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World Social Forum in Nairobi

Urgent need to re-launch the social movements

(by Bruno Ciccaglione [Intenational Office SdL Intercategoriale – former Sincobas and Sult])

Just when the WSF, after a process of more than three years, has arrived in Africa – the continent where the disastrous effects of the neoliberal & global wars model are most evident – some critical elements, already present since the Porto Alegre 2001 WSF, made clear the need for a different and more complete analysis about the social movements stage, about the deep sense to give to the WSF itself and its future.

For the participants coming from Italy there was some more embarassement than for the others. If the role played by the Italian movements in the former editions of the WSF had been often politically important, in the Nairobi Forum the most evident contribution of Italians was economic, supporting the material organisation of the forum. The Prodi Government granted 400.000 EUR of direct funds (it’s the first time an italian government gives funds for a WSF), the Coordination of the Local Administrations within the Tavola  della Pace granted 100.000 EUR more, the ARCI offered its logistic support for the online registration payment from all over the world, it can also be assumed that the Caritas (which was largely present in Nairobi) and in general organisations linked with the Church did their own part, like the CGIL, they had a much stronger and visible presence in Nairobi than in the erlier editions of the WSF.

Certainly, this picture could be read as the result of the mobilisations of the last years, but more probably we have to face a political investment on the WSF, supported in good faith by many, which has had anyway political consequences. There is some responsibility for the problems and the contradictions occurred in Nairobi. However the economic Italian support did not prevent, according to the news, the WSF to end with a deficit of 1 million EUR.

Nairobi: not a new Mumbai

It was ingenuous to think, like someone did, that in Nairobi we could await for a "new Mumbai": the WSF 2004 in India occurred in a completely different political moment, immediately after the failure of the WTO in Cancun (achieved with a key role played by the movements), a still fresh memory of February 15th mobilisations against the war, and in a country where mature social movements already existed and operated. The Mumbai WSF helped giving new energy to all of the movements and to the Forum itself: first of all because the enormous popular partecipation of the poor masses of India and Asia showed how really global and large the movement was, but also because it made clearer the need to transform the forums in order to make them helpful for the launch of common campaigns and mobilisations, a role that “institutionally” the WSF is just prudently exploring now.

Such an expectation from Nairobi was more the result of a fascination for the folkloristic aspect of the forum – which of course did not lack – than the result of a serious analysis of the reality. On the contrary, even within the general and unitary agreement about the need to bring the WSF to Africa and the positive effect it could have for the African struggles and movements, the most aware of the observers expressed some concerns: the weakness of the African movements and organisations could potentially lead to an uncertain and ambiguous forum. There was somehow the preoccupation that a key role could be played – in the name of “cooperation and aid” - exactly by the same logics which dominated the cooperation in Africa. And we really saw the biggest participation of NGOs and churches in a WSF than ever. However it would be over-simplyfied to consider these subjects responsible for the problems emerged in Nairobi.

The contradictions in the WSF

Each movement has to face the problem of getting funds to organise its initiatives, starting from the forums, otherwise it can not have a future. To make a WSF in Africa obviously made these difficulties worse, and imposed a larger effort then the usual, both because no funds were arranged by the local institutions (even if this didn’t impede them to try to get a result for themselves from the Forum), and also because the funds coming from African organisations and movements were not enough to organise such an event. But the impression we had in Nairobi was that the solutions found were not brilliant: in fact sometimes they were ambigous and even in contradiction with the spirit of the WSF.

That’s what happened with the sponsorship by the Celtel mobile telephone company (part of the corporation Millicom - International Cellular). The company had its stalls in every corner in the forum and its activity was unclearly connected with the registration process of the participants to the forum: while registering and paying their fees many people where offered to buy a sim card by the Celtel sellers and ingenuously they did (a short video of the registration payment is available on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F719JG07YOY). Furthermore, the access to the forum for the media operators was free, but, immediately creating a bad disposition among them, it was only possible after paying the fee like a participant.

Another problem occurred with the refreshment stalls inside the WSF space, mainly controlled by big networks in consequence of the high fees to be paid (30.000 KSH for each stall, around 300 dollars in a country where the ordinary monthly salary is around 20 dollars). The food prices where “occidental”, too expensive for the southern participants. The biggest restaurant in the area belonged to the Windsor network, which is owned by the Minister for the National Security of Kenya, heading a police which is responsible for the killing of an average of 12 people a week in Nairobi, obviously  “criminals”. The Minister, according to the Mau Mau veterans, was in alliance with English colonial troops during the liberation struggles and was better known as the “kimendero” (bones-breaker).

One more problem was the access to the forum of the poor people: the price for local participants was proportionally incomparable to the fee for a northern participant: European partecipants paid 80€, a kenian partecipant had to pay around 5€, like the salary for one week of work.

In the end, the forum was organised in the Kasarani Stadium, about 15 kms from the center of Nairobi. The stadium surely offered an area already capable to receive tens of thousands of people, but it also responded – according to the Kenian organisers - to the need to grant the participants security: “if we had to organise the forum in the center of Nairobi – explained us a member of the organisation committee - we had to build some kind of wall around the area to protect you”. A sort of “red zone” (like for a G8 meeting) to be safe from the poor peole outside? However police and militay forces surrounded and controlled the whole area and the access to the stadium.

