Friday, 31 January 2014

What are we?

We’ve had more questions recently about who and what Consumer Watchdog is. People have read these columns, heard us on the radio and seen us appear on the TV. They ask if we’re connected to Government? Are we related to an international organisation? Do we have legal powers and responsibilities?

Let’s clear this up.

Consumer Watchdog is a legally registered division of a privately owned parent company. No, we’re not registered as a society, nor are we a charity or an NGO. We’re a private company, accountable only to our shareholders. In fact it’s a family thing, a bit like the Mafia, the leadership of North Korea and most evangelical churches, just without the expensive suits, executions and all the stealing.

We’re also often asked about how Consumer Watchdog is funded. Where do we get the money needed to pay for our team’s time? In fact other than being paid for this newspaper column in Mmegi and one in another paper that features us, Consumer Watchdog has no sources of external income. All our costs are covered by our very generous 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 then give it to the Cheshire Foundation instead.

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

And guess what? We don’t want to be. We’re perfectly happy with the way we are. I like the fact that Consumer Watchdog is financially independent. Not taking money from anyone means we don’t have to take instructions from anyone. No one gets to tell us what to do.

We’re not even allied to any other groups and, to be honest, we like it that too. 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 a 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 I mentioned before, we don’t like being told what to do.

People have asked that as our parent company works with a variety of companies helping them to improve the quality of their customer service then does this put 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. In fact almost all of the companies we’ve worked with have also been the subject of complaints. Luckily they’re mature enough to accept that this sort of thing will happen and 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.

Unfortunately there are also a few 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.

Regardless of how careful and diplomatic we are things don’t always go according to plan.

We’ve had more than our fair share of legal threats but only from fools 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 fools 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.

In fact 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 what the law says about defamation and then published their threats on the Internet.

I should also say that 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 because they understand what we’re trying to do.

So feel free to get in touch if you have a consumer problem and you need help. It won’t cost you a thing and we’ll be delighted to help if we can.

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