Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Consumers Unite: You have nothing to lose but your inhibitions

Consumers International 20th World Congress moderator, and former BBC World News presenter, Nisha Pillai, reflects on her Congress experience.

I made a shame-faced confession at last month’s Consumers International World Congress in balmy Brasilia – in front of seven hundred consumer activists from round the world, the admission that I had never heard of their organisation.  But that state of ignorance isn’t going to last much longer I suspect. For under the dynamic leadership of its new Director General, Amanda Long, this hitherto somewhat retiring organisation is leaping into the global limelight. Look out for Consumers International!

The CI Congress in Brasilia was the first conference I’ve moderated where Panel Discussions were banished in favour of  Interactive Discussions. So why did ditching the word ‘panel’ for ‘interactive’ matter? Well, what happened was that all the plenary sessions positively encouraged contributions from the delegates – not just questions but comments too – rather than the token few minutes reserved for questions from the floor at most conferences. 


This really made a difference to the way delegates took ownership of the discussions and turned each plenary session into a giant conversation in the airy plenary hall. Indeed my confession popped out during an especially free-flowing  and energetic plenary  on how consumers associations can work together to have more impact globally. This is a key existential question for consumers associations at a time when their traditional MO is under threat from  web-based peer-exchange platforms. 


During the course of the next two days there was a palpable shift – or so it seemed to me – in favour of more collaborative engagement at an international level, as championed by Marta Tellado from the US, Bart CombĂ©e from the Netherlands, Alan Kirkland from Australia and so many other voices from the floor. Was this shift in thinking linked to the interactive, democratic style of the Congress? I’d like to think so.


Especially striking was the emphatic endorsement by the Congress of  two pretty radical moves by CI into the arena of international campaigning. The first, the launch of a ‘People’s Charter for the Internet’ aims to harness the lobbying power of several hundred consumer associations to ensure that the promise of the internet is not exploited by giant multinationals. 


The second campaign came as a complete surprise to everyone at the Congress, an ambitious effort spearheaded by CI to get the three largest fast food chains McDonalds, Subway and KFC to stop the use of antibiotics in their meat and chicken. Again the aim is to use the lobbying power of hundreds of consumers associations round the world to pressure these giant restaurant multinationals to respond to an issue of huge international concern.


So I’ll end by saying good luck to CI and its efforts to create a more powerful voice for consumers round the world. After all, rich or poor, we’re all consumers one way or the other.

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