The Best and Worst of Nairobi

Source: Foreign Policy in Focus

The World Social Forum’s greatest achievement in Nairobi was creating this space where over 70,000 people representing social movements from all over the world could gather and reflect on successes and strategize for the future. One key thing that came out was the formation of the Africa Water Network. It was just an idea at the beginning of the week in Nairobi. But over the week, leadership evolved, ideas evolved, and a network was born. That’s the WSF at its best. Many people from many different countries can come together to create synergy and in this case a concrete network fighting the privatization of this critical resource, water. The network includes not only activists but engineers and people linked to governments as well.

The greatest disappointment in Nairobi was the lack of support from the Kenyan government. There wasn’t the type of official recognition, involvement, and support of the WSF as was the case most notably in Porto Alegre. The Brazilian government offered not only trains and buses but also other types of logistical, physical, and fiscal support. In the case of Nairobi, that sort of support just wasn’t there, in part because of the lack of capacity and the lack of awareness of the potential of this force. But also there wasn’t the same kind of progressive leadership in the highest levels of government in Kenya as in Brazil.

Nairobi was my first WSF. But in terms of the question of diffuse versus overly institutionalized, I would say that after seven years, social movements have created a space and have been able to consolidate in light of the power shift in which governments and corporations are decreasing in power (at least we hope) and social movements are increasing in power. A combination of concentrated global gatherings and polycentric gatherings have taken place over this period. Some of the polycentric gatherings go in the direction of specific issues areas. But it is still important to have the broader convening to feel the broader power potential and the comprehensive vision that goes beyond one country and beyond one issue.

If I could push the WSF in one direction it would be to work on a financing mechanism to broaden participation further. The Forum is dominated by faith-based and development organizations mainly because of their financial capacity. They can host the greatest number of panels, bring in the greatest number of participants. We need to expand the funding base to give room and space to more grassroots movements, unorganized people, tenants organizations, and so on. The efforts by grassroots global justice organizations that brought to Nairobi 80 groups from a range of community-based organizations throughout the United States have to be expanded. This should be done so that the roots of the WSF are firmly grounded in communities, particularly those that are historically marginalized.

Donors have to support this process in a broad way, by funding the secretariat and by creating a fund for local participation that looks to nontraditional groups, the ones that take risks. Governments can provide in-kind support, as Brazil did when it offered planes for transportation. But I wouldn’t want governments to dominate the process or it would jeopardize the credibility of the Forum’s independent base.

Emira Woods is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus (