Barriers to participation
Once a person's world was limited to the land around the village that could be reached in a day's walk, h those times, the village meeting served as an effective forum for participation and consensus-building. Now that a person's world is the whole planet, with people and goods going almost everywhere within hours by plane and global communication being instantaneous, new structures need to be created to replace the village meeting as a forum for participation.
Many levels of participation, ranging from non-participation to full citizen control, have been described (Renouf, 1993); these are illustrated in the accompanying figure.
What prevents full citizen control? One constraint is that the structures to deal with food safety matters may be inadequate. If structures and processes do not take into consideration the differences between ordinary citizens and the resource-rich industry and professional associations, it is difficult for consumers or those representing their interests to take part in the process adequately. Consumers' and citizens' groups usually have few resources and often lack the necessary specialized knowledge to comment on specific details being debated. In many participatory processes it is assumed that consumers can be treated just the same as any other interest group such as an industry or professional association (Sylvan, 1993).
Source: Renouf, 1993
Lack of resources and the costs of participating are barriers to consumer involvement. The simple acquisition of information may be prohibitively expensive to some groups. Many consumer groups are constrained by lack of staff and often they cannot afford to retain those with highly specialized skills. If participation requires travel, this is an additional cost which many cannot afford. Insofar as adequate resources can be used to overcome many other barriers, financial constraints can be seen as the major limitation of effective integration of the consumer interest.
To achieve participation, the public must perceive the matter to be relevant. Action will not be taken on an issue unless it is seen as important in one's life. A local issue directly affecting day-to-day life may mobilize a large portion of a community. However, other issues, even if important, will rarely get much response even when the opportunity to have a voice exists. Some reasons for this are that the consumer
• may not realize the implications of the issue;
Tokenism can also be a problem. The quality of participation can vary greatly even when the structures are in place. Although public meetings are held and comments solicited, in the end the view of the consumer may not really affect the final outcome. Participation may take place, but be ineffective. The structures may be used only as a facade.
Lack of trust also inhibits participation in decisions about food safety. The suspicious attitude of consumer groups towards industry and government exists for various reasons. Industry is seen primarily as being motivated by profit. Violations of voluntary codes, continued non-compliance with legal requirements and bending the law to its limit, even if done by only a few, adversely affect the image of all industry. With the increased public attention about the environment and health there may be full exploitation of the consumer's concerns. A product may have "no added sugar" but lots of honey. A product may be "sweetened with honey" but with lots of sugar as well. Poor working conditions and environmental pollution also tar the image of companies.
Slack enforcement will always be the Achilles' heel of governments, but the closeness with which they deal with industry also gives rise to suspicion. Although governments often lack the resources and expertise of industry, reliance on the industrial sector for the evaluation of proposals inhibits the independence of the government sector in the eyes of consumers.
Useful dialogue can only exist if there is respect for the other's views. Differences of opinion often arise from different perspectives and assumptions, not scientific fact. Industry and government must be willing to accept the validity of views contrary to theirs. While most national consumer organizations believe in dialogue, there are some groups that will see any accommodation or compromise as a sell-out. Organizations that are willing to sit at the same table as government and industry are often shunned by others. In addition, there has recently been a proliferation of groups that present themselves as citizens' groups although they actually espouse the industry position. Since organizations do not always agree, their views are often discounted as not representative. In the end, the consumer faced with conflicting positions is only confounded and the consumer interest lost.
Conflicting messages by different groups create additional problems. Most societies today are not homogeneous. Even among groups that represent the citizen's interest, there are differences of opinion. Consumers are faced with contradictory messages from advertising, the media and industry, government or consumer representatives.
Low literacy skills within a population are another type of barrier to participation. It is unfortunate that many national schemes for consumer education or consumer participation in decision-making assume that the consumer is literate. Even if the consumer can read, the language used is often too specialized to be easily understood. Audiovisual technology, when available, and traditional tools of communication that have been used successfully to pass on knowledge for generations must be incorporated into structures.
Language differences can be another type of barrier. Many countries are multilingual, and the language of government and business may not be the usual language of a large number of people. Consumer information and scientific and technical documentation may not be available in the local language. This greatly limits the access to information and the effective participation of the people.
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