By Appiah Kusi Adomako
Ghana joined the whole world to celebrate World Consumer Rights Day which fell on March 15th. World Consumers Day is celebrated each year to mark the historic address made by US President John F. Kennedy on March 15th 1962, in which he was the first world statesman to set out a vision of consumer rights and recognize the importance of consumers as a group.
It is evidently clear that the absence of Consumer Protection Policy and Law in the country has contributed to the widespread abuses of consumer rights. Common consumer protection cases cannot even be entertained in the Ghanaian law courts because the common law gives little or no reprieve to such violations.
Over the years, many regulatory agencies have been established by the authority of Parliament. Some of these agencies include: the National Petroleum Authority (NPA), National Communication Authority (NCA), Food and Drug Authority (FDA), and the National Pension Regulatory Authority (NPRA). The mandate of these regulators in their respective industries is to set industry standards, ensure that consumers are protected, as well as, promote competition in these industries.
We can all attest to the importance of having an effective regime for regulatory institutions in the country. As we are all aware, a nation with fragile regulatory institutions puts its consumers at a disadvantage and also results in an inefficient market. In a free market, it is in the interest of a producer to maximize profit whilst that of the consumers is to maximize utility. Most of the time, however, consumers are the losers in this marketplace. One of the reasons being, concerns of the consumers are only heard and not attended to. The cases of abuses and violations exist due to regulatory gaps and inactions.
Sector by sector, second by second, the Ghanaian consumer is deluged with a plethora of abuses. As we celebrate the World Consumer Rights Day, it is important for us to examine some of the sectors and the challenges consumers face in these sectors.
Water is an essential necessity, and without it there can be no life. Nations worldwide must make it a point to provide this basic need for its citizens. In 1977, the UN asserted that “the right to access drinking water in quantities and of quality equal to their basic needs should not be infringed upon.” In recent years, the UN has declared water as a “public good” for fundamental health and life. What this means is that, water is non-excludable. Frequent and sporadic water shortages are threat to the existence of life.
In recent times, the quality of water being pumped has been of a great concern. This has forced everyone to patronize sachet and bottled water as a substitute for drinking water.
The Electricity Company of Ghana (ECG) continues to subject Ghanaian consumers with sporadic outage without any warning. The continuous power outages have resulted in loss of consumer properties and businesses. The ECG sometimes calls these outages load management to save the situations. Some few years ago, the Managing Director (MD) of ECG proudly boasted in the media interview that the “The ECG cannot be sued.” Though the MD was wrong in his assertion, it would be sufficient to say that this wrongly held notion is why the ECG keeps not meeting standard.
The strength of a nation depends on the health of its people. Though the country has made progress in attaining almost universal healthcare access, there are key concerns that need to be addressed. Unfortunately, government and its agencies are obsessed about expanding access and leaving quality in tatters.
It is common practice that nurses, especially, treat patients based on their societal status. Many people flood the nation’s hospitals, seeking immediate medical attention, however, majority of these patients are forced to leave the medical centers without receiving treatment. Attitude of some of these health workers are bad.
For example, recently, it was reported that a young pregnant lady who visited the Korle Bu Teaching Hospital lost her life due to negligence of duty from the medical officers on duty at the time of her visit. There is also the case of missing babies at the Komfo Anokye Teaching Hospital. These two examples, together with other reported and unreported poor customer services received in the medical hospitals are sufficient to illustrate the state of the Ghanaian consumer in the healthcare industry. Countless number of patients have died or suffered as a result of medical malpractice and yet the Ghana Medical and Dental Council and the Ministry of Health have not been able to regulate medical practice by sanctioning health workers who go against their medical oaths. It is only when a politician’s relations die at the hand of negligent health workers that this issue becomes a topic for discussion.
Food and Drug
There is a gaping hole in the food and drug regulations as people still manage to import food and drug products the most visible writings and literatures are not in English Language. The influx of sub-standard pharmaceutical drugs and fake ones continue to be a worry to the Ghanaian consumers who have no scientific way of proving the efficacy of the drug or otherwise. If qualitative and quantitative tests are to be run on most of the FDA approved drugs, it would not be shocking to find most of them not passing the efficacy test as results of under composition.
There is no effective system to track the chain of supply of drugs so that in the case of product recall, things can be done effectively.
The FDA must not only test samples of products submitted by an importer or manufacturer but also make it a priority to pick samples being sold on the market and then test them.
Public safety has not been taken seriously, as metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies and government agencies have not been able to enforce basic things. Consumers pay every month for the cost of lighting up the street, yet street lights are hardly turned on or functioning in the nation. By walking in darkness in some part of the country, consumers are being exposed to the mercies of criminals. It is of considerable regret that people are paid monthly for maintaining streetlights, yet these lights are hardly ever turned on. Furthermore, the regulators in charge of this communal asset seem not to be bothered. Additionally, opened trenches and the absence of road signs on our streets endanger the life of consumers. Road contractors sometimes leave heaps of sand and construction materials in the middle of busy roads, both during the day and at night times, without any warning signs or hazard indicators.
State agencies and departments, metropolitan, municipal and district assembly’s continue to contribute to the mounting public insecurity in the country.
The sale of merchandize goods
If there is any inscription that runs through every shop in Ghana then it is: goods sold are not returnable. If a seller can allow for returns, then the seller believes in the quality of the goods being sold. The converse is true. The question still rages on: why goods sold are not returnable? Consumers of merchandise goods in the country have to endure or throw away goods that they have bought with cash simply because the store/shop does not allow for returns. Even in medieval Europe and America, stores were accepting returns from consumers, so why is 21st Century Ghana not adopting this model?
Addressing Consumer Welfare through Regulatory Regimes
The Ghanaian consumer should not be taken for a ride. Ghana since 2007 has had the Draft of the Consumer Protection bill lying idle on a desk at the Ministry of Trade and Industry (MOTI). It seems this bill is of no interest to the government. Unfortunately, most government officials forget that if the consumer bills is passed, they will also benefit from the law. Ghana cannot afford the luxury of piecemeal approach in addressing consumer welfare. Dr. King reminds us that “procrastination is still the thief of time. Life often leaves us standing bare, naked, and dejected with a lost opportunity. The tide in the affairs of men does not remain at flood — it ebbs. We may cry out desperately for time to pause in her passage, but time is adamant to every plea and rushes on….. There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect.”
We must move pass rhetoric and say “government has done it” and not “government will do this.”
Appiah is the Centre Coordinator at Consumer Unity and Trust Society, Africa Resource Centre in Accra