Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Whose World Social Forum? Final Reflections from the 7th WSF in Nairobi, Kenya.

By Colin Rajah

So its been 4 days since the 7th edition of the World Social Forum (WSF) concluded in Nairobi. But some things still remain fresh on many of the minds of those in our US grassroots delegation, as well as on the minds of many of the local Nairobians, I’m sure.

Since even before the opening of this year’s WSF, there have been objections from locals (primarily slum residents) about the Ksh 500 (about US$7.50) registration and entry fee. While US$7.50 might not seem much to us, it is roughly equivalent to a week’s wages for the average slum dweller, or almost US$600 to the average person in the US – not the most affordable when you consider it doesn’t cover food or housing.

As such, slum residents (many of whom we had met and become fast friends with in Korogocho during our site visits) staged daily protests at the main front gates, prompting WSF organizers to re-route participants to other gates and send in security guards to disburse the protestors. This naturally, drew heavy criticisms from all the WSF participants – its something you’d expect at the WTO or World Economic Forum meetings, not at a forum that espouses anti-globalization and civil society!

By Monday (the 3rd day) evening, WSF organizers came to agreement with slum organizers to allow them free entry. Wangui Mbatia, a young slum organizer responded by saying, “We have been congregating on the roadside for 2 days explaining to the officials that we cannot afford the fees. They went to [the slums] and saw the worst part of our poverty. Now we want to come here for the Forum to see the best part of us.”

But it did not end there. Earlier on, many of us had noticed that almost all of the food suppliers (many paying sky-high fees) were assigned to a “food court” located far outside the gates without any clear signage and very few patrons. The only eatery inside the gates (and along the most prominent walkway at the WSF) called the Windsor Café, looked like a French bistro with waiters, white-attired chefs, a selection of international cuisine, and prices for entrees averaging around US$5. We later learned that the Windsor Café was an extension from a golf resort, owned by John Michuki, Kenya’s Internal Security Minister, infamously known as “Kimeendero” (the “Crusher”) for his role during British colonial times and his shutdown of one of Kenya’s national newspapers for its criticism of the government.

Once again, the slum dwellers and youth in particular, challenged this horrible irony by rushing and peacefully yet forcibly “reclaiming” Windsor Café on Wednesday! For those of us privileged enough to witness it, it was an incredibly inspiring sight – hundreds of youth from the slums surrounding the Café, advancing towards the grills, claiming the food, and quickly feeding their hungry selves while the chefs and wait-staff standing back perhaps in silent agreement.

These extraordinary events punctuated this year’s WSF like a sledge-hammer and I would be remiss if I did not report them. In fact, it points to the cross-roads the WSF faces. It has come under greater scrutiny that while it has been effective at providing a space for international debate, it lacked sharper political direction and tended to be insular. There is general consensus that the WSF needs broader participation from poorer countries and grassroots communities in general and will prove ultimately ineffective if it fails to do so quickly. Since no forum is planned in 2008 (an international week of actions has be set instead) and 2009 still unsure, there is little doubt that we are all keen to see a resolution soon.

Linda from the Korogocho slums summed it up well when we chatted and prepared to say good-bye on the final day, “You know, we fight, and we struggle, but sometimes its too tough. Just too tough. The government is against us, we are stigmatized by the media, the public thinks we’re criminals or just out to take advantage of the system. No one bothers about our rights, even the NGOs who are supposed to be helping us. We get so tired sometimes. But we know we have to keep fighting, keep struggling.” Hmmm, sounds just like the immigrant rights movement, huh?

(Special thanks to TerraViva for much of the information used in this article.)

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Disturbing Similarities

By Colin Rajah
Reporting from the WSF, Nairobi

Many apologies to those of you who had been waiting anxiously for my next installment of news from Nairobi – yes both of you. The bout with extreme food poisoning I encountered on Tuesday that left me writhing in pain and unable to even stand, the power-outage last night, and the hectic 16-hour days of looking for workshops, walking to workshops, workshops themselves, figuring out where to meet, meetings themselves and the obligatory marches and rallies at the World Social Forum (WSF) all kind of put a slight delay in this issue.

All pars for the course in the typical WSF experience. Being that this is its first visit to the African continent, there were some new expectations, hopes and desires though. But like every WSF, you’re never sure what will happen, who you’ll meet, how things will shake out, until it actually happens.

So while we had some expectations, hopes and desires about making more connections with migrant rights issues here in Africa, it appears we’ve done that primarily through enhancing our understanding of the European Union (EU), the neo-colonialism of North Africa, and the “NGO-tization” of any semblance of movement building on the continent. Even the WSF has stark evidence of these, but more on that in next week’s report. For now, here’s a synopsis of some very interesting and disturbing migrant rights analyses:

As what is the norm in just about every region in the world, the primary causes of migration here seem to be neoliberal trade (where more and more foreign companies displace farmers and small businesses, and significant increases in costs of living occur due to privatization) as well as war and militarism that is very often sanctioned, financed and even directly carried out (as in the case of Somalia) by the U.S. government and closely followed by various European governments.

