The springtime weather was hot and breezy as 50,000 people converged in the Tunisian capital of Tunis last week to discuss topics like debt, the Arab Spring, and drones. These were among the seemingly infinite variety of issues debated at the thirteenth annual World Social Forum.
The forum began in Brazil in 2001, and is held in a non-Western country every other year. The forum has emerged as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where elite business and political leaders meet each year to discuss global issues from a largely corporate perspective.
In contrast, the World Social Forum is an open space for social movement participants, civil society, and individuals who are critical of imperialism and corporate-led global capitalism to network and exchange ideas on an international level.
Attendees have traditionally questioned the structural adjustment policies advocated by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, in which countries are asked to balance their budgets by slashing spending, usually on items like the pay and pension of public employees. While the banks claim that these policies will lead to more prosperity, critics counter that they have more often led developing nations to accumulate crippling debts.
Flag-waving groups chanting “Free! Free! Palestine!” and tents filled with celebratory dancers dotted the campus of El Manar University, where the forum was held.
Getting in touch with the Arab Spring
Forum organizers chose Tunis as the host site this year in order to tap the energy of the grassroots mobilizations in the Middle East that overthrew dictatorial regimes in several counties and continue to struggle against them in others. Increasing the involvement of Arab activists has also been a goal of the forum for several years, according to a written statement released by organizers.
Nearly everyone, from the local hosts to the foreign visitors, seemed to be thrilled with the selection of Tunisia as host. Arbia Oueslati, a young Tunisian woman representing ATADE, a local organization concerned with development and energy, saw the forum as a chance to counter negative perceptions of the country.
“It makes me so sad when embassies warn their citizens that it is not safe to travel here,” she said. “This will be proof that our country is safe, and also that we are a land of dialogue. People are worried about radical Islam coming to power in Tunisia, but I say it will never happen because Tunisians don’t accept extremists.”
Meena Menon, of Focus on the Global South—a group that promotes social change in Asia, Latin America and Africa—and a former member of the forum’s International Council, was excited that participants from other developing countries had the opportunity to interact with the Tunisian people. “Tunisia is the best thing that’s happened to the forum in my view,” she told a panel audience. Bringing foreign activists to Tunisia helped to show that the Arab Spring was not “just something we read on Facebook,” she said, but “something that was done by real living, breathing people—and people who aren’t even trained in mobilization.”
The forum usually results in a huge manifestation of local civil society wherever it is held, and this year was no exception. The Organizing Committee estimated that around a quarter of the over 4,500 groups registered were Tunisian. Many of these groups are working to ensure that the goals of the Arab Spring revolution here remain in focus.
Of these goals, democracy and fair elections were probably the most urgent. Prominent secular politician Chokri Belaid was killed by unidentified assassins in early February, provoking public outcry. His memory was honored widely at the forum, in forms that ranged from T-shirts and posters bearing his image to a moment of silence at the closing General Assembly to honor both Belaid and the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
While failures of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments to accomplish the goals of the revolutions that brought them to power were a key concern, forum participants remained hopeful that the populations in these countries will continue to hold them accountable. In one workshop, Nadeem Mansour of the Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights spoke of the more than 4,000 protests over financial issues that took place last year in Egypt.
“Large-scale social resistance, although it has not yet crystallized into a new economic plan, forces any government that might come to power to rethink current economic policy,” he said.
Linking up personal and national debt
Many participants felt that a renewed focus on debt was a crucial piece of that process of rethinking. Sandra Nurse from New York City came to the forum as an individual, but was thinking about what she could bring back to her local chapter of Strike Debt, an Occupy-derived movement that works to “build popular resistance to all forms of debt.” She said she was particularly interested in how Strike Debt might be able to evolve from its current focus on individual debt and forge a connection with groups that work to address the social impact of national debt.
Nurse said that the group chose to focus on debt because it’s a personal experience and motivates people deeply. “But now our challenge is to really expand the analysis and connect personal debt to sovereign debt.”
National debt was also on the minds of several Middle Eastern participants. Many were upset that the current Tunisian and Egyptian governments continue to negotiate with neoliberal institutions such as the International Monetary Fund. “One of the main challenges we face now is foreign debt,” said one participant from Tunisia. “I cannot understand how a revolution can compromise on this issue. The current regimes should immediately stop paying the foreign debt.”
Concern over drones
The seeds of a new global anti-drone movement seemed to emerge in a workshop led by U.S. feminist anti-war group CODEPINK. Participants from multiple countries expressed concern about their governments’ interest in acquiring drones.
Even in cases where drones are only being considered for border-maintenance surveillance purposes, workshop attendees said this would ultimately lead to increased violence and repression of immigrants.
“Afghanistan has really been the testing ground for NATO countries in terms of drone usage,” said CODEPINK co-founder Medea Benjamin. “Now they have a taste for it, and everyone wants to have the latest technology. None of the militaries want to be left behind. So we see this as the beginning of a global arms race in drone warfare.”
Many of the workshop attendees stayed after the session was over to discuss organizing an international citizens’ movement to advocate for global regulation on drones. E-mails were exchanged that very night in an effort to start planning a global gathering in a European city for the fall. One of the early tasks of the group will be to identify potentially sympathetic governments to work with.
Benjamin said more information would be available soon at droneswatch.org
Signe Predmore is a former editorial intern at YES! and is currently writing her Master’s thesis about the World Social Forum.