This article is dedicated to regulators for their hard earned fight on consumer protection though working under difficult conditions. With this article i aim to stimulate a sustained, outcome-orientated discussion about how to make the Zambian’s consumer protection regulatory regime more effective. I must hasten to mentions that this article comes at the backdrop of the world consumer rights day celebrations slatted for 15th March under the theme “Consumer Justices Now”.
I would have loved to march and celebrate with you on this day in Zambia but unfortunately I will be out of the country attending a launch of a project called Competition Reforms in Key Markets for Enhancing Social and Economic Welfare in Developing Countries (CREW) Project by CUTS International India. This project is to be implemented in four countries (two African & two Asian) and across two common sectors. Through this project CUTS aims to develop an approach, which would help in assessing benefits of competition reforms on consumers and producers. One of the main goals of this project is to demonstrate the benefits of competition reforms for consumers and producers, so that greater attention and support can be provided to this issue by policymakers based in developing countries. Am praying and supplicating that Zambia should be chosen as one of the project beneficiary country at this meeting in Jaipur India. Am sure the country would benefit from such an ambitious project. The Competition and Consumer Protection Commission (CCPC) and Zambia Institute for Policy Analysis and Research (ZIPAR) will be participating in this meeting and sure, collectively, our input in this meeting will be well appreciated.
Away from this and getting back to the rational of this article; like we all know, consumers undertake millions of transactions each day. Those transactions vary enormously in their complexity and significance (from small cash purchases to complex advice from trusted experts and major contracts for home purposes or business). Consumers’ interests are protected in many ways. Foremost among them is their ability to exercise their own skill and judgment. But consumer judgment is not always enough. That’s why we have consumer protection regulations and laws prohibiting anti-competitive or unfair trading practice behavior. Further, appropriate good quality regulation is essential to the fair and practical operation of markets, and to create and maintain the confidence of consumers and businesses. It also meets other social objectives, such as the protection of consumers from risky or dangerous products that may cause harm and impose costs on the community.
However not all regulation is effective in achieving these goals and there is legitimate concern about the impact of poorly designed or unnecessary regulation on business, consumers and the economy. Good regulatory practice can address some of these problems through the effective enforcement of existing regulation rather than the introduction of additional regulation. However, if there is grave need to introduce a new or improve an old legislation or policy etc, then that should be done without further delays.
Enforcement is central to the success of regulation, and the realisation of the goals of any regulatory scheme relies on the effectiveness of the enforcement of the regime. Therefore I would like to bring the following points for your reflection in your journey of protecting consumer’s interests to guarantee the needed and deserved Justice Now for Consumers. Let me hasten to mention that some of the points/reflections raised below could be in place and under implementation but it’s important to reflect on them.
- Capacity: as we are all aware, each regulator requires the power, policies and resources to adequately perform its statutory functions and fulfil its organisational objectives, including the ability to effectively promote and enforce compliance with consumer protection laws. What is therefore important is for regulators to reflect and compare if they are operating in such an environment. If the situation is in the opposite, then we need a collective voice to push for such kind of reforms for the benefit of consumers.
- Effectiveness: Ultimately, the purpose of consumer protection regulators is to achieve a high level of compliance with consumer protection law. The effectiveness of a consumer protection regulator refers to its contribution to the creation of a market place where consumers are safe from illegal practices and have confidence in the fairness of markets. In an ideal world, we would evaluate such success by measuring the impact of consumer protection enforcement on the market place. The measurement of behavioural consequences (that is the impact of enforcement activities on the market) requires a level of consultation and analysis that is beyond the scope of this proposal/point.
- Transparency:The regulatory decisions made by a regulator should be available for public scrutiny. Some scholars have argued that transparency is necessary for the democratic legitimacy of regulatory decision making, and that it enhances public confidence in the decisions made by a regulator. Transparency contributes to the quality of regulation by increasing the likelihood of compliance and reducing the risk of or bias towards particular interests. It also empowers citizens by giving access to information that enhances their decision making abilities as consumers and as participants in the economy. An effort toward ensuring that regulators are as transparent as possible could a remedy towards the ensuring that consumer protection is enhanced in Zambia thereby providing the much needed “Justice Now”.
- Enforcement outcomes: The enforcement outcomes of consumer protection regulators should effectively promote compliance and deter breaches of consumer protection laws. An enforcement action may prevent or deter a specific trader (or class of traders) subject to the action from continuing to breach consumer protection law. By sending a message that the regulator will discover the breaches and the offender will face real consequences (penalties, other costs and/or damage to reputation), it may also deter other traders from breaching the law. Therefore enhanced communication on the penalties and fines given to those found wanting under the law will create more awareness of the existing consumer protection framework and the fines thereof.
Lastly and building on the latter point, let me end by encouraging the regulatory agencies dealing with consumer related aspects to ensure that they should always endeavor to provide comprehensive information on its enforcement decision making process and publish its consumer protection enforcement outcomes in a manner that facilitates comparative analysis. Enhanced communication will not only raise the feasibility of the regulators but also enhance public trust in the regulatory decisions by the regulators.
All the best during the world consumer rights day celebrations.