Forestalling this would require the concerted effort of government, NGOs and even schools, writes Bereket Alemayehu (email@example.com), adjunct lecturer at Addis Ababa University and market access and trade policy officer at the UK Department for International Trade in Ethiopia. The views contained in this article are that of the author and do not reflect that of any institution he is affiliated with.
Consumers are among the vulnerable sections of a market economy. This is mainly because they often lack adequate market information, have weak bargaining power and are unorganised.
On the contrary, most businesses are better informed, organised (often informally) and possess stronger bargaining power. These variations in the positions of consumers and businesses put the former in precarious conditions. In other words, businesses can use their better positions in a market to unjustly benefit themselves at the expense of consumers. This is why we commonly experience unlawful and unfair business practices that seriously affect the interests of consumers, including adulteration and hoarding of consumer goods.
It is also mainly this facet of a market economy that necessitates government regulations to protect consumers from misconduct by businesses. In Ethiopia, we have specific laws and institutions that are intended to afford protection to consumers. The principal law, in this regard, is the Trade Competition and Consumers Protection Proclamation, which established the Trade Competition & Consumer Protection Authority.
Consumers have the rights, among others, to be equipped with sufficient market information and protected from deception and other forms of abuses, including through the provision of legal remedies against non-compliant businesses. Yet, other laws and government bodies also have important roles to play in ensuring that consumers’ rights and interests are safeguarded.
The importance of such laws and bodies is paramount now more than ever. This is mainly because the country’s economy is increasingly marching towards becoming a private sector-led one. The recent investment law reforms, which have fully or partially liberalised many areas of the economy, and the plan to privatise several state-owned enterprises, manifest this policy shift. Such an economic policy restricts the role of the government principally to regulating the private sector.
On March 15, 2021, the “World Consumer Rights Day” was celebrated in Addis Ababa under the global theme of “Tackling Plastic Pollution." During the event, the importance of consumers’ associations, which can advocate for the rights and interests of consumers in different ways, was rightly emphasised.
The discussion on the role of consumers’ associations was a timely reminder that, while there is no doubt that the government has the primary responsibility to protect consumers, others have vital roles to play for the same purpose. In particular, consumers’ associations, which are different from consumers’ cooperative unions, should be encouraged to be established and function. The Ethiopian Constitution allows the establishment of consumer associations under its protection of the freedom of association.
As stated in the United Nations Conference on Trade & Development’s (UNCTAD) Manual on Consumer Protection, these associations can advocate for enhanced consumer protection in various ways. This includes consumer education, proposing policy and legal changes, representing consumers in litigation and mainstreaming consumer interests in governmental decisions.
Likewise, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) working on human rights in Ethiopia need to incorporate consumers’ rights in their advocacy. The rights of consumers are aptly regarded as components of human rights. A case in point is how the "right to life" of a consumer can be affected by the consumption of adulterated products. Hence, NGOs should adopt a holistic approach towards human rights protection, covering consumers as a group.
Aside from consumers’ associations and human rights NGOs, the media and educational institutions have crucial roles. The former should regularly provide news and analyses on topics that affect consumers’ rights and interests by engaging various stakeholders, including government bodies, consumers’ associations and chambers of commerce. Schools should also create awareness on students on the rights of consumers, starting as early as the elementary level. This can best be achieved through mainstreaming consumer education into educational curricula. Until consumer education is included in the curricula, schools can cover consumer rights in their extra-curricular programmes.
Government bodies in charge of consumer protection, mainly the Trade Competition & Consumer Protection Authority, the Ministry of Trade & Industry, trade bureaus and the Ethiopian Food & Drug Authority, also need to coordinate their efforts on consumer protection and adopt transparent, accountable and accessible administrations. Moreover, they should work on scaling up their regulatory expertise in response to the increased complexity of the market economy.
Respecting consumers’ rights through complying with consumer protection laws is also beneficial for businesses. Adopting honest commercial practices can help, among others, build their goodwill, which can increase their competitiveness in the market. Besides, it can help them forestall legal liability for violating consumer protection laws and the associated costs.
PUBLISHED ON Apr 24,2021 [ VOL 22 , NO 1095]
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