WSF 2011: Searching for direction in people's movements

The WSF came into being to explore a possibility. We knew that a society built on the superstructure of the current global economy based on capitalist policies could never be free from feudal and colonial exploitation. We needed to dream of building a new world and have faith in our ability to create such a world. But building a new dispensation would require analyzing and reviewing the direction in the world is proceeding. So we decided to gather together every year in this forum to examine where our world is heading.

This year's WSF organised in Senegal was significant for two reasons. First, it was organised on African soil. Second, the people's movements and activist groups who assembled in Dakar sought to understand how they could strengthen themselves for their struggle to change the political contours of the world. The organisation of the event may have been found wanting in many ways but it nevertheless provided the ideal opportunity to examine the critical Middle East and African question.

It was a time of turmoil in the region. Even as 50,000 people gathered to explore the way to democracy and happiness, in neighbouring Egypt hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets to free themselves from the clutches of dictatorship and fight for the restoration of democracy in their country. It was an exhilarating experience to watch people at the forum excitedly discussing Egypt and tracking whether Hosni Mubarak had abdicated power or not. A large rally was organised in Dakar in support of the people's movement in Egypt, which ended in a demonstration before the Egyptian embassy.

It was during these days that a similar political environment was building up in many other African and Middle East countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Iran and Libya. And groups from around the world were rallying in solidarity with these people's movements. For those 10 days, newspapers across Africa and Europe devoted most of their space to report what were happening in Egypt and these other countries because of its spill over implications across the region. From this you can get a sense of the political climate across the Middle East and Africa.

Incidentally, around 1,000 delegates were activists from countries like Burma and Congo who had sought political refuge in France, South Africa and other countries after being forced to flee their home countries because of their participation in revolutionary struggles.

This year the focus at the Dakar forum was on international migration, democracy and the political character of different countries, the exploitation of land and natural resources, and other related issues.

Over 50,000 social activists from across the globe gathered in the first week of February in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a country situated in the western fringe of Africa, to participate in WSF 2011. This series of global meetings has been held regularly every year ever since the first forum was organised in Porto Allegro, Brazil, in 2001. It provides a platform for social activists from across the world to share their ideas, strategies and struggles for creating a new and better world.

The first WSF was a response to the World Economic Forum organised at Davos in Switzerland. It boldly articulated the stand that it is possible to create a world in which basic human needs would gain precedence over ever-growing corporate rapaciousness and exploitation. Ten years have gone by during which WSF has sought to unite social movements across the world struggling against the forces of neoliberal capitalism and militarism, seeking a world order based on social justice and dedicated to humanity.

The chain of global meetings held in Brazil, India, Kenya and now Senegal reveal that the political orientation of not just local, national or regional forums but even the WSF is veering leftwards. In Africa this year, the attempt was once again to link local conditions with the global struggle for justice and equality.

The main agenda of the Dakar forum was the current recession in the global capitalist economy, which is impacting most severely on the poorest countries in the world. Its effects are clearly evident in the turmoil we are witnessing in the financial, energy and food sectors of most countries as well as the climatic changes taking place the world over. Privatisation of public resources under the neoliberal policies supported by global institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has had its most deleterious effect on countries in the African continent.

Keeping in mind the current global economic conditions, the Dakar forum focused on three main ideological issues: the growing criticism of capitalism, the growing strength of the struggles against capitalism and imperialism, and using democratic and traditional methods as an alternative to repression and exploitation.

The six-day forum began with a huge rally from downtown Dakar to the university, where the programmes were subsequently organised. There was unbounded enthusiasm among the participants, the diversity in the messages sporting the banners they carried and the slogans they shouted pointing to how wide range and depth of the concept of social justice. The rally ended with a speech by Bolivia's leftist president Evo Morales. Denouncing imperialism in no uncertain terms, he underlined the importance of WSF, pointing out that it is like a school where activists learn how to develop, consolidate and strengthen their social revolutions to make them more effective.

