Friday, February 11, 2011

World Social Forum Convenes in Dakar Senegal Feb. 6-11

The World Social Forum takes place in Dakar, Senegal February 6-11. It is the second World Social Forum to be held in Africa; the 2007 World Social Forum met in Nairobi. The fact that the Forum takes place as the world is mesmerized by tenacious protests around the Middle East highlights links between the dominant model of globalization and a variety of popular modes of resistance. The simultaneity of these gatherings is no coincidence, and it reflects the underlying contradictions and crises of the current world order.

An estimated 50,000 people from 123 countries are participating in the WSF this year, with most coming from African countries, followed by Europe, Asia, and Latin America/Caribbean. During the week-long convergence, activists come together to compare their local and national experiences and relate them to larger global economic and geopolitical processes.

Activists began gathering for the World Social Forum in 2001, following years of protests against the “free trade” and economic globalization policies of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the World Trade Organization, as well as policies advanced by rich country governments through the “Group of 8” (or “G8,” which has expanded to the G20). At a time when world leaders were proclaiming that “there is no alternative” to global trade liberalization and increased international financial investment, activists came together around the idea that “another world is possible.” They are now arguing with growing conviction that “another world is necessary.”

The idea that “another world is possible,” has inspired social forum gatherings at the world level for the past decade, and despite the absence of a centralized coordinating body, the “World Social Forum process” has generated hundreds of local, national, regional, and thematic social forums in virtually every country of the world. Today mainstream analysts and policy makers are echoing activists’ earlier warnings as they recognize that current economic and political arrangements are both not inevitable and increasingly untenable. Alternatives are necessary in order to prevent cataclysmic climate disruption, growing political and financial instability, and increasingly frequent disruptions in food and energy supplies.
In response to the global financial and related food, energy, and environmental crises unfolding in recent years, the theme of this year’s World Social Forum is "crises of the system and civilisation.” Organizers have convened workshops to bring together activists from diverse locales to both analyze the conditions that are making it difficult for so many people to enjoy secure and healthy lives and to discuss strategies for building local, national, and global movements to transform the larger structures governing the current world order.

Their work is far from easy. First, there is the monumental task of arranging to bring tens of thousands of activists of modest and minimal means together in a city of the global South. Organizers need to arrange for adequate meeting facilities while also considering the costs of air travel to a city that is likely to lie outside popular business travel routes. In the course of organizing World Social Forums, for instance, activists have discovered that African activists have an easier time going to many European cities than to other cities in Africa. Latin American activists are also less well represented this year because there are few direct flights to Africa; they too must fly first to Europe.

The World Social Forum lacks a solid financial base, and activists constantly are struggling to raise resources and to appropriate spaces for these meetings. Few private foundations will support the social forums on a significant scale, and most governments –save a few in Latin America- are more interested in obstructing than assisting this large-scale gathering of social movements.

This year’s WSF encountered a particularly devastating snag as a result of such opposition. Just a day before the WSF activities began, the Vice Chancellor of Cheikh Anta Diop University cancelled the Forum’s room reservations on the campus, which had been the main venue for WSF activities. Faculty and students at the university were active in the local organizing committee hosting the WSF, and at this writing it is not clear why the bookings were cancelled, especially at such late notice. It has been noted that the Vice Chancellor is opposed to the WSF’s critique of economic globalization, and there is also speculation that authorities in Senegal are concerned that the protests in Tunisia and Egypt will inspire popular mobilizations elsewhere in Africa.

The mainstream media has also consistently failed to devote much if any attention to the World Social Forum, despite the fact that many analysts view it as one of the most significant political developments of our time. Although it has been active and growing for more than a decade, many people who are sympathetic with the aims of the World Social Forum process know nothing about it. Protests in Egypt and Tunisia, by comparison, are relatively ‘safe’ for the media to cover, since they don’t necessarily challenge the basic logic of the global economy and the inter-state order. In contrast, activists seeking to envision and make possible “another world” view the basic economic and social structures of capitalism as the source of many of the world’s problems.

Another persistent challenge for World Social Forums is evident in the complaints by some that the large-scale gathering is too unwieldy to respond to timely opportunities and openings provided by events such as the anti-government protests in the Middle East. Many argue that the international gathering of tens of thousands can help reinforce and support the protests in Egypt and elsewhere in the Middle East. And of course, there have been many spontaneous demonstrations of support and petitions made in solidarity with protesters. However, the World Social Forum structure is one of “open space,” where activities are planned well in advance and coordinated by participating groups, not by a centralized coordinating body. This makes it impossible for the Forum to speak with a single voice, or to move in a single direction. Many argue that this is a strength of the Forum, though there is much debate on this point.

Nevertheless, it is clear that the complaints being raised by anti-government protesters in Egypt and elsewhere require more than a change of national regimes. For as many decades of experience in many parts of the world has shown, it is the larger system of global economic and political relations, including the militarism and imperialism inherent in the policies of the United States and other Western governments that are at the crux of protesters’ complaints.

Connections, Convergences, & Transnational Mobilizing
Given the enormous obstacles, the persistence of the World Social Forums and the energy of its participants give us reason to consider what is happening in these spaces that encourages so many people to devote the time, resources, and energy needed to make them happen. Here are just a few of the concrete activities happening at the 2011 World Social Forum that reflect the larger spirit of the World Social Forum process and its significance.

A delegation of about a dozen organizers from Detroit is part of a “Detroit to Dakar” mobilization that has been working to connect discussions and analyses from the recent United States Social Forum to those taking place in other parts of the world—and most notably in Africa. They are also participating in an extensive exchange of delegates called “Up South, Down South,” which fosters ties between low-income activists in the global North and their counterparts in the global South.

Regional and local social forum organizers from other parts of the world are also engaged in parallel activities. In doing so, activists help connect discussions taking place in various locales and at different times, contributing to what is known as the World Social Forum process.

Activists from Detroit reported that they are meeting with African organizers resisting “land grabs,” in which corporations and foreign governments buy land in their countries for the purpose of financial speculation. The logic is that growing food scarcity will drive up land prices to the benefit of investors. In the meantime, residents of poor countries are deprived of food security and the opportunities to farm the most productive land. Detroit organizers have seen similar speculative practices operating in their own city, and most recently corporations have sought to purchase tracts of urban land that activists have transformed into community gardens.

Activists from the United States and elsewhere are also meeting with their counterparts in diverse African countries, such as Zimbabwe, to share ideas about how best to resist the privatization of public utilities and services such as water, health care, education, and energy.

In addition to workshops and programs to foster inter-personal and inter-group communication and cooperation, the World Social Forum provides a laboratory for activists to test out ideas about how to make another world operational. This is most visible in the work of the Information and Communication Technology group that works to enable electronic communications within the spaces of the World Social Forum as well as to bring the message of the WSF to the outside world.

Tech-activists in the World Social Forums are committed to developing non-commercial open source software for use by social forum participants. They argue that not only is such software more accessible to low-income people, but it is also necessary if this movement is to to eliminate possible threats or sabotage by government and corporate opponents. A team of techie-activists from the United States Social Forum has spent the past several weeks on the ground in Dakar helping train local activists and to expand the computer infrastructure available to people in Senegal. They have set up an Independent Media Center called the Indy Media Africa Convergence Center (, and one can view activist-journalists’ blogs to learn more about the effects of this effort on local people.

More reports on the activities taking place in Dakar, including blogs and photos from activists in the United States Social Forum, can be found at

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