World Social Forum 2007: Critical Reflections, Unknown Directions

Source: COA News

The World Social Forum (WSF) for the first time took place in Africa in Nairobi, Kenya, marking new directions and challenges for the seven year old process. Nairobi’s Moi International Sports Complex, located in the district of Kasarani, emerged as the WSF’s epicenter. Although the football stadium became transformed into a unique world of constructive dialogues, mass action planning, and experience sharing between January 21 and 24, 2007, it also became shaped by rampant confusion, disorganization, noticeable cynicism, and new and old forms of social exclusion which now revamp the WSF’s trajectory.

Nairobi was given close to one year to prepare for WSF 2007 after being chosen as host city by the International Council of the WSF (IC) and the WSF Secretariat. Thus the much anticipated relocation of the Forum to the continent where people are most deeply affected by under-development, poverty, and disease not only became an attempt to build on the 2006 Polycentric WSFs of Bamako, Mali, Caracas, Venezuela, Karachi, Pakistan as well as the 2004 WSF of Mumbai, India, and the four previous Forums of Porto Alegre, Brazil (2001-2003, 2005), but more importantly had basis in the recognition and respect of the capability, dignity, cultures, and struggles of people(s) and movements in Kenya and throughout Africa at large.

The dreams, belief, and collective engagement enshrined in the original slogan of the WSF: ‘Another World is Possible’ and underlying experiences that fed into Nairobi, however, were rekindled through organizational incapacity to meet the demands of logistics. Two central issues produced out of a chaos of disorganization involved registration fees and the lack of information in organizing registration.

Firstly, the standard registration fees for westerners, $110 U.S., were much higher than for either citizens of Eastern Africa or others from developing countries but the fee for Kenyans prevented many locals from partaking in the social spaces afforded by the WSF in their home city or country. An international consortium of organizers, many of whom locally-based, charged $500 Shillings, more than $7 U.S. As one result, a Poor People’s Social Forum was established free of charge. Local groups responded immediately to the high cost of admission by providing spaces for dialogue to local people in a more accessible venue than the stadium. Furthermore, many Kenyans alongside others from around the world launched three days of protests outside of the Forum venue before local Kenyans were finally allowed to enter for $50 Shillings or even for free.

Secondly, the organization of the Forum can be described as a disaster. Before the Forum began, no signs were posted anywhere in the city that would have been very helpful for the registration process. In addition, very few resources and people were able to help all those seeking to register. The program of activities was printed late, which echoed previous WSFs, but it also was distributed in limited supply to give rise to very long lines under the very hot sun. The much desired information about logistics to register was not posted on the main website – – despite the reality that foreigners made up thousands of the approximate 50,000 delegates and early projections suggested some 150,000 people were going to descend upon the Kenyan capital for WSF 2007.

Despite all of the exceptional logistical difficulties, WSF 2007 unfolded through similar workshop formats and debates as its predecessors with the same underlying theme based in changing the world in the name of principles such as people over profits, peace, equality, cooperation, and ecological stewardship. It followed other WSFs by being a space of civil society actors focused on experiences, activities, and engagement of participating social movements, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and a diverse range of individual delegates from across the planet.

More than 1,200 workshop activities were self-organized by participating groups, but many were cancelled and many became relocated much to the dismay of participants who were onsite. Many informal networks of people arose to sell all kinds of goods for the temporary timeline of the WSF. This form of economy again proved another dynamic aspect of the Forum much like the reemergence of many NGOs and other organizations who set up booths for all those onsite. A strong presence of artisans particularly from Kenya and neighbouring countries reinforced an annual WSF commitment to prioritize venues that showcase vibrant expressions of culture based in music, dance, film, photography, and creativity. Many people crowded around a variety of cultural performances throughout the four days, while tens of thousands of delegates attended the Opening Ceremony (January 20), the Closing Ceremony (January 25), and walked in the colourful and celebratory marches. Yet the tendency in workshops again illustrated a deep divide between facilitators and somewhat disengaged participants because like previous WSFs a large portion of activities were led by academics, movement leaders. Activities were dominated by the English language and to some extent by French and Swahili.