The Social Movements in Nairobi

Protests and demonstrations got there, and many participants joined them, to affirm the right of Africans to get in for free and to protest against expensive food prices, as on the issue of embarassing presences within the Forum. After the first day, every morning the forum was “opened” by the organised groups of the “slums” pushing against the gates of the stadium to obtain free access, denounciation demos were organised inside, including the “socialisation” of the Windsor restaurant (you can see short videos of these actions on  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8c8CeEG65u0 and on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gANtmDFVeZA – this one ends with a short interview with me). Large solidarity from the occidental participants was given to the children and the groups from the slums which organised these actions. These actions made evident some ccontradictions and helped to open a discussion that many social movements already felt urgently needed.

New energy to the Social Movements Assembly came right from the fear that the spirit of the WSF was running some risk. This assembly - thanks to the development of global tematic networks and campaigns - had lost much of its driving force in the last editions, but in Nairobi it turned to be important. The final assembly, not planned in the official program of the WSF and self organised, has been one of the biggest events in Nairobi, with more than 2500 people participating, including organised groups from the slums and a good average of African movements. It approved a final statement which, among other things, was denunciating “tendencies to the privatisation, the commercialisation and militarisation” of the WSF.

How to help convergence

So the emergence of some contradictions was a stimulation for the social movements. But they have to face them with a wider vision. The discussion about the WSF, on its format and targets is open to various likely results, because in the International Council (the decisional organ of the WSF), fortunately, we see different actors, with their different positions, often following different strategies even within their regional space. In Nairobi, for the first time, the 4th day was officially planned to collect proposals for alternatives, campaigns and common actions. But the formula - 21 tematic assemblies discussing the proposals supported by a minimum of three organisations compiling an official form – was clearly non adequate to help the convergence among networks and movements. Today this seems to be the most serious problem that we have to face. Regardless of what happens within the International Council, we have seen the birth and development of tematic networks and global campaigns increasing their strenght and effectiveness in these years: in Nairobi there has been an important result for the water networks, with the birth of an African network including movements from about 40 African countries; also on labour, an issue never much central in the WSF, there’s been the proposal for a worldwide network, with a potentially new approach, and more than 200 organisations (not only unions) showed their interest in it.

Nevertheless, the growth of thematic networks and campaigns is not helping the convergnence between all of the actors on common actions, struggles and mobilisations. That’s what in the first Forums was doing the Social Movements Assembly. The need to help convergence is fundamental if we want to avoid the Forums to turn to be only “events”.

The WSF should help promoting alternatives and common mobilisations, to make the slogan “another world is possible” in a sequence of concrete and common actions.

The future of the WSF

That is  why what happened in the International Council immediately following the forum is interesting. Probably reacting to the critics and the worries the IC decided to prepair new rules for the organisation committees of the next editions, to grant the respect of the spirit of the WSF and coherently with the Charter of the Principles of the WSF.

Furthermore, the next meeting of the IC will be in Germany during the mobilisations against the G8, pratically involving its members in a global struggle of mobilisations. This kind of political stand is clearly new for the WSF. In the end, even if with some resistance, the IC agreed to launch a common mobilisation day in 2008, for “another world possible”.

So the WSF still produces elaborations and mobilisations. It keeps on being an open space, available for organisations, movements and people, each one struggling for another world in its own way and - alternative to the neoliberal & wars model and being -  aware that to be effective they need to do it togheter. But the way to do that must be discussed with a wide participation, and this is a challenge. What really determined the contradictions in Nairobi? How to face the tendencies that tend to transform the WSF into a folklorist/commercial event? It is not a problem of bad will.

Urgent need to re-launch the social movements

The real problem we have to face is the strength of the social movements, in general and within the WSF process. The movements which traditionally had a driving force in the process, Latin American and European movements, are living two opposite conditions today, producing the same effects in the WSF. On the one side the European movements, in the past years able to produce large mobilisations and concrete victories (think to the Italian movements and to the French vote against the European Constitutional Treatment), today are in a deep crisis and do not look capable (we have seen it in Athens at the ESF and more over) to find out unitary and common mobilisations at a continental level, and sometimes, like in Italy, even at a national level. This makes these movements weak within the WSF. On the other side the Latin American movements, very strong at the moment, are living an interesting and successful period and have a lot of expectations, but they are a lot more concentrated on their own continent rather than on a worldwide perspective. This minor presence of the social movements, with the exception of Asian ones, makes the WSF process uncertain, breaking an equilibrium among the different actors participating to it.

It will be possible to maintain the spirit of the WSF and make the forums effective only with a re-launch of the the mobilisations, starting from Europe, where the next G8 will take place, and with the awareness of the global role to play.

In fact the neoliberal globalisation forces are not doing good: in Latin America the FTAA has been burried in Mar de Plata and the ALBA is enlarging its influence, in Europe the internal contradictions and the mobilisations stopped (at least for the moment) the European Constitutional Treaty, the WTO is in a deep crisis (mainly determined by internal contradictions, even if movements have had an influence on it); the IMF has lost a big part of its key leading force and relevance (more and more countries are refusing to borrow money from it or are declairing their intention never to borrow again, like Thailand, Indonesia, Brasil and Argentina); the World Bank has been suffering for a crisis of legitimacy for years. This picture shows how there could be a space for a succesful action of the social movements, and this is clearly necessary. If the institutions of the neoliberal globalisation are stalling, however, it doesn’t mean that the damages of this system are reduced: the WTO tends to be replaced by the EPAs (Economic Partnership Agreements), and other bilateral or regional agreements negotiated by developed countries. In Nairobi a strong denunciation of the EPAs the EU is negotiating with APC (Africa, Pacifica and Caribbean countries) took place and with it a campaign was launched, as they could be the definitive strangulation of the poorest continent of the world.

The globalisation tends to generate new instruments to face its own crisis. For us, it is the duty to go back to the struggles.


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