Looking Back at the 7th World Social Forum


A s the snow-covered alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland prepared for the arrival of 2,400 business and political leaders and their staffs in late January, about 25 times as many activists and journalists gathered in the warmth of the African sun of Nairobi. It was the beginning of the 7th World Social Forum (WSF), the first full Forum to take place in Africa. 

Grown in the fertile soil of the international alliances built in the streets of Seattle outside the WTO meetings of 1999, the World Social Forum took root in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. The Forum, as it is called by regulars, was created as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, which has met in Davos each year since 1971 (except for 2002 when the meetings were held in New York). The WSF idea was to create a meeting place where activists could showcase and critique alternatives to the corporate globalization being offered at Davos. 

The Forum has grown rapidly—and has changed shape somewhat as well. After the first year, a charter of principles was adopted, along with the motto “Another World is Possible.” The Forum was held in Porto Alegre for the first three years, then traveled to Mumbai, India in 2004. In 2005 it returned to Porto Alegre. In 2006 a “poly-centric” model was adopted —holding forums in three different locations (Bamako, Mali; Caracas, Venezuela; and Karachi, Pakistan) almost simultaneously (Pakistan’s schedule was delayed due to the devastating earthquake of October 2005). 

Moving the Forum to Africa in 2007 was both a risk and a bold challenge. The infrastructural support for such a large gathering was much less developed—the fastest Internet connection was the speed of an old dial-up connection in the States. Also civil society and organized social movements are at a very different stage than in most of South America. But the challenge posed by those who argued that the Forum was becoming too intellectual and disconnected from people’s daily struggles made the move an essential part of the Forum’s development. The 7th WSF even added to its motto the phrase “People’s Struggles, People’s Alternatives” in recognition of this. 

The criticisms of this year’s Forum will take some time to sort out. With about 45,000 pre-registered and a final total of 66,000 (representing more than 110 different countries), it was smaller than recent WSF gatherings—just over a third the size of the 2005 attendance at Porto Alegre. But this size was due in part to the cost of getting to Nairobi, coupled with the relatively high registration fees— about eight times higher than previous years for North American attendees. For African attendees, the cost was more than a week’s wages for the average Kenyan. After strong, vocal protests from local community activists, the fee for Kenyans was waived and the crowd swelled in the last days with more local faces. 

Another criticism was leveled at the choice of the facility. Fairly late in the planning, the site was moved from central Nairobi to the Moi International Sports Stadium in the Kasarani district, about 10 kilometers (and a very expensive taxi ride) from the city center and its many hotels. The setting of workshops in the seating areas around the stadium was an effective way to use the space, but it seemed to be done almost randomly, unlike the carefully laid out “territories” along the waterfront in the 2005 Porto Alegre design. 

In addition to the difficulties of getting to and from Kasarani without expensive transportation, a serious conflict erupted when it was discovered that the main food vendor was a restaurant (the Windsor Cafe) that was an extension of a hotel owned by the country’s Internal Security Minister John Michuku. Local activists ultimately surrounded and closed the restaurant, calling on them to provide free food to the children of the nearby slums of Korogocho and Kibera. Other local vendors, who had been forced to set up outside the gates of the main Forum, saw an increase in sales after the Windsor closed its kitchen. 

Similar concerns were raised (though no dramatic action taken) about the Forum’s apparent embracing of CelTel (the Kuwaiti-owned telecommunications company) and Kenya Airways (which has for years allegedly denied the right of assembly to its workers organized in the Aviation and Allied Workers Union). 

Difficulties with—and the total absence of—sound equipment and translation left many sessions starting late. But in every case that I observed, participants persevered and, in spite of adversity, the scheduled events forged ahead. Lack of reliable Internet connectivity at the press center made it very difficult to file reports in a timely fashion and even the Forum’s press coordinator, Christoph Haug, lamented in a final e-mail to journalists: “I had planned to provide accredited journalists with daily updates…. Unfortunately, there was a problem with my Internet connection during most of the event….” In spite of this, Indymedia, AMARC, IPS, Radio Nation, Democracy Now!, and about 700 other journalists were able to get word of the Forum’s progress out across the globe. 

Media and Communication Rights, an area that has struggled to become more integrated into the World Social Forum over the past several years, was given a back seat in Nairobi. It seemed a setback to those activists who had hosted a large, prominent “terrain” in 2005, to be relegated to a smaller stadium area a brisk walk from the main event and then later moved to various spots in the main stadium, with little cohesion. 

Yet, independent media was strongly represented, from local Kenyan Indymedia activists working with internationals from as far away as Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to the low-power radio project built with the help of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project. Radio Huru (“Free Radio”) was launched on the third day of the Forum after a brief setback when three armed men stole some of the equipment from the volunteers who were setting up the station in a skybox overlooking the playing field at Kasarani. 

