The World Social Forum 2007 - a mass movement or a mass of contradictions?

By Red Sonia

This is an excellent article by a friend & comrade of mine that attended this years WSF

The World Social Forum took place this year at the Moi International Sports Stadium, Kasarani, Nairobi. And was "proudly sponsored" by Celtel, a multinational telecommunications company. So as you can imagine, the controversy and contradictions began early....

I was staying with mates who live in Nairobi, who informed me that there were hundreds of Kenyans who had agreed to billet delegates, having been promised payment for doing so. So locals shelled out lots of money for new bedsheets and food for delegates, only to be undercut at the last minute by a company connected with a government minister, who had their security guards escort unwitting delegates to the hotel accomodation provided by said company. For most of the Kenyan would-be hosts, their delegates never arrived, and they never got paid...

The World Social Forum that I saw on TV was very different from the one I experienced. When I got back to Kariakor of an evening, I would see footage of human rights superstars or celebrities giving speeches in spacious rooms with great sound gear and translation headphones for all in the audience. In the session on "memories of struggle" at which Kenya's Mau Mau rebels, still shunned by the government, spoke alongside Leila Khaled of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and other veterans of past or ongoing struggles, the microphones didn't work, volunteer translators had to be plucked from the audience and there were no headphones. This was fine for an English speaker, because most speakers chose to present in English (though it was not the first language of any of the speakers) but it was pretty rough on the Swahili or Kikuyu speakers (of whom there were many in this session - Swahili is the lingua franca of Tanzania and coastal parts of Kenya, and Kikuyu is the first language of a large proportion of the Kenyan population - and in particular, of most of the Mau Mau war vets).

By the second day, protests about the high cost of entry for Kenyans had begun. Though there was a sliding scale entry fee for delegates from the Global North, Global South and then for Africa, the 500 shillings was an enormous impost for your average Kenyan. Moi International Stadium is next to Korogocho, one of the largest slums in Nairobi. The Korogocho Mirror, a publication of the Coalition of Urban Poor in Kenya (CUP-Kenya) had this to say in its editorial of the January edition, selling for 50Khs at the forum:

"Slum dwellers in Nairobi, such as the sprawling slums of Korogocho which is in the same constituency with the stadium where WSF is taking place, is crying foul and questions the composition of the WSF secretariat in Kenya, saying: "World Social Forum is taking place in our constituency and none of our youth or women groups have been involved in its planning. For sure, we are the people who are hosting the World Social Forum and its amazing that none of the vibrant groups have been consulted, let alone involved, in its planning," Josephine Ameyo, Chairperson of the Care Takers Women Group."

In another article by Jacklyn Awino at the beginning of the paper, the criticisms went deeper: "Most non-governmental organizations, and surprisingly enough even religious bodies are only active at the moment simply to gain credibility and raise funds," asserts Pastor Michael Njoroge.

"Communities are not so naive that they cannot talk about their problems. They know where they are hurting, and how they want their plight addressed. The problems of the poor people should not be used for personal enrichment. Can we see communities being given a chance to express themselves at meetings such as the World Social Forum?" posed Mr Gathu, a village elder in Korogocho."

On Day 3 of the conference, the direct action escalated. A group of Kenyans gained entry for free and were subsequently arrested. This was announced at the end of an amazing workshop I attended, run by the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement http://www.mxgm.org and some speakers from http://www.pambazuka.org (a newswire run out of Oxford, Nairobi and Cape Town) called "NGOs and neo-colonialism". This workshop, featuring pambazuka editor Firoze Manji and prominent scribe Tajudeen Al-Raheem, focussed in not on NGO corruption or misbehaviour, but who or what NGOs represent, even when not behaving obviously badly. Whilst Tajudeen presented a passionate and articulate polemic against the commodification of human misery and governance by technocrats that he identifies with the rise and rise of the NGO, Firoze Manji made the following stunning statement: "Let me make it absolutely clear, so there can be no misunderstanding: I am against development." I say stunning because stunned mullet is the only expression I can think of to describe the look on the face of many of the delegates in the room.

Firoze posed the question: what are the ends of the aid industry? He argued that the NGO sector is the private sector within the public domain, seeking to replace the functions of a retrenching state. He went further to describe development as the de-politicisation of poverty, and the de-mobilisation and professionalisation of struggles over resources - that which we used to call class struggle.

This, the key contradiction of the WSF, which positions itself as a gathering of social movements but is in reality dominated by NGOs and professional, paid campaigners, played itself out rather nicely the next day.

