Global Policy Forum

World Social Forum:


By Almahady Cissé

Inter Press Service
January 17, 2006

With just a day to go before Africa's first-ever World Social Forum (WSF) gets underway in Mali, attitudes towards the meeting appear somewhat mixed in the West African country.

"This forum will not lead to anything; we'll just hear the same speeches," says Aliou Traoré, a teacher in the capital of Bamako where the gathering is being held. "Before, it was politicians putting us to sleep with their words -- now it's those who question globalisation who are doing so."

However, Barry Aminata Touré, president of the Debt and Development Coalition, disagrees. "It's as a result of...those who are sceptical about globalisation that the major Western powers have changed their positions on the debt of countries in the South, and on cotton," she says. This is in reference to the price-distorting subsidies received by cotton producers in wealthy nations, especially the United States, which have crippled farmers in West Africa. The word "South" refers to developing countries -- including those outside the southern hemisphere. Given what has been achieved by globalisation sceptics, adds Touré, meetings such as the one in Bamako serve a purpose.

The WSF is an annual event that was started in 2001 as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, held in the Swiss town of Davos. While the economic forum is attended by members of the business and political elite who are widely viewed as supporting globalisation, the WSF mainly attracts civil society groups which vigorously oppose it. A broad range of issues, ranging from environmental degradation to the plight of indigenous peoples, is discussed at the forum.

The WSF took place away from the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre for the first time in 2004, when it was hosted by the Indian coastal city of Mumbai. Bamako's forum (Jan. 19 to 23) is the first to be held in Africa. Two additional WSFs will also take place later this year in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas -- and the Pakistani financial centre of Karachi.

If Aly Coulibaly, a small-scale cotton farmer, has anything to say on the matter, cotton subsidies will continue to feature prominently during the Bamako WSF. He and several others form part of peasant groups which have traveled from central Mali to participate in the forum. "We've come to defend our cotton and fight against subsidies," he said. "Cotton is all-important for us, and we're going to defend it -- even if this costs us our lives." Simply giving speeches on the matter is no longer sufficient, added Coulibaly. "We've come to march, to show the world's leading powers -- especially the Americans -- that their policies are unfair...that their decisions are endangering the lives of millions of people."

For Aminata Dramane Traoré, a writer and former cabinet minister, the success of Mali's WSF hinges on whether it can galvanise Africans to take action concerning the negative effects of globalisation. "The Bamako forum must lead to an awareness that Africa is central to the issues under debate. Africa must take ownership of the fight (against unfettered globalisation)."

Youth organisations hope the WSF will lead to greater involvement of young people in global events -- particularly those that concern the future of the youth. At present says Souley Ibrahim, spokesman for youth at the WSF, young people from Mali and elsewhere in Africa are greatly under-represented in decision-making structures -- including those created for WSFs. "This is why we're organising a youth camp alongside the forum," he told IPS.

The camp is named after former Burkinabé leader Thomas Sankara who assumed the presidency via a military coup in 1983, but also introduced a number of progressive policies before being assassinated in 1987. These included efforts to fight corruption, curb the power of tribal leaders, and advance women.

According to Ibrahim, youths who attend will not be offered traditional camp activities such as reforestation and environmental clean-ups. "This camp is innovative in that it will allocate considerable time to debates under the auspices of a 'Forum for World Youth' -- something aimed at giving young people a chance to speak," he adds. "The 'Forum for World Youth' will discuss all matters that concern the youth, and those who are fighting (the global order)."

Malian women are also hoping to be active in the Bamako WSF. "Although we represent more than 52 percent of the population in Mali, we are marginalised, under-represented and excluded...However, all the decisions that men take about family, social and even political matters concern and affect us," says Traoré Oumou Touré, executive secretary of the coordinating body for women's non-governmental associations and organisations (NGOs) in Mali.

Touré says this body, which groups almost 500 associations and NGOs, understood instantly what would be required to make a mark at the WSF. "We have asked our supporters to register for activities on all issues. The challenge, for us, is to have greater women's participation in this fight -- and above all to show that women have to be actors in world affairs, rather than submit to them."

Speak to Mali's business people, souvenir sellers and hotel owners, however, and the concern is less about whether the WSF will alter the shape of world politics -- and more about whether it will prove a windfall for the country. "I hope that we see a lot of business as a result of this forum," Hamidou Konaté, an antique dealer at the Bamako craft market, told IPS. Some already appear to be reaping benefits from the WSF. "I've earned 10,000 CFA francs (about 20 dollars) a day since yesterday -- as opposed to 1,000 to 2,000 CFA francs (two to four dollars)," said Mariam Doumbia, Tuesday. She sells doughnuts in front of the Modibo Keita sports stadium in Bamako, where the youth camp has been set up.

In addition to hundreds of activists, a number of celebrities and well-known politicians are also expected to make an appearance at the Bamako WSF. These include civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and actor Danny Glover, both from the United States, and Danielle Mitterrand: wife of deceased French president Franí§ois Mitterrand.

"As far as organisation (for the meeting) goes, we are ready," Mamadou Goita told IPS. He is one of three co-ordinators for the WSF's national organising committee. With the second African WSF already scheduled to take place in Kenya's capital, Nairobi, in 2007, the hope is that events in Bamako will prove Goita right.

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