NAIROBI, Feb (IPS) Seven World Social Forums (WSF) have been enough for the dynamic of civil society to complete a cycle and initiate a stage of profound change — in contrast to the World Economic Forum (WEF), which has been held 37 times.
With the Forum held in Nairobi, Kenya, from 20-25 January, the original cycle of the WSF comes to a close: the concept of the open space, conceived in 1999 by its precursors, Brazilians Odeed Granjev and Chico Whittaker. A reaction against the WEF in Davos, the idea was to create an open space for debate and meetings that would stimulate the participation of and exchange among participants such that they could create alliances and return to their daily tasks energised and better prepared.
The Charter Principles of the WSF, designed to create alternatives to neoliberal globalisation, invited all organisations and individuals to recognise each other in the desire for another world in an environment with a minimum of exclusion — only those who accept violence or war or are responsible for injustices are not welcome. Its originality and uniqueness (it was formed in the wake of the mobilisations of Seattle and Geneva) lay in the fact that it presented only a site for debate and barred any demonstrations or declarations in the name of the WSF.
Thus the WSF was held four times in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with the number of participants rising from 50,000 in 2001 to 120,000 in 2005.
2004 saw the first major change: the WSF left its birthplace and was held in Mumbai, India, with an extraordinarily level of success in preparation and debate. At this Forum, there was a shift from the focus on a central area of debate to various self-organised sites.
In 2006, the WSF tried the model of a polycentric forum, and three smaller fora were held simultaneously in Africa (Bamako), the Americas (Caracas), and Asia (Karachi). Finally in 2007 the great challenge: to hold the entire Forum in Africa. For those who know this continent, it was clear the organisational challenges would be immense. Moreover, African civil society is the world’s youngest, established in many cases by international civil society, particularly European, which sought interlocutors that were closer in spirit than the African governments. It is also the civil society most repressed and least heeded by the political class of the continent. It can rely on no support from the political and economic systems of the region, which view it as a dangerous alternative to rule characterised by corruption and inefficient, arrogant bureaucracy.
Despite all of this, the WSF of Nairobi was a major historic success.
Almost 50,000 people participated, in 1800 panels, seminars, and conferences, that for the first time were completely self-organised by the participants, without any central space. The lack of structures was solved by Nairobi‘s massive stadium, the Kenyatta Centre, which was divided into various sections by a constellation of exhibition stands and tents. Various elements of the infrastructure failed, such as the simultaneous interpreters and sound systems, but this did not prevent the participants from generating passionate discussions over four days, with an elevated level of debate.
The high point was the almost total absence of support for journalists in attendance, which resulted in even greater erosion of the presence and image of the WSF in the international press, a tendency that seems irreversible.
Nairobi was thus a historic stage of the WSF process, which demonstrated that the WSF formula is possible everywhere in the world (which was certainly not true for the WEF when it met in New York instead of Davos in 2002, with serious organisational problems).
Each of the Forums held away from Porto Alegre spurred a miraculous process of integrating the civil society of the region and succeeded in unifying the very fragmented civil society in India and in Nairobi, where hundreds of African organisations met for the first time. For this reason Nairobi is the first unifying act of African civil society; without the WSF this probably wouldn’t have happened for quite some time.
Africa has a serious problem of political leadership. The first generation of leaders, which included Kenyatta, Nyerere, and Senghor, was a generation with a clear vision of independence that it fought for. The second generation was, with few exceptions, one of power and corruption, like the third generation that is now in power. Today throughout Africa young people are demanding change, which means that civil society could have a potentially major impact in African politics, in part thanks to the WSF.
But Nairobi was the last forum in keeping with the original conception of the WSF. The entrance of more radical forces into the WSF International Council in recent years has caused a very important change of direction. As a result, next year the forum will not be an occasion for meeting and debate but rather a mobilisation. During the days the WEF will be held in Davos, local events will be staged throughout the world by participating organisations, including marches and demonstrations. Even the WSF International Council has decided to meet in Germany on the occasion of demonstrations against the G8, which will happen in Berlin in June. This is a new path, one that is closer to that of the social movements that are becoming the driving forces of Global Civil Society.
Roberto Savio, founder and president emeritus of IPS, is a member of the WSF International Committee.