Another World is Possible, but not without grassroots mobilisation

It was in February that the delegation from the Centre for Social Change, University of Johannesburg (UJ) flew to Dakar, Senegal to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) 2011. The WSF attracted more than 60,000 people pursuing the vision of ‘Another World is Possible’, with the event becoming a symbol of hope for environmental, social and economic justice.

The WSF was first organised in Porto Allegro, Brazil, in 2001, and provides a space for social and environmental activists from across the world to share ideas, strategies, tactics and struggles for creating another better world against the failures of the global neo-liberal capitalist system.

Upon arrival at Dakar Airport I was swamped by a hoard of Senegalese taxi drivers competing with each other to convince me to use their particular taxi to get to my hotel, suggesting the urgent need to address livelihood concerns. This was not unsurprising as the United Nations, Human Development Index, which is a comparative measure of quality of life for countries worldwide, has classified Senegal as a low human development country.

Unfortunately, my taxi driver to the hotel had ‘not heard about the WSF’, let alone, it was being held in Dakar. This seemed common as many of the local people I spoke to informally during my stay had not heard about the WSF either. One middle-class local who knew about the event described it as an opportunity for business and to make ‘lots of money.’ It seemed ironic that local Senegalese most affected by poverty and injustices were not mobilised to be included in discussions at this years WSF held on Senegalese soil.

My general impression of the WSF event, although a place for social networking and solidarity, was that of utter confusion and disorder. The venue for the WSF was at the Cheikh Anta Diop University Campus. There were numerous logistical problems. Many participants found it a task to locate venues for different sessions.

Our delegation was to conduct a panel entitled, ‘Between Autonomy and Vanguardism: Social Movements, Leadership and Researchers’, which like the majority of other workshops and panels was cancelled. Our panel venue was allocated away from the main WSF university location (i.e. 30 minutes walk to the neighbouring campus), additionally, it took us a further 30 minutes to locate the venue.

I assume that it would have made no difference if it had been located on the Cheikh Anta Diop campus. This was compounded by the fact that extra classes were simultaneously being organised by the university to make up for the loss caused by a student strike a few days earlier over tuition fees being increased by the Senegalese state pursuing a neoliberal agenda.

Venues allocated for some events clashed with student classes. According to George Awudi, Friends of the Earth Ghana, “…I’ve been to the WSF in 2007…which was much more better organised…here [at the WSF 2011] the places are not labelled. Many organisations have complaints that even on the day of their events; they don’t know their venue…”

Clearly, the Senegalese government had no interest in supporting the WSF; with the university management allegedly changed (by the Senegalese president) and withdrawn financial support for the event just days before it started. Perhaps the Senegalese government reflected on its own political positions on trade liberalisation which had resulted in capital accumulation in the industrial sectors, increasing poverty and inequality for citizens.

Did the uprisings then in Egypt and Tunisia along with the resultant spreading of social movements across North Africa and the Middle-east make the power hungry Senegalese president, Abdoulaye Wade, nervous of a possible revolution of his dictatorship in his own country?

Wade has been marred by allegations of corruption, nepotism and constraints on freedom of the press and other civil liberties. Possibly, the presence of the very same social movements and global supports of the recent revolutions in Africa converging in Dakar, made the Senegalese government rethink the WSF event.

Interestingly, the media was also not seen at the WSF and most discussions did not appear in the conventional media, questioning constraints on press freedom or lack of organisation on the part of the planning committee.

Although this was my first WSF attendance, I observed a continued trend of previous WSF critiques I had read, e.g. lack of grassroots representation, domination of the forum by middle-class activists. I did get a sense of the growing dominance of NGOs over people’s movements and local grassroots participation.

My experience at the WSF questions whether a space is provided for grassroots voices to shape alternatives to globalisation from above, and whether coherence is actually growing within the WSF movement. It seemed that middle-class activists had more hold on the direction the WSF took without including the attendance and concerns of those most affected.

Siziwe Khanyile, Air Quality Co-ordinator of groundWork, South Africa noted, with reference to the climate change discussions, “Africa is one of the worst affected by climate change…I don’t know how many [local] people [are] part of the discussions. It would be nice to have a stronger African presence… It is more of the people you work with; there aren’t any new people…people who have the funding have been able to come”

In addition to a class imbalance at the WSF, there was clearly also a gender imbalance. Many of the Southern NGOs and representatives present, most funded by Western donors, were mainly men, while a limited attendance existed by women leaderships, particularly those women who are normally at the frontline of social and environmental injustices at the household level.

Strategic leaderships building momentum at the grassroots level seemed to have been lacking in countries to bring those affected to the WSF. I questioned whether the WSF really helped unite social movements across the globe struggling against the forces of neoliberal capitalism, while seeking a world order based on justice.

An interview I conducted with Desmond D’Sa, leader of the South Durban Community Environmental Alliance (SDCEA) in South Africa highlighted the urgent need to mobilise grassroots within nations and communities if local voices are to shape WSF events, “…I haven’t seen ordinary people active in most of the [WSF] stuff…it also starts in home countries where civil society is fragmented and because of the fragmentation, it leads to individuals taking the lead…they are accountable to nobody…people [grassroots] taking the lead and being active in the [WSF] process…does not happen…more women need to be at the forefront…in the leadership…”

Besides fragmentation of civil society actors at the local level, fragmentation between civil society actors did partially exist at the WSF between environmental organisations. This was more so between some of the big international NGOs and other environmental groups.

Firstly, it was rewarding to see the Climate Justice Tent engaging around 200 activists (NGOs, CBOs, community leaders, academic-left activists) in strategies and tactics, which was erected on the south side of the campus. This was away from the somewhat market fun-fair on the northern side where most international/national NGOs advertised themselves (although some did engage in workshops), with some selling organic produce, while other local business folk sold arts and crafts to amazed Westerners.

(Surprisingly, unlike the chaotic spaces of cancelled workshops and panels, this space for advertising – and profiteering – was well organised and clearly labelled). Nevertheless, there seemed to be a polarization of cooperative participation between the two campus sites.

Some international NGOs seemed to have divergent ideologies from activists and community organisations engaging in discussions to strategise against the destructive effects of globalisation and climate change. As Phil Thornhill, who works on climate change and is the National Co-ordinator of the Campaign Against Violent Change in the United Kingdom noted on the environmental divide, “…the green movement is divided…[although] more people have gotten interested in climate change and become active…[however], people bring in a lot of political agendas, and sometimes these political agendas tend to dominate…there is also a role for a kind of big tent bringing all kinds of people together…[but] the big NGOs bring their brands…and they want to dominate the agenda…”

Besides the WSF disorganisation, class and gender imbalances, lack of grassroots presence, individualised leadership, and divergent ideologies between some groupings, the forum’s strength was in bringing together activists and groupings from across the globe to engage in common struggles for social and environmental justice that would not have otherwise occurred.

It was good to see activists making connections between the different struggles globally, hinting at how the WSF event has advanced since its inception at Davos from just criticising market forces. Discussions (where possible) and connections centred around international migration, the exploitation of land and natural resources, and land grabbing and biofuels to name a few.

Struggles against tyranny in Egypt and Tunisia also formed a backdrop to the WSF, showing the WSF’s role of providing solidarity. A large rally was organised in Dakar in support of the people’s movement in Egypt. In addition, gathering at the WSF centred on linking up activists globally for strategising and planning, building up to the United Nations Conference of Parties (COP17) to be held in Durban, from 28th November – 9 December 2011.