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PORTSIDE  February 2011, Week 2

PORTSIDE February 2011, Week 2

Subject:

The World Social Forum returns to Africa

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Date:

Mon, 14 Feb 2011 21:54:11 -0500

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The World Social Forum returns to Africa

Marc Becker 

February 14, 2011

[log in to unmask] 

Fifty thousand activists from around the world
descended on Senegal's capital city of Dakar at the
westernmost point in Africa the first week in February
for the World Social Forum. Meeting on an almost annual
basis since its first gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil
in 2001, the WSF provides a space to discuss and debate
proposals and collaborative actions to build a new and
better world.

The WSF first met as a response to the World Economic
Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead of exclusionary
spaces that placed corporate greed over human needs,
the WSF championed the daring proposition that indeed
another world is possible. The WSF now has a decade of
bringing together social movements dedicated to a
struggle against neoliberal capitalism and militaristic
imperialism, and in favor of constructing a world based
on humane fairness and social justice.

Through a sequence of global meetings in Brazil, India,
Kenya, and now Senegal, as well as many more local,
national, and regional forums, the WSF has
fundamentally shifted political discourse to the left.
Bringing the forum back to Africa helped refocus
attention on the region as well as linking local
realities to a global struggle.

The forum met in the context of an ongoing crisis in
the global capitalist system. This crisis has had its
most visible impact in the poorest countries, and can
be seen through problems in the financial, food, and
energy systems as well as climate change. Neoliberal
policies of privatizing public resources that
international institutions such as the World Bank and
International Monetary Fund (IMF) have promoted have
had a particularly negative effect on Africa.

To confront these issues, the Dakar forum was organized
around the three main themes of deepening a critical
analysis of capitalism, strengthening struggles against
capitalism and imperialism, and building democratic and
popular alternatives to these systems of oppression.

The six-day meeting began with a massive march from
downtown Dakar to the university where the forum
subsequently held its events. Participants were in high
spirits, and their chants and banners revealed a wide
range of social justice issues they had come to
champion. The march culminated with a rally at the
university featuring a speech from Bolivia's leftist
president Evo Morales. Morales denounced imperialism,
and pointed to the importance of the forum as a school
where activists could come to learn how to build
stronger, more powerful, and more effective social
movements.

A thousand activities were planned over the course of
the forum. The first day of meetings focused on Africa
and the African diaspora, including a session with the
daughters of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X in which they
debated the legacies of their famous fathers for today.
A meeting with former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio
Lula da Silva emphasized his work to build closer
relations between Africa and his South American
country. Not only is Brazil home to the forum, but it
is also home to the largest African diasporic
population.

The following two days featured self-organized
activities representing the wide range of interests and
concerns that activists brought to the forum. Evenings
were filled with musical and cultural events as well as
informal networking. The final two days were dedicated
to convergences of organizations, networks, and
international movements during which participants
proposed actions around common themes for building a
better world. The forum finished with a closing
ceremony at which organizations presented their
statements and programs for action.

The WSF was initially conceptualized as a space for
divergent civil society groups to meet and collaborate
around common concerns. It was designed to mobilize and
empower grassroots organizations rather than creating a
unified movement with a specific agenda. Its failure to
make statements has opened it up to criticism by some
who would like to take advantage of its momentum to
advance a specific political agenda.

Facing a hegemonic Washington Consensus that favored
privatization of resources when it first met in 2001,
the WSF initially emerged out of anarchistic tendencies
that viewed governments as part of the problem.
Organizers explicitly excluded governments, political
parties, and armed insurgent movements from this
meeting of civil society. Global political discourse
has shifted significantly to the left over the past
decade, and nowhere is this more apparent than in South
America. As a result, more participants now warm to the
idea of using political parties and governments as
instruments to solve the problems facing the crisis of
global capitalism.

As with all WSFs, most of the participants came from
the host country, with large caravans also bringing
delegates from neighboring West African countries.
Senegal's former colonial overlord France also
contributed a significantly large number of
participants. In comparison, Asia and the Americas
contributed relatively small delegations. Many WSFs are
multilingual events, but in francophone Africa, French
became the lingual franca leaving some participants
from the former British colonies of Nigeria and Kenya
feeling excluded.

The larger social forums have attracted as many as
150,000 participants. In comparison, the 50,000
activists in Dakar seemed to be quite small.
Nevertheless, the largest forums have been held in
Brazil and India with much larger populations than the
twelve million people in Senegal. Since forums draw so
heavily on the host country's population, as forum
founder Chico Whitaker noted, the size of this forum
should be seen as a success rather than a failure.

Each social forum acquires its own style and unique
characteristics. Unfortunately, the 2011 Dakar forum
will be known for its frustrated chaos. This is
unfortunate because it was a forum with a high degree
of unrealized potential. Africa is no stranger to the
social forum process, and the region has had more
social forums than any other continent.

A series of logical problems plagued the Dakar forum.
The task of organizing the forum was apparently more
than the local committee could handle, but yet it
refused offers of international assistance. In what has
become a standard problem at WSFs, the schedule of
events came out late and in piecemeal fashion, making
it difficult if not impossible for many participants to
find their sessions.

Further complicating the issue, due to an earlier
strike classes were still in session at the university.
Students displaced activists from planned meeting
spaces, leaving some participants wondering why the
forum could not have done a better job of incorporating
students into the events. Organizers quickly set up
tents to house the sessions, but the chaos and a lack
of space led to the cancellation of many sessions.

Most significantly, in the aftermath of popular
uprisings that toppled authoritarian governments in
Tunisia and Egypt, Senegal's president Abdoulaye Wade
feared the arrival of well-organized social movements
that could similarly place his government under siege.
The expense and logistical difficulties of hosting such
a large meeting require the tactile consent if not
outright support of the host government, but in Senegal
an antagonistic president sought to sabotage the forum.

A running debate within the forum is whether a world
meeting of social movements is worth the financial
cost, environmental consequences, and logistical
nightmares involved in organizing such a massive
meeting. Too often only well-connected non-governmental
organizations (NGOs) with access to the time, financial
resources, and visas necessary to travel can attend the
forum instead of grassroots organizations that are its
intended base. Some activists have proposed holding a
virtual meeting instead, yet (as many universities find
as they move away from online education) much value is
to be had in face-to-face meetings.

After a successful run of ten years of meetings, the
future of the WSF is unclear. At the close of the
meeting in Dakar, the forum's international organizing
committee met to plan future strategies. When the forum
first met in Porto Alegre it embraced a novel strategy
of organizing around social and economic justice issues
from the perspective of the global south. Although
logistical problems have worn some of that initial
shine off of the meeting, for many participants coming
together every two years in a global meeting still
holds much value. As long as the WSF continues to meet,
the global justice movement shows no sign of abating.

Marc Becker teaches Latin American History at Truman
State University, and writes on social movements in the
South American Andes. More information on the Dakar
meeting is available on his website
http://www.yachana.org/reports/wsf11/. 

___________________________________________

Portside aims to provide material of interest to people
on the left that will help them to interpret the world
and to change it.

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