A host of activities were planned on the forum agenda. The first day was devoted to Africa and emigrants from the continent. The daughters of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X participated in this session, discussing the legacy of their famed fathers. There was also a session chaired by former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in which he urged stronger ties between African and South American countries. Brazil is not just home to WSF but to the largest number of African emigrants.

The next two days of introspection brought out the wide range of concerns and rights issues that had brought participants together from across the globe. The evenings were devoted to music and cultural programmes as well as informal meetings. The last two days were devoted to the coordinators of various organisations, networks and revolutionary groups who expounded their plans of action for a better world based on the collective thinking of the forum. The closing ceremony had organisations making their announcements and reiterating their responsibilities.

In the initial years the WSF concept was of a platform where civil society groups could sit together and reflect on their common concerns. It was conceived to assist and strengthen grass roots organisations so they could grow and develop rather than to create a one-point programme to pursue any special agenda. But the forum became increasingly open to criticism for its inability to articulate a stand on several issues, especially with many organisations coming forward to seek help for furthering their political agendas.

In the first forum in 2001, a consensus was reached on the influential role played by Washington in the privatization of global resources. In subsequent forums one sees a tendency to view governments as part of the problem. This led to the organisers excluding governments, political parties and armed terrorist organisations. However, subsequent global political developments over the past decade point to a polarization of left forces, most clearly seen in South America than elsewhere. As a result of this process most participants today enthusiastically accept the view that political parties and governments can be used as weapons to resolve the problems raised by the crisis of global capitalism.

As in previous years, most of the delegates this year were from the host nation. In addition there were large contingents from neighbouring African countries. There were also a large number of delegates from France, Senegal's earlier colonial master. The preponderance of Francophone countries from Africa meant the language of discourse was mainly French, unlike earlier forums, which were mostly multilingual. This led to many delegates from former British colonies like Nigerian and Kenya feeling a sense of neglect.

Until now, most forums had attracted more than 100,000 delegates, hence the 50,000 who congregated at Dakar made WSF 2011 look comparatively small. The largest forums organised until now were in Brazil and India, which have a population far larger than Senegal's 12 million. But since it is the host nation that usually contributes the most delegates, the Dakar forum should not be seen as being unsuccessful.

Every forum has had its own style and character. Unfortunately, the Dakar forum will be remembered for its limited size. Truly, this is unfortunate since this forum had tremendous potential. Africa is certainly no stranger to the WSF process, having hosted the forum more times than any other continent.

The Dakar forum had to contend with many logistical problems. The local committee given the responsibility of organizing the event was not up to the task. In spite of this it refused any international assistance. It was thus inevitable that the forum suffered from a problem that is the hallmark of all WSF's – chaotic organisation. There was little concept of punctuality. Many delegates found it difficult to locate the venue of their sessions. The extra classes organised by the university to make up for the loss caused by a strike a few days earlier compounded the problem. As a result, in many cases the students shooed the delegates away from their allocated locations. This surprised many delegates, who felt that the organisers should have made some attempt to invite students to participate. Some haphazard attempts were made to put up tents to keep the sessions going but the general confusion prevailing led to many sessions being cancelled or organised with no contrast to the schedule.

The greatest setback was the backlash from the successful rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt to overthrow their dictatorial governments. It generated a fear in Senegal's president Abdoulade Wade that such an organised and disciplined assembly of social activists may somehow catalyse the fall of his own government. The help and permission of the host government is crucial for organizing food, housing and other necessities for such a large assembly. But in Senegal, an unwilling president tried instead to ruin the forum.

One issue of discussion in the forum was whether it is at all necessary to organize such a gathering of social activists from around the world considering the large capital expenditure involved, its organizational shortcomings and the environmental impact. What mostly happens is that NGOs with time, financial resources and visa facilities find it easier to participate in such forums than grass roots organizations, which do not have such facilities or resources.

