Saturday, 23 March 2013

Who are we?

I was recently at a conference that was loosely related to consumer issues and a variety of people wanted to know, yet again, what exactly Consumer Watchdog is. They knew about this newspaper column and our other media appearances but they all seemed a bit confused about who we are and how we operate. So here goes.

What is Consumer Watchdog?

Consumer Watchdog is a division of its privately owned parent company. No, we’re not registered as a society, a charity, a NGO or even a church. We’re a private company.

Who owns Consumer Watchdog?

My wife and I do. It’s a family thing, like the Mafia, the leadership of North Korea and most evangelical churches, just without the sharp suits, expensive haircuts and the stealing.

Who funds Consumer Watchdog?

We do. Other than being paid for the newspaper columns in Mmegi and another paper that features us, Consumer Watchdog has no sources of external income. All our costs are covered by the parent company. We certainly don’t get anything from consumers. There have been occasions when grateful consumers have offered us gifts but our response has always been the same. If you feel the need to make a donation give it to the Cheshire Foundation instead.

We’re certainly not funded by any other agencies, not Government, not other consumer groups and not by any international consumer bodies.

Do you want to be funded?

No, not even slightly. We’re perfectly happy with the way we are. I genuinely like the fact that Consumer Watchdog is financially independent. Not taking money from anyone means we don’t have to take instructions from anyone.

Are you allied with other groups?

No, and we like it that way. While there are other consumer organisations out there both in Botswana and elsewhere, and while they do some good work, we don’t generally collaborate with them. I wish them the very best of luck but we prefer to do things our way. Independently. That doesn’t mean we won’t appear on the same platforms as them occasionally, we might talk to them, we might even agree with them. But their business is theirs and ours is ours.

In particular we’re not allied in any way with Consumers International, who describe themselves as “the world federation of consumer groups that, working together with its members, serves as the only independent and authoritative global voice for consumers”. I’m all in favour of groups like this as sources of information, research and knowledge but I’m not sure we want to be guided like this or even to play by someone else’s rules.

There’s even a consumer body in Botswana that described itself at the recent conference as “the mother body for all consumer groups within the country”. Sorry but no, they’re not our Mum, Dad or any other relative.

As you can probably tell by now, we don’t like being told what to do.

Don’t you have conflicts of interest with your clients?

Consumer Watchdog’s parent company works for a variety of companies helping them to improve the quality of their customer service and as a result you have a right to ask if this puts us in an awkward position when we receive a complaint against one of our client companies.

No, it doesn’t. Without exception, every company we have ever worked with understands that there might be complaints about them and that we’ll do our best to resolve them. There is, for instance, a major bank we’re working with right now and about whom we’ve recently had some complaints. However that bank is mature and sensible enough to know that these are valid complaints that are worthy of investigation and resolution. If we can help them to do that they’ll end up a slightly better bank when the problem has been fixed. They understand.

Before you ask, yes there are companies who aren’t as mature and sensible. There are certain car dealerships and importers, supermarket chains, holiday clubs, quacks selling “alternative health” products, multi-level marketing schemes and suspicious “investment” and stock market training institutions that we wouldn’t work with, whatever they offered us. We have standards. And morals.

Don’t you get into trouble sometimes?

Yes and no. We’ve had more than our fair share of legal threats but only from idiots who’ve forgotten that we live in a country where freedom of expression is enshrined in our Constitution (Section 12, in case any lawyers have forgotten). They’re the same idiots who have forgotten that Section 195 of the Penal Code says that a comment isn’t defamation if “the matter is true and it was for the public benefit that it should be published”. I can’t think of a better case of publishing something for the public benefit than news of consumers being abused.

So far, every legal threat we’ve ever received has suddenly evaporated when we’ve told the lawyers to advise their angry clients that all we’ve done is report the truth. And reminded them And when we published their threats on the Internet.

We’ve also been lucky with the support we get from Mmegi and our other print media partners. Every time there’s been a silly threat from a company they’ve backed us completely. It’s a shame that the management of some radio stations don’t have the same courage and integrity.

How much do consumers pay to get our help?

Nothing. Not a single thebe. It’s entirely free. It always has been and it always will be.

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