Thursday, May 03, 2007

World Social Forum on the Road from Nairobi to Atlanta: Who Does the WSF Belong to?

World Social Forum on the Road from Nairobi to Atlanta:
Who Does the WSF Belong to?

By Michael Leon Guerrero
February 13, 2007

The 2007 World Social Forum (WSF) was probably the most challenging WSF to date. Many contradictions surfaced and became tensions in Nairobi. There are criticisms that NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and churches dominated the process, and that local Kenyan movements were shut out. Some of the services of the forum were contracted to corporations – cell phone provider Celltel had a big presence as well as resort hotels like the Windsor, who had a beer and food tent located in the prime vending location of Kasarani Stadium, site of the WSF. The Kenyan Security Minister, also known as “the crusher” for his role in repressing anti-government political actions, owns the Windsor. On the third day of the forum, local Kenyans shut down the Windsor’s operation, protesting the high cost of food. They also mobilized actions each of the first two days to demand that the registration fees be waived for Kenyans. Ultimately, the gates were left open.

The Costs of Another World?

The fee structure was established by the International Council (IC) after a report was published by the Resources Commission: World Social Forum Financial Strategy, Report and Recommendations. The report was commissioned by IBASE , the Brazilian think tank and one of the founding organizations of the WSF. The study responded to the chronic deficits of the WSFs since 2005 and puts forward recommendations on how the WSF can be sustainable and less dependent on governments and foundations. One of the findings is that the registration fees are too low. In a breakdown of expenses per delegate, including airfares, lodging, food, shopping, etc. private businesses benefit much more financially than the WSF itself. In fact delegates paid $10 to the WSF out of an average of $1100 total contributed to the local economy. The IC implemented a new fee structure for WSF07, raising registration to as high as $500 per organization and $110 per individual for groups from the north.

The fee for Kenyans was roughly 500 Kenyan shillings – equivalent to one-week’s minimum-wage salary. Local organizers said that they had argued to lower the fee and after the first day everyone was admitted for free, but not in response to the protests. They also asserted that from the beginning there was a sliding scale and contingencies so that no Kenyans would be turned away. The role of corporate sponsors was a sore point and it is still not clear why Celltel and the Windsor were so prominent. One local observer speculated that this might have been a concession in order for the WSF to have access to the stadium facilities.

The fact that logistical issues like this flared into big political debates highlights underlying questions over the character and purpose of the World Social Forum. Who does the WSF belong to? Is it a space for the social movements to coordinate and strategize, an arena for intellectual debate, or is it a broader open space for political expression? The consensus among those involved in the process seems to be that the answer is “all of the above – and more”. Yet the debates in Nairobi raise questions about how broad the space should be.

The Past and Future of the WSF

“...The holistic approach was often just knee-jerk, "oppose all forms of exploitation". At that overall, movement level, there was little if any strategic thinking.

As a result, this year Davos won. Since that first WSF in 2001 China has doubled its wealth and output; India, and Turkey, have grown theirs by more than half. Then, Google had only recently got its initial funding. Today, the argument on climate change is over. For all the glitz and its versions of hot air, these huge changes are (as Simon Zadek's blog shows) being seriously mapped and assessed at Davos. In Nairobi they were addressed only peripherally, if at all.” (Anthony Barnett, openDemocracy)

Engaging in debates on these large questions was one of the original intents of the WSF. In a sense, in 2008 we are going back to the roots of the forum, which was born out of the mobilizations started at the Battle in Seattle in 1999. WSF was organized as the proactive response to define an alternative global vision to neoliberal capitalism. To date, there is no uniting vision for what “Another World” will look like - understanding that this is idealistic to expect from a young global process, and ultimately there may never be one vision. But it’s not clear how the structure of the forum or its agenda will lead to defining alternative visions.

The fourth day of the 2007 WSF was dedicated more to strategy discussions on global actions and campaigns. This ended up being somewhat messy. Originally morning sessions on the spectrum of issues were to lead into five afternoon plenaries where the groups would present their proposals. In this way there would be a convergence of different issue areas, so that groups working on housing could hear the plans of groups working on environment or militarism, etc. Somewhere along the way the agenda was changed so that in the end there were 21 plenaries based on separate issues. The locations of these plenaries were not in the program. People had to find banners hanging from the stadium that gave a list of the locations. At least one plenary – on free trade – did not happen.

In the end, some level of convergence happened at the Social Movements Assembly (SMA) during the last two hours of the forum. Two thousand people crowded into a tent and heard rousing speeches and declarations from the different discussions during the week. It was probably the most productive moment of the forum. SMA organizers have published the proceedings of the activity and a calendar is being developed.

2008: Back to the Streets

In 2008, there will be no WSF. In its place a week of mobilizations and activities will be organized by groups in their local communities under a broad theme that will be defined by a working group of the IC. This will be a refreshing and probably much needed break for the process. The point remains, however, that the agenda of the WSF in 2007 reverted to strategy, not vision. In some ways this is a step forward, since there are concrete initiatives for us to engage, but the WSF is supposed to be the distinct venue for this debate to happen at the global level. It is not clear whether we are closer or further from this happening.

