Rolling out the Red Carpet

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Disquieted Consumers

Pakistan is perhaps the exceptional country with absolute disregard for consumer rights and where all and sundry manipulate consumers including street vendors to monopolistic utility providers, doctors and even the government hospitals.

Unlike other developing countries where consumer rights are protected Pakistan is the lone country where they continue to go on unrecognized even in the Constitution.

The other day in a family occasion the chitchat transformed into a serious talk on the medical malpractices being followed equally by government and private hospitals as a heavenly overt act.

Mr. Mushtaq is a familiar name in our civil society for he runs an NGO, Insan Foundation. He went to Shaikh Zayed Hospital to donate blood to his bedridden friend. The compulsive test revealed Hepatitis positive. Naturally this disclosure sounded to him as it were a death knell. He spent many odd hours in preparing himself to die out. He consumed quiescent somber nights begging to Supreme Being for mercy. He even elucidated his wet-eyed missus how to manage family and business affairs after his probable crack of doom.

Some friend suggested to him to undergo alternative tests from other labs. Acting on these pious advices, he went to all other renowned labs. They declared negative. When he contacted Shaikh Zayed Hospital, the people concerned took it as a routine matter, as if nothing had happened. Mushtaq is now taking legal words of wisdom from his lawyers for further course of action. Although this was a spine-chilling story for me, I was made to understand that each patient visiting any hospital, government or private, has more bloodcurdling scenarios.

My friendly word in Mushtaq’s ear is not to follow any legal suit. He will thus undergo not nice experience either. For the Constitution of Pakistan does not protect the rights of the consumer, the case will be run under civil procedure and hence linger on infinitely.

Consumerism, and the mass culture that accompanies it, is a necessary evil of our society. All societies require some structuring principle to prevent unrestrained competition, malpractice and abuse of consumer rights. Pakistan seems unconcerned.

Consumption is the process by which goods and services are, at last, put to final use by people. Consumption is at the end of the line of economic activities that starts with an evaluation of available resources and proceeds through production of goods and services and distribution of goods and services (or the means to acquire them) among people and groups. At last, the goods and services come into use. The effect of this consumption, including depletion of resources and generation of waste as well as enhancement of human survival and flourishing, determines the resource base for the next round of economic activity.

The belief that consumer satisfaction is the ultimate economic goal and that the economy is fundamentally ruled by consumer desires is called consumer sovereignty.

There are, indeed, two quite different answers to the question of why consumers are important in economics. One is the traditional assumption, that final consumption is the ultimate purpose of all economic activity; production and distribution exist solely to increase the well being of consumers. In this view, consumers are the justification for economic activity and therefore for economic theory as well.

The other answer is that consumers keep the economy going by generating demand for goods and services. Without this demand, the supply side of the economy would expire: How long can producers keep producing if no one buys their goods? From this perspective, consumers as a source of demand are central to the mechanism that makes the economic system run.

Regarding the justification argument for consumer sovereignty, it should be remembered that although the end products of production derive their value solely from their contribution to the well-being of society and of individual consumers, the process of production is valuable for other reasons as well. People are more than just consumers. Consumption activities most directly address living standard (or lifestyle) goals, which have to do with satisfying basic needs and getting pleasure through the use of goods and services.

Regarding the view that consumer sovereignty is the fundamental mechanism that guides economies, we need to recall that consumers—as members of complex larger organizations including families, communities, corporations, and nations—are subject to many influences from social institutions. The idea of a “sovereign consumer” implies someone who independently makes decisions. But what if those decisions are—instead of being independent—heavily influenced by community norms and aggressive marketing by businesses? Who “rules” then? When we look at an economy from this perspective, we can see that consumer behavior is often cultivated as a means to the ends of producers, rather than the other way around. Asif J. Mir Organizational Transformation