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A global voice for consumers

Helen McCullum, director general at Consumers International
Helen McCullum, director general at Consumers International
Consumers International ensures our concerns are raised at the world’s top tables;  a small organisation with much clout.

Acting as the prime co-ordinator for the consumer’s voice around the globe for more than half a century, Consumers International ensures our concerns are raised at the world’s top tables.

Just over 50 years ago in March 1960, a group of five national consumer organisations met in the Netherlands to form the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU). Now with more than 220 members in 115 countries and called Consumers International since 1995, the organisation has a string of successes.

Perhaps the most notable was when in 1979 it joined with others to highlight the dangers of bottle-fed formula milk for children in the developing world – which resulted in the global adoption of an International Code of Marketing on breast milk substitutes. Other work has resulted in checking the use of dangerous pesticides and pharmaceuticals.

The crowning achievement, however, was the 10 year campaign that resulted in the United Nations adopting the ‘UN Guidelines on Consumer Protection’ in 1985. This provided encouragement to those wanting to form consumer groups as well as acting as a template for consumer legislation around the world.

According to acting director general Helen McCullum, Consumers International works in a range of ways to aid consumer protection. This can be helping pressure groups to become proper consumer organisations, through to working with companies to ensure they maintain best practices, and right up to making proposals to organisations like the World Trade Organisation (WTO) or United Nations.

Helen says “For what is a relatively small organisation we have a lot of clout at the top tables internationally. This is despite having limited options for income. For instance we can not take money from organisations. We rely on membership growth and being involved in projects for organisations for funding.”

They are also effective; for instance concern about junk food is not confined to developed economies and CI has persuaded the WTO to issue guidelines on marketing of such food to children.

Helen adds that “The other major success has been our financial services campaigning targeted on getting the G20 to enhance standards and putting guidelines in place to protect consumers.” Findings are to be presented to the G20 meetings in October and November this year. “We want to do more on strengthening international supervision of financial activity, establishing consumer protection at international level” she adds.

There are general campaigns, as well as highly focused ones tackling a single issue. For instance, the main project in Africa is financial inclusion and the organisation is currently working on raising consumer awareness about banking rights in the Caribbean.

An awareness campaign is also starting on preventing migrant labour from losing out through transaction charges. Helen says, “We are also soon to start work on the issues surrounding remittances where people are working in one country and  sending money they earn back home to their families. They can be subject to appalling charges for doing this transaction and we are helping to educate them in better ways of doing this, assisting them in finding alternatives.”

Stephen Spurdon

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