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Looking Back at the 7th World Social Forum
A s the snow-covered alpine resort in Davos, Switzerland prepared for the arrival of 2,400 business and political leaders and their staffs in late January, about 25 times as many activists and journalists gathered in the warmth of the African sun of Nairobi. It was the beginning of the 7th World Social Forum (WSF), the first full Forum to take place in Africa.
Grown in the fertile soil of the international alliances built in the streets of Seattle outside the WTO meetings of 1999, the World Social Forum took root in the city of Porto Alegre in southern Brazil. The Forum, as it is called by regulars, was created as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, which has met in Davos each year since 1971 (except for 2002 when the meetings were held in New York). The WSF idea was to create a meeting place where activists could showcase and critique alternatives to the corporate globalization being offered at Davos.
The Forum has grown rapidly—and has changed shape somewhat as well. After the first year, a charter of principles was adopted, along with the motto “Another World is Possible.” The Forum was held in Porto Alegre for the first three years, then traveled to Mumbai, India in 2004. In 2005 it returned to Porto Alegre. In 2006 a “poly-centric” model was adopted —holding forums in three different locations (Bamako, Mali; Caracas, Venezuela; and Karachi, Pakistan) almost simultaneously (Pakistan’s schedule was delayed due to the devastating earthquake of October 2005).
Moving the Forum to Africa in 2007 was both a risk and a bold challenge. The infrastructural support for such a large gathering was much less developed—the fastest Internet connection was the speed of an old dial-up connection in the States. Also civil society and organized social movements are at a very different stage than in most of South America. But the challenge posed by those who argued that the Forum was becoming too intellectual and disconnected from people’s daily struggles made the move an essential part of the Forum’s development. The 7th WSF even added to its motto the phrase “People’s Struggles, People’s Alternatives” in recognition of this.
The criticisms of this year’s Forum will take some time to sort out. With about 45,000 pre-registered and a final total of 66,000 (representing more than 110 different countries), it was smaller than recent WSF gatherings—just over a third the size of the 2005 attendance at Porto Alegre. But this size was due in part to the cost of getting to Nairobi, coupled with the relatively high registration fees— about eight times higher than previous years for North American attendees. For African attendees, the cost was more than a week’s wages for the average Kenyan. After strong, vocal protests from local community activists, the fee for Kenyans was waived and the crowd swelled in the last days with more local faces.
Another criticism was leveled at the choice of the facility. Fairly late in the planning, the site was moved from central Nairobi to the Moi International Sports Stadium in the Kasarani district, about 10 kilometers (and a very expensive taxi ride) from the city center and its many hotels. The setting of workshops in the seating areas around the stadium was an effective way to use the space, but it seemed to be done almost randomly, unlike the carefully laid out “territories” along the waterfront in the 2005 Porto Alegre design.
In addition to the difficulties of getting to and from Kasarani without expensive transportation, a serious conflict erupted when it was discovered that the main food vendor was a restaurant (the Windsor Cafe) that was an extension of a hotel owned by the country’s Internal Security Minister John Michuku. Local activists ultimately surrounded and closed the restaurant, calling on them to provide free food to the children of the nearby slums of Korogocho and Kibera. Other local vendors, who had been forced to set up outside the gates of the main Forum, saw an increase in sales after the Windsor closed its kitchen.
Similar concerns were raised (though no dramatic action taken) about the Forum’s apparent embracing of CelTel (the Kuwaiti-owned telecommunications company) and Kenya Airways (which has for years allegedly denied the right of assembly to its workers organized in the Aviation and Allied Workers Union).
Difficulties with—and the total absence of—sound equipment and translation left many sessions starting late. But in every case that I observed, participants persevered and, in spite of adversity, the scheduled events forged ahead. Lack of reliable Internet connectivity at the press center made it very difficult to file reports in a timely fashion and even the Forum’s press coordinator, Christoph Haug, lamented in a final e-mail to journalists: “I had planned to provide accredited journalists with daily updates…. Unfortunately, there was a problem with my Internet connection during most of the event….” In spite of this, Indymedia, AMARC, IPS, Radio Nation, Democracy Now!, and about 700 other journalists were able to get word of the Forum’s progress out across the globe.
Media and Communication Rights, an area that has struggled to become more integrated into the World Social Forum over the past several years, was given a back seat in Nairobi. It seemed a setback to those activists who had hosted a large, prominent “terrain” in 2005, to be relegated to a smaller stadium area a brisk walk from the main event and then later moved to various spots in the main stadium, with little cohesion.
