MAY 15, 1985 - VOLUME 6 - NUMBER 5
Strategies for the South
In India, aides at a rural health clinic use raw papaya to treat the leprosy sores of children weakened by malnutrition. In suburban North America, affluent professionals buy a product magazine to scrutinize the ratings of chocolate chip cookies. Dissimilar as they are, both activities fall under the broad and expanding rubric of the international consumer movement.
Last December in Bangkok, Thailand, elements of that movement met for a landmark world congress of' the International Organization o( Consumers Unions The first IOCU congress held in a Third World locale, the Bangkok gathering dramatized the emergence of a new political force: groups which apply the tactics of hitherto largely First World citizen activism to the basic needs of the Third World poor.
Technology Association and the Girl Guides youth group dispatch field organizers to help farmers stock their rice paddies with pest devouring fish-a self-renewing source of nourish ment and a natural alternative to Endosulfan and DDT.
The tactic of grassroots groups using specialized skills to attack social problems on an issue-by-issue basis is a relatively new phenomenon in the Third World. Basic problems of food, health, sanitation and environment-if addressed at all-have typically been the domain of political parties. At best, parties can usually act on such issues only when they have taken control of the government and then often lose sight of them entirely.
In the rich developed world, the citizen activist tactic is well established, though infrequently applied to the problems of the very poor.
Now, however, through the work of IOCU and its allied organizations, a movement which began by helping middle class Americans learn about what they consume has begun to confront the life and death problems of Third World poor people who hardly consume at all.
This novel political synthesis is all the more remarkable for the way in which it has evolved through cooperation between groups embedded in opposite ends of the world economic system.
Gathered at Bangkok were more than 350 participants from four dozen countries. They spoke for constituents who face widely varying realities.
"In our villages, where people live on the equivalent of six cents a day," said Dr. Prem Jahn, an IOCU activist and physician who combines Western and traditional medicine at his primary health care clinic in the Indian countryside, "consumerism is concern about kerosene, salt-not even soap, because the people can't afford soap."
For those of the metropolitan West, by contrast, the task for decades has been, in the words of an address by Swedish Consumer Ombudsman Laila Frievalds, "guidance for the affluent"- helping people in societies where so much in life is industrially manufactured that many of the greatest maladies flow directly from the production and consumption of marketplace goods.
The Bangkok delegates varied dramatically in ideology as well as background. One ad hoc Third World caucus questioned the priorities of the IOCU board, a body still dominated by the Western consumers unions that founded the organization in 1960. Even among particular country delegations, the political ferment was vigorous. When Allan Asher of the Australian Consumers Association told a seminar on multinationals that "consumers are not anti-business, we are simply anti-practices that are anti-consumer," Professor E.L. Wheelwright of the University of Sydney responded sharply: "What we are saying is that modern capitalism is frightfully undemocrat ic, whether transnational or local. Let's get it clear that the capitalist system is the cause of the problem."
For most political movements, to operate successfully with such diverse constituencies and conflicting beliefs would be almost unthinkable.
For the broad array of forces gathered under the IOCU banner, however, it is precisely the point. The polyglot style is a source of strength.
Since the movement sets no detailed ideological agenda, the members need not agree on one-only the particulars of the issue they are working on at the time. Principles are invoked to affirm the legitimacy of demands-not to proclaim a new social blueprint.
"The consumer perspective is universal," argues Anwar Fazal, IOCU's President from 1978 to 1984 who pioneered the group's deepening involvement in Third World issues. "It's something that everyone can feet. We start with the rights of consumers and build. It brings together people from all walks of life, men and women, all kinds of occupations, people who have different political convictions."
This nonpartisan issue by issue approach, Fazal contends, is especially valuable in countries with repressive regimes or ones where progressive movements are not at a viable stage.
"In places where political dissent is not tolerated, groups that provide a common theme that affects everyone can become a very powerful force. Governments can deal with sectarian party politics by saying, 'these people are saying it because they oppose us and they are trying to score political points.' But the consumer movement, dealing with gut, concrete issues, can build campaigns in a way that many other movements can not. It's a power that can frighten governments because it can draw so much interest. Since these issues are real to people and are understood by people, the government has to deal with them."
