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Social Forum: just another NGO fair?
Extracted from Pambazuka News 289
January 26, 2007
Social Forum, which took place in Nairobi, Kenya for the first time
in Africa, was supposed to be a forum for the voices of the grassroots.
But Firoze Manji writes that, despite the diversity of voices at
the event, not everyone was equally represented.
As one would expect,
WSF was highly heterogeneous. There was a lot going on. At one level
no one can deny the diversity of people from all parts of the world.
WSF seemingly reflected the heterogeneity of civil society internationally:
there were initiatives from grassroots women’s organisations, from
feminists, social movements, small and large African organisations,
international (or is it ‘multinational’?) organisations, donors
and funders, grantees, activists, hustlers and the hassled. There
were vociferous anti-capitalists and anti-(capitalist) globalisation
meetings and discussions, as one would expect of an event that evolved
out of the need to assert an alternative to imperialist globalisations
of the Davos kind. And there were those whose politics could reasonably
be viewed as part of the civil society infrastructure of modern-day
But to describe
only the diversity would be to miss the real, and perhaps more disturbing,
picture. The problem was that not everyone was equally represented.
Not everyone had equal voices. This event had all the features of
a trade fair – those with greater wealth had more events in the
calendar, larger (and more comfortable) spaces, more propaganda
– and therefore a larger voice. Thus the usual gaggle of quasi donor/International
NGOs claimed a greater presence than national organisations – not
because what they had to say was more important or more relevant
to the theme of the WSF, but because, essentially, they had greater
budgets at their command. Thus the WSF was not immune from the laws
of (neoliberal) market forces. There was no levelling of the playing
field. This was more a World NGO Forum than an anti-capitalist mobilisation,
lightly peppered with social activists and grassroots movements.
And the sense
of the predominance of neoliberalism was given further weight by
the ubiquity of the CelTel Logo – the Kuwaiti owned telecommunications
company that had exclusive rights at the WSF; a virtual monopoly
provided to a hotel that provided food at extortionate prices that
most Kenyans, if they were allowed in, could hardly afford. And
rumours were rife that the business of catering involved people
in high places winning exclusive contracts. Hawkers, on whom most
of Nariobians depend for providing everything from phone cards to
food and refreshment were for a while excluded physically (as well
as financially) from entering the China-built Moi Sports Stadium
in Kasarani, the venue for the WSF. And it was only when frustrated
activists took direct action to occupy the offices of the organisers
that a more liberal policy for entry was implemented.
This was the first
full WSF held in Africa (Mali was host to one of the polycentric
WSF’s last year). But the forum was marked by the under-representation
of social activists from Africa – or indeed from the global south.
Inevitably this reflected on how debates and discussions were framed.
Pambazuka News staff had hoped that this space would be the basis
for forging a broader radical pan-Africanism. But that was, sadly,
not to be. The white North, with it hegemonic parochialism, was
over-represented. Social movements from the South were conspicuous
by their numerically small presence at the forum.
Probably the most
consistently heavily attended forum throughout the week was that
organised by the Human Dignity and Human Rights Network which had
the largest tent, and held meeting after meeting throughout most
of the week, with a caste of well known speakers. But like most
of the events at WSF, the set-up of the meetings was of a traditional
platform of speakers with the audience being talked at rather than
being engaged in discussion. While we heard the experience of both
survivors of human rights abuses and human rights defenders, there
was little political analysis.
probably catches the sense of most, thankfully not all, of the WSF
events: there was lots of talking and sloganeering. There was much
discussion about policies and alternatives to existing policies.
But one couldn’t help feel the absence of politics. It’s as if many
believe that nice policies (or human rights legislations) get made
by nice people. But the reality is that what ends up as policy is
the outcome of struggles in the political domain – fundamentally
between the haves and the have-nots. But in a week in which the
voices of the have-nots were under-represented, I guess we should
not be surprised by the absence of politics.
I think everyone
was disappointed by the surprisingly low turn-out: estimates of
30,000 to 50,000 people attended, compared with an expected crowd
of 150,000. What made so many keep away in droves? Despite asking
many this question, I have found no satisfactory reasons offered.
* Firoze Manji
is director of Fahamu and editor of Pambazuka News
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