Throughout its history the WSF has played a facilitating role in global coordination of international movements:
The key idea is the creation of networks, which the WSF is singularly equipped to construct at a global level. There is now an effective network of feminists. For the first time, at Nairobi, there was instituted a network of labor struggles (defining the concept of "worker" quite broadly). There is now an ongoing network of activist intellectuals. The network of rural/peasant movements has been reinforced. There is a budding network of those defending alternative sexualities (which permitted Kenyan gay and lesbian movements to affirm a public presence that had been difficult before). There is an anti-war network (immediately concerned with Iraq and the Middle East in general). And there are functional networks on specific arenas of struggle - water rights, the struggle against HIV/AIDS, human rights.
The WSF is also spawning manifestos: the so-called Bamako Appeal , which expounds a whole campaign against capitalism; a feminist manifesto, now in its second draft and continuing to evolve; a labor manifesto which is just being born. There will no doubt be other such manifestos as the WSF continues. The fourth day of the meeting was devoted essentially to meetings of these networks, each of which was deciding what kinds of joint actions it could undertake - in its own name, but within the umbrella of the WSF.
What some refer to as the Global Justice and Solidarity Movement (GJSM), has won significant victories against its neoliberal adversaries since the inception of the WSF. The Free Trade Area of the Americas, the extension of NAFTA-like trade policies was declared dead and “buried” in Mar de Plata, Argentina in November, 2005 . The WTO has met stiff resistance in every corner of the globe. Negotiations were disrupted in CancĂșn in September 2003 and later stalled in Hong Kong in December 2005. Some countries (Thailand, Brazil, Argentina, Indonesia) have declared that they will never again accept loans from the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. This is the result of governments from the Global South taking strong stands against the more powerful northern governments and multi-national corporations. This would not be possible if the south were not emboldened by the exponential growth and militancy of social movements.

The Social Movements Assembly, which was spawned at the first World Social Forum as the space where the international networks coordinate, plays a key role in mobilizing the GJSM. Although the relationship with the WSF is sometimes antagonistic, it is certainly symbiotic. Most meetings of the SMA happen during the WSF proceedings, and many of the same actors play leading roles in both the SMA and the International Council. The SMA was responsible for the largest peoples mobilization ever: the historic anti-war marches on February 15, 2003. Although this did not prevent the U.S. from invading Iraq, it did help to galvanize the anti-war movement in many parts of the world.

The Latin American Alternatives

Some on the International Council credit the WSF with bringing together movements that have helped shape the new political landscape of Latin America. One representative from Cuba said that “the WSF didn’t create anything in Latin America that wasn’t already there - the movements already existed. What the WSF created was a convergence of these movements.” It was no accident that South America, Brazil in particular, would be the birthplace of the WSF.

The site of the first three WSFs in Porto Alegre was significant, highlighting the model of Participatory Budgeting used by the local government and being implemented throughout southern Brazil. Hosting the WSF in Brazil also gave international visibility to Luis Ignacio da Silva (Lula) in his run towards his first term at the Presidency. Lula’s victory was the first in a chain of national electoral victories for the Left in Latin America – Nestor Kirchner in Argentina, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Michelle Bachelet in Chile, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua. Despite charges of corruption, Lula won a run-off election handily for a second term, carried by the electoral support of the poor in Brazil. This provides an opportunity for the Latin American Presidents with publicly anti-neoliberal policies to consolidate their economic and political strength in the region.

Much of the debate and dialogue around alternatives now focuses on the actions of the Latin American governments – mainly the new initiatives toward economic integration like ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for Latin America and the Caribbean). This is founded on a principal of economic cooperation and functions as a system of bartering for resources based on need (Cuba trading agricultural goods for oil to Venezuela, etc.) Agreements are also made between governments and social movements like the Landless Peoples Movement in Brazil. For many, the ALBA represents hope for a new kind of globalization that does not exploit people and the environment.

The underlying point of contention for the new, Leftist governments, however, will be energy policy. Although much of the oil and gas resources are being nationalized, the emphasis is still on fossil fuels development. This will create tensions over environmental concerns, Indigenous sovereignty and, ultimately, sustainability of the government experiments. If economic development and the alleviation of poverty are dependent on oil and gas, how long can it last?

Nevertheless, Latin America leads the way in terms of defining global political alternatives in an era where the U.S. empire is in decline and China and India are emerging as new global economic powers. This has created new challenges for the social movements in Latin America – how do they maintain autonomy from the newly elected governments and keep their elected leaders accountable. For this reason, some of the debates within the Americas Social Forum (ASF) are among the most interesting and strategic.

The Hemispheric Council of the ASF seems to strike an effective balance between the social movement organizations and NGOs. The process is anchored by large Brazilian organizations like the Unified Workers Confederation (CUT) and the MST, as well as international networks like the Convergence of Movements of Peoples of the Americas (COMPA) and the Continental Social Alliance (CSA), which formed in opposition to the Free Trade Area of the Americas.