Consumer movements in the United States, Europe and Australia emerged only after the industrial marketplace had expanded to incorporate a majority of the population. Likewise, in the Third World, citizen activist tactics have surfaced in the wake of multinational capital, as one society after another has been reorganized by its surging postwar expansion.
First world industrialization created a materially rising working class and a growing middle class. In the Third World, however, international capital has penetrated in fundamentally different fashion, transforming myriad aspects of life while at the same time leaving the mass of 'population in dire and oftentimes worsening poverty. It has forged a previously undreamt of coexistence between modern technology and ancient misery, creating a new style of life that differs markedly from the old pre-industrial poverty.
The farmer in the tin shack may work for wages on a Del Monte plantation and drink water pumped through the baffles of an Upjohn pharmaceutical plant. The children may be barefoot, but there's a reasonable chance their polyester shirts are bootleg Calvin KIein. "1 he house may lack an indoor toile[, clean water, and the electricity it would take to run the refrigerator one would need to store the Nestle's infant formula-but all the same it has a Panasonic radio beaming in ads for Pepsi Cola and Procter and Gamble beauty soap.
Some may benefit from this extraordinary translormation, but for much of\ the poor majority it can mean the worst of-both worlds: the deprivation of the old coupled with the physical hazards and cultural dislocations of the new. Indeed, when food crops are displaced by agribusiness export and water supplies are fouled by pesticides and industrial waste, the result can often be an absolute decline in material living standards.
This fusion of old poverty and new capital has presented the Third World poor with a raft of unprecedented and often bitterly ironic new problems.
During the 50s and 60s. the pesticide industry made its reputation for effectiveness with a DDT spraying campaign in India that is credited with prevent ing 15 million malaria cases and saving two million lives. The mosquitos, however, evolved a new DDT-resistant strain and malaria soared to new heights. Today, according to an IOCU report by Wayne Ellwood, perhaps 800 million people around the world are infected with the disease and 150 million new cases appear each year. The pesticides, in the meantime, have become a major health hazard in their own right, exacting an estimated toll of 13,000 deaths yearly and 400.000 poisonings. Thousands of these deaths can be directly traced to the export of pesticides, such as Shell Chemicals' Aldrin, that are banned in their country of origin.
The roster of new, generically Third World problems runs across the spectrum of industries, from agriculture, mining and manufacturing to the healing professions themselves.
It is on these new issues arising from the arrival of aggressive multinational capital in already poor countries that the international consumer movement has been most effective.
Longstanding struggles over the distribution of land, wealth, and political representation have remained beyond the movement's scope.
Within its chosen orbit, though, IOCU has been uniquely positioned to help, blending the economic and technical resources of First World groups with the political insights and grassroots contacts of their Third World Counterparts. When multinationals cross borders with banned products, exploitive marketing strategies and hazardous technologies, IOCU aims to follow on their heels, arming local activists with information and ideas on how to tight back.
In terms of longevity and resources, the loose agglomeration of forces known as the consumer movement is still in an embryonic stage. Though impressive victories have been won and structures created, the movement's power still pales alongside that of international capital. Yet business operatives, taking note o! the emergence of another entity capable o( thinking and acting on a global scale, are beginning to show concern.
"Consumers have succeeded where unions have not," observed Business lnternational, "in creating a unified international movement capable of challenging MNCs (Multinational Corporations) across the broad spectrum of their investments." Lament it g the rise of grassroots networks wit h the potential "to wreak havoc oil the public image of many an unwary company," the corporate journal last year looked forward nervously to the Bangkok congress, noting that it would emphasize solidarlty with the "LDC (Less Developed Country) middle and working classes" and "set the tone for anticorporate pressure tactics over the next several years."
While the movement has done well in the removal of specific ills brought by multinational penetration, progress has been less spectacular in the creation of goods, the development of alternative means of providing for basic needs. To be sure, as the movement has grown outward from its First World base, the new Third World activists have slowly redefined their parameters to include such problems. A 1984 congress of Latin consumer organizations ill Curitiba, Brazil emphasized the need for consumer participation in the shaping of' economic policy. IOCU's charter of consumer rights includes "Basic Needs, the right to basic goods and services which guarantee survival: adequate food, clothing, shelter, health care, education and sanitation."
