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Why government should merge the NIPC with the CCZ
Langton Chibvuri
March 23, 2012

For sometime now, consumers and observers alike have brutally condemned the Consumer Council of Zimbabwe (CCZ), the country sole consumer watchdog as an ineffective and toothless entity. Having worked in my time in close association with this body, I view this thinking as rather unfortunate and ill informed. It is not the intention of this article to prop up the battered image of the watchdog, but to discuss and dissect observant issues I think may have worked against the organization ever realizing its full potential.

The blame for the failure by the CCZ to effectively discharge its duty of representing consumers should rest squarely on the shoulders of government because of its inability to adequately finance this organization. The CCZ likes to appear to the public as an independent body, free from government control, yet it survives from grants from the Ministry of Industry and International Trade and hardly has income of its own. Even its board of directors, which is never changed, is appointed by the same ministry, which quite strangely also houses a Consumer Affairs Department. This is more like having a parent company with two subsidiaries that share exactly the same mandate.

Over the years, government has consistently failed to capacitate the important consumer watchdog with financial resources necessary to make it an effective organization. Policy wise, the government has also failed to institute sound consumer protection policies, or to enact modern consumer regulations despite numerous protestations from the watchdog. In spite of its failure to fund the CCZ, government has not allowed the CCZ to seek for alternative means of survival for fear that the lame organization might catapult itself into a political movement with the usual regime change agenda. Or maybe, it is sheer lack of determination to think outside the box for other means to keep the organization afloat on the part of the incumbent leadership? It is undeniable that the CCZ has great scope to attract alternative forms of funding given its broad mandate.

Recently, I accompanied a friend to the offices of CCZ and what I found there was shocking. Morale among the few workers left is at its lowest ebb, and the corporate culture leaves a lot to be desired. I was informed workers including senior executives report for work as and when they please. There is no sense of urgency to do or achieve anything. No-one can blame the workers, considering the pitiful salaries they earn, barely enough to keep them reporting for work everyday. Resources are scarce and many vital but vacant positions are unfilled because the organization cannot afford competitive salaries needed to retain or recruit new personnel. What this means is that most of the watchdog-s work remains unfulfilled because it is understaffed.

The CCZ is the country-s only truly consumer representative body with structures in all the country-s major towns. Its work encompasses all aspects of consumer issues as opposed to sector specific interests like some organizations now trying to claim its place. The watchdog has a very rich history, complemented by a huge possibility to do better; it is however on the execution of its mandate where it has fallen woefully short.

There have been arguments in certain quarters that the CCZ could be more effective if it were born through an act of Parliament. It is often argued that this would give it added impetus and the much-needed teeth to rein in, fine, sue or deal decisively with those found wantonly contravening consumer laws. I do not agree with this assertion because I truly believe that the CCZ does not necessarily need to be a statutory body to be effective. The world over, consumer organizations are by nature voluntary associations and are rarely legal creatures. They derive their worth from organizing consumers, making noise (vocal) on behalf of consumers, and being relevant on consumer issues such that both government and industry respect their views. They also rely on very strong advocacy and lobbying competencies to influence government and Parliament to make policies and laws that promote and protect interests of consumers. Others go as far as testing products on behalf of consumers as a way to sustain themselves.

Closer home, South Africa has both state run and independent consumer organizations so the huge task of protecting consumer does not single handedly rest on the shoulders of one organization, as in this country. The different consumer organizations complement each other-s work, making the South African consumers among the best protected on the continent. To use again the South African example, the country has some of the most comprehensive consumer legislative and protective frameworks in the region. Their catalogue of consumer protection laws includes the Consumer Affairs Act Chapter 71 of 1988. The Act is essentially oriented towards protecting the consumer and makes provision for the prohibition of certain business practices, which are regarded as unfair because they prejudice consumers. Through the Act, a Consumer Affairs Committee is in place to deal with, investigate and regulate any unfair business practices. There is also the Traders Act of 1976 to protect consumers against misleading advertising. Then they have the Consumer Protection Act, similar to what the CCZ has been pushing government to enact for more than a decade now. That alone probably shows how lacking the CCZ-s advocacy and lobbying work is. In Zimbabwe, the CCZ has largely been relying on antiquated consumer laws such as the Small Claims Act of 1992, Consumer Contracts Act of 1994, the Competition Act of 1996, Class Action Act Chapter 8.17, the Trade Measures Act, and the Patients Charter among other obsolete acts, to enforce consumer protection.

Consumer lobbyists believe the passing of the Consumer Protection legislation could usher in sweeping changes in the consumer protection framework in this country, perhaps even giving the CCZ the teeth the public has for far long accused it of lacking.

Like mentioned before in this article, I subscribe strongly to the viewpoint that government has deliberately not committed itself to ensuring that the CCZ functions to the best of its ability and capacity. Here is why. Between 2005 and 2006, government through the Ministry of Economic Development created the National Income and Pricing Commission (NIPC). However, since formation, the NIPC has performed equally identical tasks as those of the CCZ. These include:

  • monitoring price trends of goods and services through comprehensive surveys and inspections on pricing and producing periodic price monitoring results.
  • initiating corrective measures in cases of unscrupulous business practices on the country-s pricing mechanisms.
  • advising government on the design of income structures and developments in the economy with particular emphasis on the Poverty Datum Line and minimum wage among other duties.

A look at the above key duties of the NIPC shows that they compare similarly with the mandate of the CCZ, meaning there is a clear duplication of duties between these two organizations, which are both government agencies whose very existence is funded for by financially burdened taxpayers. The CCZ does monitor price trends, produces price surveys twice every month. The CCZ also administers a complaints handling department whose duty is to arbitrate cases between consumers and service providers- again the same role as that of the NIPC of initiating corrective measures in cases of unscrupulous business practices. On the NIPC-s role of advising government, the CCZ also undertakes this role through its family of six basket, which is widely used by both government and industry for wage negotiations and planning.

Having said this, it begs the mind, why government, if it is serious about the welfare of consumers should create two ineffective bodies with exactly the same mandate, each of them depending on the treasury for survival. At the time of writing this article, a visit to the NIPC revealed that the institution, renowned more for the control of prices of goods than anything else is doing nothing meaningful. An enthusiastic woman I chatted with revealed to me that the statutory body was doing absolutely nothing ever since the powers to fine or prosecute businesses were stripped off them towards the end of last year. To use her words, the NIPC was "now toothless."

Government should just merge these two bodies, rebrand, and give life to a new potent, financially well-backed watchdog. Surely, these two institutions do the same thing. If all their resources were combined, imagine what difference these could make to the millions of roughshod consumers in this country, instead of the current half-baked and piecemeal efforts by the two institutions, which by the way are going largely unnoticed.

Lincoln Chibvuri is a writer and civic activist.

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