Participants of WSF 2011 discussed the issues of concerns in detail. The focus was on Migration, Land and other resource grabbing, dying democracy, challenges for people's action, rapid expansion of corporate control over political economy, climate change etc. There were discussions and sessions on the concept of de-growth. We also learned about the agriculture and food crisis from various aspects, like future trading, price volatility, increasing corporate control over agriculture across the world. But at a point of time we, the participants of this grand global even almost failed to discuss the role of justice institutions and seek the possibilities for collective action to activate them. In India we have enormous number of institutions having mandates to protect fundamental rights of the people and simultaneously protect democracy, but we find these institutions line National Human Rights Commission and Right to Information Commissions have started becoming a party in the rights violation. It was not a coincidence that people of Middle-East and Arab countries or even in some of the African countries are now marching towards changing rule of injustice in respective countries, they now feel they are in practice are the colony of their own exploitative rulers. Their rulers don't believe in democracy, transparency and accountability at any level, and if all such things are asked, bullets and guns will facilitate them.

We have seen earlier in Pakistan, where government ruled the Supreme Court and in India recent ex-Chief Justice of Supreme Court is being charged with corruption. This is not a case from a particular country, but in most of the under-developed and developing countries, judiciary has become a patron to the anti-people policies and integral part of the state system rather then providing justice to people and make state systems accountable. We all are concerned about the media freedom but it was a fact that we need to focus our ideological opposition against increasing corporate control over media and state supported violence against journalists, but somehow knowingly-unknowingly debate on organised attacks on free media were not there on the discussion forums. It is a global trend that all the countries now do every thing what they want to do by making laws and policies to justify all sorts of actions. We all found that land grabbing is not a un-organised strategy, State is with the capitalist corporate and in fact resource grabbing exercises are being performed in a legal framework by following a structured plan, but there are no policies to protect tribal from eviction and forced displacement. The state authorities for ensuring smooth displacement can rape tribal women, patriarchal society keep silent on these inhuman actions. Firing is justified, if people ask for democracy and accountability in the governance system, and out judicial system keeps silent on these incidences, because judiciary also want to be under umbrella of larger state machinery sp that its own wasted interest are protected. It is in deed a fact that existing justice institutions are being used purposefully to serve the purpose of the elitist, capitalists and politically powerful.

Various countries are deeply involved in justice reforms but primarily they want to ensure that corporate interests are protected first, so debt and capital rules are being changed, special courts are established, single window system for land control are in place, police services stand with industries, land ceiling acts have been changed and so on; but there are no steps to protect farmers, so that they don't commit suicide, acts are their to protect Women, Children, Dalits, Tribal from exclusion and caste based exclusion and violence, but not practiced because it will be an efforts towards power sharing and changing power relations.

Fundamentally; an integrated stroke oriented approach with focused issues making dent on the structural causes of Exclusion, Exploitation, Violence, Injustice, Hunger & Poverty, Eviction and Displacement needs to be defined and accomplished through forums like WSF.

Several activists suggested that instead of holding such forums it might be a better idea to organise virtual forums. But it should be noted in this context that, even now, face-to-face encounters are seen as better than virtual encounters, with many universities pulling back from virtual classrooms in online education to opt for actual classes instead.

Even after a decade of successful organization of these forums, the future of the WSF is still in a limbo. The international organizing committee met at the end of the Dakar forum to discuss future strategy. When the first forum was held in Porto Allegro, it was decided to hold these meetings to demand social and economic justice from the perspective of the global south. However, the original enthusiasm has paled in the face of the organizational difficulties. Many delegates would still like to come to such forums once every two years. As long as the WSF is held the fight for social justice will not falter. But there is need for a review.

About the Author and this article: Mr. Sachin Jain works in India and leads Vikas Samvad, a human rights organisation based in Bhopal, India. The author can be contacted at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. This article is based on his visit to Europe and Senegal made to participate in World Social Forum-2011 

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