Venezuelan participation has increased since the 2006 WSF. The Hemispheric Council is housed out of the Network of Women Transforming the Economy (REMTE) based in Quito, Ecuador (site of the first Americas Social Forum). Other research and policy organizations like IBASE in Brazil and CLACSO in Argentina are also active in the process. Another key group is the Cuban Martin Luther King Center, a faith-based organization in Havana that does capacity building and popular education.

The Hemispheric Council is now setting its sights on Central America. Political movements that survived the brutal repression and military interventions in the region by the U.S. during the ‘80s are gaining strength. This is partly signified by the victory of the Sandinista Party in Nicaragua earlier this year, when Daniel Ortega regained the Presidency. The HC announced that the next Americas Social Forum would be in Guatemala in mid-2008. A firm date has not yet been set. It is likely that the HC sees the ASF in Guatemala as a potentially catalytic event that could strengthen the movement building efforts throughout Central America, Mexico, the Caribbean and perhaps the United States.

The Road to Atlanta

The US Social Forum marks the next significant step in the Social Forum process. Like all social forums, the conditions within the U.S. are unique and, some would argue, even more difficult. Unlike Latin America, it is unclear whether we have strong social movements. Union membership is declining to historic lows, movements remain fractured and we are caught in many defensive battles rather than forging a long-term national agenda. The lack of a national progressive response to the disaster of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita demonstrated our shortcomings and a lack of effective national solidarity.

There have been hopeful signs, however, particularly with the huge immigrant rights mobilizations in 2006, the ouster of the Republican Party from control of the House and Senate and the growing rage against the war and occupation of the Middle East. Yet, there is no proactive agenda. While the immigrants rights movement debates legislation to provide some relief, we offer no vision for long-term economic, military and political change that will protect migrants in the U.S., nor prevent people from being displaced in the Global South. There is universal condemnation of the war, yet no national progressive plan for withdrawal or to change energy and resource policies to end U.S. military interventions.

It was clear from discussions with many people in the World Social Forum in Nairobi, that there is a lot of anticipation around the world for the U.S. Social Forum. Many international allies are anxious to attend, many are eager to know what initiatives emerge.

What can we expect from a USSF?

We need to be clear that during the course of five days we will not provide a roadmap for change in the U.S. While we talk about the USSF as a process, in reality, the USSF, like all social forums, will be a point of convergence for many processes. The trajectories of a variety of organizations and movements will come together in Atlanta. We need some time to reflect, to see each other and develop a snapshot of the progressive forces that will ultimately shape national and international politics in the future. The USSF will be a moment to take stock of where we are and what we have to build a movement. New relationships will be forged, older relationships will be reborn, current partnerships will be strengthened.

Some groups will come in ready to talk strategy. Grassroots Global Justice, for instance, is talking to partners in Latin America, Korea and the U.S. about organizing a response to the key U.S. trade agreements with South Korea, Colombia and Peru. Others are coming together around military bases. Groups from the Gulf Coast envision the USSF as a springboard towards the Peoples Tribunals and Survivors’ Conference in New Orleans in late August. Of course many others will be there to talk about the war, Indigenous sovereignty, energy, gay and lesbian rights, gender, education, immigrants rights and, without a doubt, the 2008 National Elections.

The National Planning Committee (NPC) has defined 5 core issues and will organize plenary discussions on these topics: 1) Gulf Coast Reconstruction, 2) The War and Militarism, 3) Immigrant Rights, 4) Energy Exploitation and Indigenous Sovereignty, and 5) Workers Rights. During the course of the past 18 months, key moments surfaced in each of these areas that provided significant national challenges or potential movement building moments. The extent to which we responded to, will respond, or build on these moments will be the subject of the plenaries and important dialogues. In addition, the agenda of the self-organized activities will be structured by a different theme each day: Day 1) Consciousness, Day 2) Vision, Day 3) Strategy. The cross-cutting themes will be defined by the NPC as activities are registered.

The purpose of all of this is to create a convergence – to look beyond our own issues and to think about how we build the whole as a movement. If the successes of the Southeast Social Forum and the Border Social Forum were any indication, we are on the right track.

We encourage people to organize activities with other groups that can help with this convergence. We must also bear in mind that this is an international process - that we are taking our place in a dialogue happening throughout the world. In a very real sense our fate is tied to what happens with the global justice and solidarity movement. A message needs to resonate from the USSF that we are not isolated from the international community.

Undoubtedly, many will leave the forum asking themselves and their colleagues ”What did we just do?“ The answers to that may not be totally clear on July 2. But in 10 years we may look back on this moment and realize that at a critical point during a critical time we came together and fought, struggled, argued, laughed, cried, sang and marched. And just maybe that ”aha moment“ will come to many of us, and we will have a glimpse of what a different U.S. will look like in the context of another world.

Michael Leon Guerrero is the Coordinator of the Grassroots Global Justice Alliance, and a member of the USSF National Planning Committee. He also serves as a GGJ representative to the World Social Forum International Council and was a member of the Americas Social Forum Operating Secretariat for the 2006 World Social Forum in Caracas, Venezuela.

Check the WSF website for links to coverage of the WSF 2007 in Nairobi:

For more info on the US Social Forum, go to:

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