August 2, 2021 | Monday

Consumer rights in a changing economic structure in Kosovo – Dardan Abazi & Fatbardha Restelica

When in 2019, the Institute for Development Policy (INDEP) signed a framework agreement on Consumer Protection in Kosovo with the European Union Office, this had been an area almost never addressed before in public discourse. Citizens were not informed sufficiently, and indeed, nor were the institutions working enough for them. In the Ministry of Trade, the Department of Consumer Protection, the number of consumer complaints was small and the trust in the work of officials was even lower.

Despite this, our planned and structured work bore fruit quickly. We launched a Consumer Defender platform to work on raising public awareness and launched a series of public policy publications. With this approach, on the one hand we began advocating and providing alternatives for improving legislation and public policies, while on the other hand, we worked on disseminating simplified and comprehensible information to citizens about their rights as consumers.

Subsequently, the Covid-19 pandemic shut down citizens and the entire economy was paralyzed. Businesses began offering their products and services online. Unfortunately, this came at a cost of undermining consumer rights. A significant portion of online businesses operated completely unregistered and uncontrolled by anyone. The products consequently had no warranty, the sellers had no address to which the inspectors could knock and did not issue the purchase coupon. Thus, the transaction and the purchase agreement were difficult to prove. This situation gave rise to a need for a more intensive work on our part.

In a span of 15 months, we published over 100 infographics, distributed informational videos and developed direct communication with citizens. We received over 550 complaints and responded to citizens with advice and suggestions, by guiding them to the responsible authorities. The number of complaints in the CPD more than doubled, while the quality of service provided to them increased.

Among the major violations that may be identified are the failure to post prices on products, further, mismatches between advertised and actual products, discounts that mislead consumers, guarantees that do not cover anything, flat-rate billing by public utility companies, such as electricity and water supply companies that are not qualitative etc. We are also targeting the gender inequalities that exist in product design, addressing women’s complaints compared to men, etc. All of these problems have only exacerbated during the pandemic.

But in addition to being a challenge, the COVID-19 pandemic is also an opportunity to improve the situation. The increase in the number of complaints, the number of online discussions, collaboration networks and joint campaigns are all clear indications of a consumer gaining in awareness. Of course, there is still a lot of work to be done. In particular, faster court proceedings for the enjoyment of consumer rights are required. Further, alternative dispute settlement instruments and greater sustainability of organizations dealing with consumer protection.

The protection of consumer rights requires inter-institutional cooperation, awareness and strong state mechanisms. The more enjoyed the rights of consumers are, the more safety in products, quality and economic structure exists, to export to markets with high standards and accelerate economic development. The path is long, but our determination is even stronger. Because the basis of a just economy and prosperous society is an informed, protected, supported consumer, and above all, a vigilant consumer.

Dardan Abazi and Fatbardha Restelica – Institute for Development Policy (INDEP)