But to actually deliver such rights requires activity far deeper, broader and more complex than that needed to get one particular corporation or government agency to change its behavior on one particular issue. Many in the IOCU orbit recognize this and have taken up the challenge. The Bangkok gathering was alive with talk of primary health care programs in India and Southeast Asia, natural and nutritious alternatives to pesticides in Thailand, Kenya, and Nicaragua, organic farming coops and marketing plans in South Korea and Japan. The creativity and excitement of these projects suggest the enormous potential of grassroots initiative coupled with an international network for the exchange and support of ideas.
But the realities of power are such that developing a workable alternative is one thing: implementing it on a national or international scale is something else again. The place where popular and practical reforms butt their head against the pillars of economic and political structure has thus far been the outside limit of international citizen action.
It is hard to talk of fundamental agricultural change in Bangladesh when the holdings of British American Tobacco are so vast that the company's taxes-handed over each year in a nationally televised ceremony-are estimated to provide nearly a third of (lie government's revenues. It is hard to think of an alternative medical system in Guatemala when rural health promoters are targeted for assassination by government death squads which define such work as subversive
In Zimbabwe (lie Consumer Council and the government know that EDB, which they, use extensively, is toxic and banned in the United States. They have a safer pesticide hut it is four to live times more, expensive. They need a pesticide to protect their leading earlier of foreign exchange-which is tobacco, t he worldwide cause, according to WHO, of one million preventible deaths each year.
In 1972 Sri Lanka adopted a model drug reform policy which excluded unnecessary and defective drugs, rationalized prescription policies and brought down prices. The experiment, though a great success in improving local health conditions, ended in 1977 when the democratic socialist government of Mrs. Sirimavo Banddranauke tell under pressure from, among other sources, multinationals and the United States. At one point when Pfizer was refusing to com-ply with the law and the government threatened nationalization as a last resort, the US ambassador visited the Prime Minister and threatened her with a loss of US food aid.
Many of the Bangkok conferees were deeply aware of the structural obstacles, and spoke of the need to build a broader movement that would address these issues of political and economic power. Dr. Chandra Muzaffar of Malaysia proposed a general assembly of consumer, environmental, labor, women's, alternative technology and peace groups that would lay the base for a new, unified movement that "harness(es) the spiritual values embodied in the rich native cultural traditions of the Third World." Inge Seip told of a citizen activist-based movement in Norway called The Future in Our Hands, which has signed up nearly one-fourth of the population and won cooperation from five of the seven political parties.
Perhaps the most pointed political challenge was posed by Dr. Lim Teck Ghee, also of Malaysia, who asked "How can these single issue campaigns actually address the development policies of a country, getting to the structural causes of the underdevelopment that's around us? So much of our energy is devoted to campaigns that don't address the root causes, the power control system. Maybe in the First World you can control transnationals, but in the Third World, given our weak politics, governments will always back down in the end, the TNCs will always find a back door to get more profits, to corrupt, to pollute, to destroy. If we want self-sustaining development I'm very pessimistic we can reach a rapprochement with transnational capital. Perhaps we can't negotiate. Perhaps we should be thinking about keeping it out entirely."
Such observations define the paradox of the international consumer movement. The reforms that can be won through issue by issue citizen action tactics are substantial, potentially saving millions of lives, but are in the end circumscribed-and held back from the prospect o( saving tens of millions more-by power structures that give the appearance of yielding only to broader movements using different tactics altogether.
For dozens of countries and hundreds of millions of people, though, encompassing movements of -social change remain a distant speck on the horizon. For these Third World poor, the tactic of citizen activism is potentially here and now. Not just as a solution to daily problems, but as a catalyst for leadership, innovation, grassroots institutions, productive international contacts, and perhaps the beginnings of a new social movement that broadens as it grows. O
Allan Nairn is a freelance writer based in New York -