Yet, independent media was strongly represented, from local Kenyan Indymedia activists working with internationals from as far away as Champaign-Urbana, Illinois to the low-power radio project built with the help of the Philadelphia-based Prometheus Radio Project. Radio Huru (“Free Radio”) was launched on the third day of the Forum after a brief setback when three armed men stole some of the equipment from the volunteers who were setting up the station in a skybox overlooking the playing field at Kasarani.
Another exciting media project had been underway long before the World Social Forum came to town. About a kilometer away from the stadium sits the slum of Korogocho—built next to a dump that may be the largest in East Africa. Many residents of the community make their living picking through the trash to find useful items for resale. But rising from this slum is a new community radio project, along with a newspaper. Radio Koch is the project of about a dozen young Korogocho residents who see this as a way to educate and empower their fellow slum dwellers. As one of the young men told me “...we have another version, we have issues we want to address—about crime, environment, poverty…. Many youth in this community have talent, but they lack an alternative. They are unemployed, so they turn to crime to get their way. So that is what we will be addressing in the radio station. This is the sort of thing you don’t hear in the mainstream media, these are the real issues for the people.”
A lmost since the Forum’s inception, a critique has been raised as to whether the Forum should continue as just a place where ideas are showcased and discussed or become a more active political body, issuing calls and statements and organizing actions. The Forum certainly has helped stimulate actions —the world demonstrations against the U.S. war on Iraq were built out of discussions that took place at the Forum in January 2003. Many attribute the rise of the left in Latin America over the past five years as having been, at least in part, ushered in by participation in the Forum process—although many are also quick to point out that the movements behind these recent electoral victories have deep roots in their own countries.
This year an attempt was made to address this Forum versus organizing debate by adding what was called “4th Day Activities.” This new structural approach was meant to give a “designated time for movements that have been participating in the first three days of the Nairobi forum to present and share with everyone their proposals for action.” The 4th Day Activities were organized around 21 themes, ranging from “peace/war” to “water” to “debt” to “children,” and culminated in an assembly of social movements.
While it may not have specifically achieved what organizers had hoped for, it was a valid structural attempt to combine the desires for action and outcomes with the spirit of the Forum stated in the Charter of Principles as “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action by groups and movements of civil society….”
For me, the gains of the Forum have always come not in the sessions and meetings, but in the cross-fertilization that takes place in the hallways and streets surrounding the events. Contacts that are made very often result in new networks and new spheres of action. This year’s Forum was no exception—at least two new international networks were forged in Nairobi. The first, calling itself the Tax Justice Network for Africa, will address issues of illicit capital flight and harmful trends in tax policy and practice. The second, the new Africa Water Network, will address the growing worldwide issue of privatization of water, but specifically in an African context.
Some issues raised more loudly at other year’s Forums remained unresolved in Nairobi—the participation of women in panels and the inclusion of women’s voices in the Forum process remains under-represented and issues of gay and lesbian rights were even more difficult to raise in the African setting, as was evidenced by a lesbian activist being heckled when speaking at the final day’s events. The growing presence of large NGOs that can afford to send representatives seem to dwarf local civil society groups with fewer resources. And the division between the “stars” (wellknown activists and intellectuals) and the “audience” remained, despite attempts over several years to break down those barriers through structural change.
Sadly lacking this year was the presence of a large youth camp. In Porto Alegre 2005 the sprawling youth camp area was said to contain 30,000; this year in Nairobi there were scarcely more than 250. The youth camp has always served as a sort of conscience to the event—reminding some older activists that they don’t have all the answers and inspiring others with a reminder of future generations for whom this “other world” will be made possible.
But in the meantime, the idea of social forums has taken root. Regional and thematic or country-specific Forums have taken place in dozens of locations over the past five years. The first U.S. Social Forum will take place in Atlanta, Georgia from June 27 to July 1 (a Boston Social Forum was held in 2004 at the time of the Democratic National Convention and a vibrant Midwest Social Forum has taken place in Wisconsin for the past several years). The U.S. Social Forum hopes, according to organizers, to “send a message to other movements around the world that there is an active movement in the U.S. opposing U.S. policies at home and abroad.” What better time to show that, even in the U.S. today, “another world is possible.”
Norman Stockwell is a community radio journalist with WORT-FM in Madison, Wisconsin. He has attended five of the seven World Social Forum gatherings, working with AMARC (the World Association of Community Broadcasters).
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: email@example.com; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
Contact: WisCon, ? SF3, PO Box 1624, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.wiscon.info/.
ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; email@example.com; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; email@example.com; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; email@example.com http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; email@example.com; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; email@example.com; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: email@example.com; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; email@example.com; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; firstname.lastname@example.org.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; email@example.com; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; email@example.com; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.