More power to the poor
Pushpa Girimaji

Unlike other schools that train the best of young talent, students of Era Consumer-Malyasia are malnourished, abused, battered women from the poorest of poor Indian community in Malaysia.

Era brings about a complete transformation in these women beginning with counselling sessions to instilling self-confidence. The organisation goes on to teach them how to plan, execute and manage a business, balance the budget, earn profits, stay ahead of competition, but without breaking any law.

Back home in Tamil Nadu, the Federation of Consumer Organisations of Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry, known more by its acronym FEDCOT, is engaged in empowering rural consumers, particularly farmers and women who work as daily wage labourers in paddy fields across the state.

For a movement that is oriented more towards the urban middle class, such organisations are rare. Things are about to change. Soon, there will be a number of consumer organisations not just in India, but in the entire Asia, re-working their focus and strategies to benefit the disadvantaged.

The most crucial factors in bringing about this thinking have been the Conference of Consumer Organisations called by the Asia Pacific Regional Office of Consumers International (CIROAP) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) to review the work of consumer groups vis--vis the Millennium Development Goals set by the United Nations.

In 2000, when the United Nations set the eight millennium development goals to be achieved by 2015, it was made clear that even though it had been endorsed by 191countries, the targets could not be met by governments alone. It, therefore, sought the help of civil society, including consumer groups, in achieving the goals. And Consumers International, representing consumer groups worldwide, was also naturally drawn into the effort.

Considering the ground realities in Asia, it was obvious that the efforts of the consumer movement had to be far more focused on the millennium goals: eradicating extreme poverty and hunger, achieving universal primary education, promoting gender equality and empowering women, reducing child mortality, improving maternal health care, combating various diseases such as HIV and malaria, ensuring environmental sustainability, and developing a global partnership for development.

Consumer groups may not be able to work in each and every one of these areas, but given their expertise in working for the rights of consumers, their contribution could well be invaluable here. This was what was stressed by Erna Witoelar, UN Special Ambassador for the MDGs in the Asia and the Pacific, at the conference in Kuala Lumpur.

The speakers at the conference, mostly consumer leaders from various Asian countries, spoke honestly on what the movement had done so far vis--vis these goals, what had not been done and what was needed to be done. The most thought-provoking keynote address came from the honorary advisor to Consumer International, Sothi Rachagan. Wondering whether the consumer groups had forgotten the poorest of the poor, he called for a conceptual redefinition of who a consumer is. "It is only right that the weak in the market place are the concern of the consumer movement and their interest represented at both national and international forums", he said. A similar view was expressed by the acting Regional Director of CIROAP, Rajeswari Kanniah, when she asked the gathered consumer leaders if they were really committed to the goals.

At the end of the conference, the representatives of the consumer movement decided to realign and re-prioritise their work. This conference marks the birth of a vibrant consumer movement, that is much closer to the people whom it serves. And its new slogan? Pro-poor, pro-women and pro-rural. Lets hope that it keeps up this promise to the citizens of this country and Asia too.