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Is the WSF movement in crisis?

February 16, 2007 | Page 11

LEE SUSTAR looks at the prospects for the World Social Forum (WSF) following the January WSF gathering in Nairobi, Kenya.

THE 2007 WORLD Social Forum in Nairobi highlighted some of the strengths--but also problems and limitations--of the international conferences. In fact, questions remain over the future of the WSF, with no meetings scheduled for 2008 and no location announced for the next planned event in 2009.

The January forum did, at times, reflect the diversity and potential of struggles against free market economic policies known as neoliberalism, as well as resurgent U.S. imperialism--particularly in neighboring Somalia.

However, the conference brought to the fore the contradictions of the WSF--in particular, the dominant role of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with an explicitly non-political stance, as opposed to left-wing social movements and organizations that initiated the international gatherings in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001 as a counterblast to the elite World Economic Forum meeting in Davos, Switzerland.

Since then, social forums have been held around the world at the regional, national and local level (the inaugural United States Social Forum is scheduled for June 27 to July 1 in Atlanta). The WSF itself moved out of Brazil for the first time in 2004 to Mumbai (Bombay) in India.

The conservatizing influence of the NGOs, however, has been present from the beginning--and reached new levels at the last WSF in Brazil in 2005, when organizations aligned with President Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva acted as apologists for the Brazilian government's neoliberal policies.

Still, the big Brazilian and Latin American left, strengthened by the mass struggles of the recent period, have continued to have a major impact on the WSF. By contrast, the organized left and social movements in Africa are quite weak. As a result, the NGOs had a dominant role in Nairobi, which was magnified by the problems of poverty and underdevelopment in Africa.

"The WSF was not immune from the laws of [neoliberal] market forces," wrote Firoze Manji of the Pambazuka Web magazine on African politics. "There was no leveling of the playing field. This was more a World NGO Forum than an anti-capitalist mobilization, lightly peppered with social activist and grassroots movements."

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IT ULTIMATELY took a protest, a blockade of the gates and the occupation of the WSF offices by left-wing groups and the poor to force a reduction of the entrance fee for locals from about $7.50 to 75 cents--still a significant amount in a country where 56 percent of the population lives on less than $1 a day.

Moreover, the political context was very different than in Porto Alegre, one of the most developed and wealthy cities in Latin America, where reformist city and state governments actively supported the initial WSF conferences.

Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki--elected in 2002 after strongman Daniel Arap Moi was eased out of office after 24 years--presides over the same corruption that made Moi notorious. The atmosphere reached into the WSF itself, where the hardline interior minister controlled the WSF's restaurant concessions, where food was priced out of reach of most Kenyans.

Nairobi, moreover, is home to one of the world's biggest shantytowns--the Kibera slum, recently the target of a "law-and-order" campaign by police. During the five days of the WSF, Kenyan newspapers reported that 23 people had been shot and killed by police in the slums--including three young men shot in the back after they allegedly vandalized railroad tracks.

The repressive atmosphere even spilled over into the WSF itself, thanks to Kenya's alliance with the U.S. in the "war on terror"--including a high-profile effort to seal its border with Somalia during the recent Washington-orchestrated invasion of that country by the Ethiopian military.

On the first day of the event, Kenyan soldiers armed with rifles searched every car going in and out of the Kasarani Stadium sports complex, where the WSF was held. Thereafter, police and armed security clustered around gates that were opened only partially despite a crowd estimated between 30,000 and 50,000.

Despite the anti-neoliberal ethos of the WSF, the Nairobi event featured high-profile corporate sponsorships--such as CelTel, the Kuwaiti cell phone company that dominates much of the East African market.

"It was very disturbing to see the increasing commercialization, privatization and even militarization of the Forum with the high visibility of transnational corporations, subcontracting of much of the organizing to profit-making companies, and the highly visible presence of armed police and soldiers," noted Nicola Bullard of Focus on the Global South.

Eric Toussaint, president of the Brussels-based Committee to Abolish Third World Debt, had a similar assessment. "This seventh WSF was conceived in a bureaucratic way by a camarilla of consultants and leading big African and Brazilian NGOs," he said in an interview. "Merchandization and gigantism were the two main illnesses of this WSF. Nevertheless, we should continue to struggle inside the process to radicalize it."

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THAT STRUGGLE did take place in Nairobi. Toussaint's group, along with Jubilee South and 50 Years is Enough and other organizations, held a series of meetings that documented the workings of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, and called for repudiation of the debt that is crippling Africa.

Okollah Thomas of the Kenyan Debt Relief Network pointed out that 22 percent of Kenya's budget goes to debt repayments, despite the spread of HIV/AIDS that has cut life expectancy from nearly 58 years in 1990 to just over 50 today.

Other key voices of the international left at the WSF included Filipino economist Walden Bello--and a sizeable South African delegation, which included the Social Movements Indaba network and the Center for Civil Society, led by political economist Patrick Bond.

Also prominent was the Senegal-based Egyptian academic and activist Samir Amin, who launched the Social Forum for Alternatives at last year's polycentric WSF in Bamako, Mali (the other meetings were held in Caracas and Karachi).

These speakers reflected the WSF at its best. According to Bond, the WSF, despite its many problems, featured "more radical argumentation than I've ever heard in such gatherings and indeed in Africa. That militant mood, plus all the linkages being forged between Africa and the rest of the global South, left me optimistic for the coming period."

And even though most of the big NGOs muffled or even precluded political debate, the left and popular organizations challenged the official setup.

According to Bullard, the WSF "was disappointing, but it was also marvelous. On the 'marvelous' side, there were the people, and the fact that we did not accept the situation. We protested. One local organization, the Peoples Parliament, held a three-day 'alternative' forum at a park in downtown Nairobi. This is something that I loved about this forum: the spirit of resistance, the spirit of protest and the fact that people did not accept that 'their' forum was being taken away from them."

At the conclusion of the WSF, the Social Movements Assembly of more than 2,000 people adopted a statement that read in part, "We denounce tendencies towards commercialization, privatization and militarization of the WSF space. Hundreds of our sisters and brothers who welcomed us to Nairobi have been excluded because of high costs of participation. We are also deeply concerned about the presence of organizations working against the rights of women, marginalized people, and against sexual rights and diversity, in contradiction to the WSF Charter of Principles."

The social forum movement has played a significant role in organizing the left internationally. It can continue to do so--but only if the left is able to assert itself within the WSF process to advance the cause of anti-imperialism and international solidarity.

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