And just like how the migration track in Central America crosses through Mexico which then becomes a receiving, transit, and sending country, migration through Africa crosses various North, East and West African regions including Libya, Morocco and Senegal.

The disturbing part about these similarities are that in the past 5 years or so, the EU and its member states in Western Europe, have aggressively engaged with these African states in bi-lateral trade agreements which enable easier movement of capital and goods, but further limits movement of people except those with certain “required skill sets.” Hello, NAFTA?

On top of that, these so called “cooperative agreements” include enormous provisions where the European partners (Italy for Libya, Spain for Morocco, Senegal for France and so on with the post-colonial relationships) provide funding for “development projects” on the condition that the their African partners police their borders and conduct EU immigration policy enforcement for them.

First, the “development projects” often entail purchasing development tools from their European donor countries and companies, and then implementing the projects via European NGOs and their agents. Moreover, the locals often loose their lands (which have become unaffordable to maintain) to these development companies in the process.

But the most disturbing part of these “cooperative agreements” came from a series of EU meetings since 1999, which concluded that Africa needed to deal with Europe’s “illegal immigration problem!” The 2002 Seville EU statement states that any bilateral agreement can only be recognized if the African partners make measurable efforts to curtail undocumented migration. So now, the development funding also goes to establishing “processing centers” (i.e. temporary detention camps) to select the desired migrant for Europe, purchasing and using enforcement tools such as patrol boats, surveillance equipment and arms, etc.

The results are as devastating as the humanitarian crisis at the Sonora desert. Since 2005, over 45,000 migrants have attempted to cross from Morocco to Spain even as immigration policing and repression increased. Of those, at least 3,000 have been found dead in the seas between these countries, forced to take greater risks since EU coast guards now patrol the African seas. Furthermore, the abuse and human rights violations reported in the “processing centers” are comparable to the horrifying torture at Guantanamo. Effectively, European borders are no longer in Europe but in Africa now.

And what about walls? Yes, they are there too. The Spanish colonies in North Morocco now have almost 200 miles of walls, and the resemblance to the ones on the U.S.-Mexico border is no coincidence. The agency that was contracted to erect it was sent to the U.S. to study our border walls there!

The need to deepen the understanding of these atrocities and further engage our new-found African and European allies in these struggles, cannot be over-stated. They have stated more than once this week, that Europe’s neo-colonization of African has progressed steadily and many African leaders now work for European interests than their own peoples. And the only way to counter that for migrant rights would be stronger, unified inter-community movements between our regions.

And the seeds of that have been planted this week here in Nairobi. No, I don’t mean the tree-planting farce the WSF has conducted as part of its closing show. I mean the real beginnings of solidarity among migrant communities and grassroots organizers. Indeed, another world is only possible when the people build upon our own similarities, rather than be victimized by the disturbing similarities imposed by our governments.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Africa: Land, Displacement and Human Rights

from Nairobi, Kenya
by Colin Rajah

Yesterday, the World Social Forum (WSF) arrived on the African continent and Nairobi, Kenya for the first time. Shaking the Western media image of a basket case of a continent, is a challenge. Inevitably, the question about the AIDS epidemic has arose in our delegation more than once. Pharmaceutical companies have waged an extremely successful and profitable campaign to ensure that we get our “shots”.

That’s a vicious self-fulfilling prophecy cycle: if the media says it enough, people start to believe and talk about it, and the media reports that. And so the WSF has challenges even before it began.

But for the 60+ of us who are a part of the Grassroots Global Justice (GGJ) delegation from the U.S., being primarily people of color, working class, African-American and immigrants, we already understand needing to contend with oppression reinforced by public miseducation.

So when we began our WSF 2007 with a couple of site visits to the Korogocho slums and the Rukubi village, it was already recognizable. In spite of being the largest collection of slums – or more accurately, “people’s settlements” – in Nairobi, Korogocho has a growing network of community organizations that not only contend with the extreme poverty, but with public stigma of them as criminals (does having to turn to sex work or petty theft just to be able to put food on the table make one a criminal?)

It boasts a community-run radio station, a number of cultural performance groups, a youth sports association that also doubles as a handicraft collective etc. And at the same time, they have to contend with the attempts by private companies who are attempting to “land grab” pieces of their land to gentrify. When land grabbing has happened, overnight communities have been displaced and forced into even more poverty.

In another stark example, John Ayila from the Friends of Yala Swamp explained to us how their rural community that includes a lake has been leased to Oklahoma-based Dominion Farms to harvest products that are sold to the U.S. In spite of Yala Swamp’s appeals and pleas to the government and international organizations like Greenpeace etc., Dominion Farms continues to take over the land they have lived in for generations. For our part, we pledged to launch a solidarity campaign against Dominion Farms upon our return to the U.S.

The village of Rukubi on the other hand, showed how the “Daughters of Mumbi” develop sustainable agriculture projects, build a multipurpose hall, and setup a community clinic.

Africa isn’t a basket case at all. She is still fighting racism and colonialism often times in the form of corporate land grabbing and gentrification. But in spite of the enormity of her challenges, she continues to smile and welcome us --“Karibu!” And we are privileged to enjoy her hospitality -- “Assante.”