Another exciting media project had been underway long before the World Social Forum came to town. About a kilometer away from the stadium sits the slum of Korogocho—built next to a dump that may be the largest in East Africa. Many residents of the community make their living picking through the trash to find useful items for resale. But rising from this slum is a new community radio project, along with a newspaper. Radio Koch is the project of about a dozen young Korogocho residents who see this as a way to educate and empower their fellow slum dwellers. As one of the young men told me “…we have another version, we have issues we want to address—about crime, environment, poverty…. Many youth in this community have talent, but they lack an alternative. They are unemployed, so they turn to crime to get their way. So that is what we will be addressing in the radio station. This is the sort of thing you don’t hear in the mainstream media, these are the real issues for the people.” 

 

 

A lmost since the Forum’s inception, a critique has been raised as to whether the Forum should continue as just a place where ideas are showcased and discussed or become a more active political body, issuing calls and statements and organizing actions. The Forum certainly has helped stimulate actions —the world demonstrations against the U.S. war on Iraq were built out of discussions that took place at the Forum in January 2003. Many attribute the rise of the left in Latin America over the past five years as having been, at least in part, ushered in by participation in the Forum process—although many are also quick to point out that the movements behind these recent electoral victories have deep roots in their own countries. 

This year an attempt was made to address this Forum versus organizing debate by adding what was called “4th Day Activities.” This new structural approach was meant to give a “designated time for movements that have been participating in the first three days of the Nairobi forum to present and share with everyone their proposals for action.” The 4th Day Activities were organized around 21 themes, ranging from “peace/war” to “water” to “debt” to “children,” and culminated in an assembly of social movements. 

While it may not have specifically achieved what organizers had hoped for, it was a valid structural attempt to combine the desires for action and outcomes with the spirit of the Forum stated in the Charter of Principles as “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action by groups and movements of civil society….” 

For me, the gains of the Forum have always come not in the sessions and meetings, but in the cross-fertilization that takes place in the hallways and streets surrounding the events. Contacts that are made very often result in new networks and new spheres of action. This year’s Forum was no exception—at least two new international networks were forged in Nairobi. The first, calling itself the Tax Justice Network for Africa, will address issues of illicit capital flight and harmful trends in tax policy and practice. The second, the new Africa Water Network, will address the growing worldwide issue of privatization of water, but specifically in an African context. 

Some issues raised more loudly at other year’s Forums remained unresolved in Nairobi—the participation of women in panels and the inclusion of women’s voices in the Forum process remains under-represented and issues of gay and lesbian rights were even more difficult to raise in the African setting, as was evidenced by a lesbian activist being heckled when speaking at the final day’s events. The growing presence of large NGOs that can afford to send representatives seem to dwarf local civil society groups with fewer resources. And the division between the “stars” (wellknown activists and intellectuals) and the “audience” remained, despite attempts over several years to break down those barriers through structural change. 

Sadly lacking this year was the presence of a large youth camp. In Porto Alegre 2005 the sprawling youth camp area was said to contain 30,000; this year in Nairobi there were scarcely more than 250. The youth camp has always served as a sort of conscience to the event—reminding some older activists that they don’t have all the answers and inspiring others with a reminder of future generations for whom this “other world” will be made possible. 

 

This year’s World Social Forum ended as it began, with a march from Nairobi’s poorest slums to Uhuru Park in the city’s center. But the real work of the Forum remains to be completed. It was decided that in 2008 no single Forum would be held; rather concerted actions will take place across the globe concurrent with January’s World Economic Forum meetings in Davos. Meanwhile, 2009’s site has yet to be determined—some argued for a return to Africa, others against. Some called for the Forum to go back to Brazil, others for a European location. The International Council will discuss this at their next meeting. 

But in the meantime, the idea of social forums has taken root. Regional and thematic or country-specific Forums have taken place in dozens of locations over the past five years. The first U.S. Social Forum will take place in Atlanta, Georgia from June 27 to July 1 (a Boston Social Forum was held in 2004 at the time of the Democratic National Convention and a vibrant Midwest Social Forum has taken place in Wisconsin for the past several years). The U.S. Social Forum hopes, according to organizers, to “send a message to other movements around the world that there is an active movement in the U.S. opposing U.S. policies at home and abroad.” What better time to show that, even in the U.S. today, “another world is possible.”


Norman Stockwell is a community radio journalist with WORT-FM in Madison, Wisconsin. He has attended five of the seven World Social Forum gatherings, working with AMARC (the World Association of Community Broadcasters).