The paradoxical method of self-organization embodies a participatory democratic mandate but the WSF workshops in significant part remained undemocratic in practice as facilitators and speakers over-talked the majority of delegate onlookers, which included multitudes of local people. The tendency of academic discourse and non-participatory activities had already been criticized by many who have written on the WSF especially since the completion of the third Forum of Porto Alegre.

Arguably the International Youth Camp (IYC) first articulated this problematic and proposed an alternative way of organizing space and interaction among social actors involved in the WSF process who were also motivated to experiment with constructing alternatives to capitalist daily life. The IYC attempted to put WSF principles into practice between 2002 and 2005 in a camp based on self-management of the physical construction of the venues and by using participatory methods of engagement in workshops and camp life. However, the IYC has experienced its own internal contradictions between organizers and participants and in Nairobi it had little impact as merely 250 people filled Camp spaces.

In any case, the nine major themes of WSF 2007 did encompass workshops on an incredibly wide-ranging set of complex contemporary issues far too expansive to explore here, but some topics such as children or reducing consumption were not adequately addressed. Moreover, young people and youth issues once again did not receive as much attention as many might expect in considering the overwhelmingly young demographics of activists who have been struggling to implement alternative social practices into daily life before 1999 and ever since the widely signalled turn in alter(native)-globalization movement activity that became rooted in November 1999 in the ‘Battle of Seattle’ in which mostly white western-based activists helped many delegates from developing countries to condemn and shutdown the Uruguay Round of Trade Talks of the World Trade Organization.

The central theme of WSF 2007 was encapsulated by the statement: ‘People’s Struggles, People’s Alternatives’. Although few strategic and practical alternatives were articulated through the Forum to counteract nor represent concrete steps to transform the prevailing global order of militarism, state and corporate power, neoliberalism and other systemic constellations of exploitation and domination, the will of determination and cooperation among delegates to achieve such objectives remained as motivated and urgently addressed as in previous WSF gatherings. New networks were formed such as the African Water Network and international days of action were agreed upon such as a Global Day of Action against Evictions on May 18th, 2007 and a week of actions against debts from October 14 to 21, 2007. Furthermore, the wsf2007process website effectively has been transformed to include many discussions and online collaboration between thousands of movements and people from around the world to coordinate activities and share information either for future activities or as reported from Forum events.

A greater diversity of people(s) can now be seen to lay claim to differing senses of experience and ownership over the WSF process and one great challenge for those involved in their own movements is to express alternatives by addressing the drastic social inequalities and discrepant privileges that exist in and between participants. It is of great importance that the Forum does not again repeat the reproduction of capitalist relations that made conditions very difficult for those from disadvantaged socioeconomic backgrounds to both participate on equal footing and exercise their voices in an equal manner to those who came from Northern countries or who had the capacity to self organize events. Problems of security also remain fundamental to the WSF since many delegates were robbed onsite.

The economic exclusion of Kenyans illustrates why greater reflection and ingenuity are needed to make the WSF both a space that recognizes the realities of all people(s) and one which can become produced by and produced for people(s) of the world. The WSF Charter of Principles must be made to become more an exercise in practice than desire if the Forum is to continue being a relevant arena for networking and generating initiatives for social change. Otherwise the Charter faces a danger of in part representing a value-laden rhetorical set of statements. In such reflection it is critical to assess the ongoing roles of corporate advertisers and sponsors such as Banco do Brasil and Petrobras, and many questions arise with regards to the stark presence of the official sponsor of WSF 2007: celtel.

In 2008 the Forum will become a decentralized process and will take shape in different parts of the world as localized Social Forums without an accompanying world level gathering. The decentralization of the WSF was first put into practice in December 2001 at the inaugural African Social Forum, while the WSF Secretariat and IC successfully expanded the WSF model to Asia and Europe in 2002. The subsequent rise of continental, national, regional, and local Social Forums raises important questions for the future of the WSF process. The extent of coordination among and between both past and future initiatives remains crucial for enacting a permanent process of civil society to bring alternative worlds into realities. The activities of Social Forums over the next year present a window of possibilities towards the future shape of the WSF as directed at the next one in 2009 and as the light they will shed on the model’s efficacy as an instrument of strategic planning, dialogue, and consolidation to bring alternatives to life.

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