While many delegates were inside the stadium listening to fine speeches from aid professionals and church groups (SO many church groups) about food security, poverty alleviation and capacity-building (my favourite aid industry nonsense-term), African delegates and kids from the slums were taking direct action. Apparently, the guy who had called the cops on the non-paying Kenyan delegates of the day before was the same man who was running the mega-pricey food tent which by virtue of the cost was virtually a white-only space. So, delegates from South Africa and Kenya and their supporters rushed the food tent and pushed the kids forward to get free food, in a protest against the high entry fee and ridiculous food prices. Activists and other delegates took over serving duties from the kitchen staff, and for at least an hour we stood around keeping an eye on the cops whilst the kids ate their fill. The cops seemed reluctant to move in on so many professional foreign do-gooders and trouble-makers armed with camcorders.... So it seems that with a little bit of direct action and solidarity, the slum dwellers are pretty capable of looking after their own food security - their capacities to take action to determine their own lives seemed pretty good to me. It was those of the well-meaning whiteys standing around clicking their tongues in disapproval and muttering about "violence" that I think we should be worried about.

Later that day, it was announced that bottled water would be provided free...

It was good to see the head of the South Korean trade union delegation taking the rough ride home in the matatu (the people mover vans that are the main source of public transport in Nairobi complete with fuck-off huge subwoofers and pumping booty music) with the rest of us. Hard to imagine 'comrade' Burrows or Combet doing that....

On the way home on day 3, we met a volunteer from the WSF on the matatu back into town. Apparently, the Kenyan volunteers were supposed to be given food vouchers and travel reimbursements so they wouldn't be out of pocket for their efforts. Our friend on the matatu never saw either of these....

On day 4, I went to a session run by the Hurricane Katrina People's Relief Fund, in which the extraordinary repression against the predominantly black working-class in New Orleans post-Katrina was detailed. (see http://www.peopleshurricane.org for more info).

According to Malcolm Suber of the PRF, the gentrification pressures building before Katrina have now burst into open class warfare. Not only have the public housing blocks next to the touristy French Quarter in New Orleans been literally chained and boarded to prevent their poor black residents from returning home, but the public school system has been the subject of a hostile takeover. The 121 state public schools pre-Katrina are now 50 charter schools (for a basic definition of charter schools check out http://www2.edweek.org/rc/issues/charter-schools - there are heaps of critical analyses in online radical ed journals). These charter schools are privatised consortiums, and union-free zones. The teachers union in New Orleans has apparently been de-certified as a result, along with the bus drivers union! The predominantly black school board is no more. The process of "development" or "urban renewal" ie pushing out poor blacks, that in Australia finds its driver in media-driven moral panics over sex abuse in remote Aboriginal communities, and the desire to "clean up" Redfern is exposed for what it really is by the situation in New Orleans.

All in all, the WSF was a positive experience for me, in that I finally found a way to articulate my discomfort with the WSF and its agenda. I met some great revolutionaries from Tanzania, Kenya, Palestine, Holland, the US, the UK, Brazil, South Africa. The passion, committment and determination of those involved in the actual daily struggle for self-emancipation and liberation is, it turns out, so much more inspiring than some nob in a suit prattling on about good governance and capacity-building....


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this Ana. From afar (I could never in a million years afford to go) I've been following the WSF for a few years now, and it is unfortunate that in some respects it's turned into a big colonial joke.

More than anything, the WSF has become an "NGO trade fair..." the 'civil society' equivalent of the WEF, which I guess was the original intent - but then to actually mirror them???

I mean, with the food and entry fee issue I had to ask myself why did they change their policies? Because it was the right thing to do, or to protect their own image?

With the WSF using slums as this years backdrop, either answer is equally reasonable, and I find this most disturbing.

... Last year, there was a lot of debate over whether or not the WSF should become political. I believe the forum organizers agreed to remain 'apolitical' but I don't think they understand that the very act of gathering is political in and of itself. Choice is also a political act.

As far as I'm concerned so too is breathing, but beyond my own perspective, by choosing to remain apolitical (therefore safe) the WSF itself is becoming redundant, because it is unable to accommodate the needs and goals of the Real people attending, to do more than talk and collect stickers and free cd's from NGO's with multi-million dollar budgets.

With this in mind, I'd like to end by saying that the WSF is nowhere near a movement -- because, I think all movements have three common qualities:

1.It has to know who it is
2. It has to know where it wants to go; and
3. It has to be willing to get there.

The WSF holds none of these true.

It is still a good place to learn, and it could still become a great driving force, but right now the WSF is still in 'self-discovery mode' on a hill, beside a slum, with a nice refreshing bottle of evian.


Ana said...

Tena Koe Anhi

Marge Thorpe (Aboriginal Activist) has a great saying, each breath we take is a breath of survival, each breath is the breath of resistance.
The WSF remaining apolitical just sides with all those pricks that we are fighting for our survival.

I believe the time is ripe for us to build a grassroots Indigenous movement, if the WSF can help to facilitate that, then good, if not then we have to find other ways, with movements like Wasase being the way forward.
Respect & Regards