On Quality, Good Taste and the Public Responsibilities of the Private Sector [Archives:2000/17/Focus]

April 24 2000

By: Hassan Al-Haifi

While the general approach of Common Sense is to deal with broad national issues that confront Yemen or the Yemeni people, it is also of importance that this column cater to more specific topics that touch on the day to day affairs of the Yemeni people and to look at different elements that make up the social, political and economic mix of the society at a more micro level.
No one has any major qualms about the government following a laisser faire policy, as far as its involvement in the economic affairs of the country, but for the Yemeni government this laisser faire policy seems to extend beyond economic implications. On the other hand, this hands off attitude by government is not necessarily out of serious policy considerations that are a result of well studied inputs and analyzed expected outputs, but rather a serious handicap of the Government to make its presence positively felt in the lives of the Yemeni people. This should be realized only when the population of the country would be able to sense that the Government is there to look after their welfare and defend the overall public interest to the maximum extent possible. Being as the Yemeni people have a long stretch of patience and disheartening level of apathy, one would then not ask that the Government push for the optimal extent, in looking after the needs and well-being of the people, but surely it should not be overtaxing on the government to strive to provide minimal levels of public content and satisfaction. It is the least expectation from even the worst type of social and political order that could prevail.
While the government cannot be expected to control our consumer patterns and assure customer satisfaction for every product or service available in the market, one would expect that the government would assure that there is minimal fraud and rip-off and cutthroat tactics practiced by our merciless mercantile establishment – a very strong cartel that has forgotten that it is also, to a large extent, responsible for the unfair treatment that the Yemeni people are subjected to by all the interests of power and influence that prevail in the land. On the other hand, government responsibility for increasing consumer awareness and encouraging sensible consumption habits is not to be overruled. Yet, the government involvement here would be confined to the absence of the appropriate regulatory mechanisms that would assure the helpless Yemeni consumer that, to a large extent, he is not exploited to the maximum level that any unaware consumer could ever be exploited. Moreover, while no one is knocking liberalized trade, which is one of the Jung-ho slogans of the New World Order, strongly promoted by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, that should not mean that the Government just closes its eyes and expect our cutthroat merchants (generally speaking, of course, as there certainly are exceptionally conscientious traders, who try as hard as possible to be guided by highly moral considerations as they engage in the dog eat dog world of the commercial establishment that has blossomed over the last thirty years or so.
In looking at the marketplace and the large assortment of goods and merchandise available for throwing our hard earned money into, it would seem clear that our hard earned incomes are even far less than their declared market prices in the foreign exchange market, as the products and services that one spends them on are really not worth the amounts they are expended for.
A well to do friend of this observer once commented, while hearing about all the gripes that most of the average people were complaining about (mind you this was over ten years ago, when the economic situation was far more bearable then, although well on its way downhill) the increasing difficulties of sustaining a manageable household budget: “Don’t you guys believe that you are the only ones having it rough, even people with money are having a tough time trying to spend what they have, because they simply can’t find anything that is really worth the money”.
It would surely be helpful to the majority of the population of the country if our government can help orient the mercantile establishment to start applying such common trade attributes as good taste, customer satisfaction and goodwill as part of their trading philosophy. It is really unfair to make huge profits and live in lavish splendor, while at the same time those who are providing the means for this quick rise to wealth are being denied the basic expectations of product and service provision: good taste, higher standards of quality, fair prices and adherence to the minimal health and social implications that are associated with the products and services they provide.
The Yemeni people are tired of being sold “samn baladee” or “domestic butter” that has never passed through the breast holes of any cow or even goat. The Yemeni people are also tired of the artificial garbage they are forced to consume because the real products have literally been banned off the market, except for the limited amounts that cater to the well – to do expatriate communities at the plush expensive supermarkets that have begun to surface here and there. They are also tired of being offered brand name products, the only thing of which they have in common with the same brand name products in more sophisticated markets is the name. This would entail that even the overseas owners of brand name products are closing their eyes to quality standards and other self-regulatory aspects, while the local manufacturers carry on with their licensed products with maximization of profit being the only motivating factor in carrying on with their trade. For this reason, we have brand name tooth paste that comes out of the bottom end of the toothpaste tube and holes that pop open throughout the tube, we have “fruit juices” that even differ from the color of the actual fruit, not just from the taste or flavor, we have chocolate cookies that are more like eating dried mud-brick, we have mint candies that are more like eating peeled off whitewash, we have potato chips that are more like eating dried chemicals; the list can go on and on just for consumer edibles, let alone all the other phony domestically manufactured products, even coming out under internationally known brand names, or twisted versions of such names. It is not the intent of Common Sense or the Yemen Times to make use of this reputable paper to start incriminating any of our respectable trading houses, but it is not fair to ourselves also that we, as consumers, who are the victims of this type of sleazy commerce, just bear the brunt of this form of cheap selling and be quite about it. Let us face it you guys, we know that many of you are enjoying a lot of freedom and exemptions from any government actions or levies, although you may be paying for it. But, you must remember that even if you are paying for it, it is really your customer’s money that is being given to those officials who close their eyes while you slaughter us with your poor products. Even those basic ready-made foods are awful in taste and aroma, especially when compared to their imported counterparts coming from developing countries. So, where are all those fancy ministries that are supposed to regulate the standards of quality of domestic products and which give tax breaks and tax credits to these wily “industrialists”, who would probably never touch their own manufactured products, let alone eat them.
On the other hand, where is our Ministry of Trade and Provisions, the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Industry and the other line Ministries that are not there just to placate the already over spoiled private sector, that has the national and the public interest at the far rear of their minds. We are really tired of those people having a free ride on us, while some of them never pay any taxes whatsoever, even though they own banks, trading companies, factories, workshops, hotels etc. However, they cleverly set up legal cover-ups that enable them to funnel all their profits to their overseas affiliates while their local operations register losses. Yes, if the government is closing its eyes to all this finagling, there are many in the society who are not ignorant of all that you guys are all getting away with. While we can not look after the Government’s interests as far as what you guys are doing, we certainly are entitled to look after the value we get for the money we give you.
As can be seen from the above, it is not just the Government that is shortchanging the public. Part of the problem is that the poor Yemeni people have no one to really look after them, not just because the Government itself closes its eyes to what the private sector is doing, but in fact inhibits the formation of independent public interest groups, labor organizations and non-governmental organizations that could make up for where the government falls short, if allowed to do so, which is in a hell of a lot of places. So, we remind the government, again and again, if you cannot do it yourself let the community groups and NGO’s and other civic groups have a try at it.