Global Policy Forum

Africa and the WSF:


By Karoline Kemp and Patrick Burnett,
Fahamu and Joy Olivier

January 26, 2006

Organisers hailed the first phase of the World Social Forum (WSF), which ended on Monday in the Malian capital of Bamako, as having created an "Afrocentric" focus that was missing in previous forums. Quoted by IPS, coordinator Mamadou Goita said: "This is the first time we have had a majority of Africans attending a WSF. Usually there have been less than 100 African NGOs (non-governmental organisations) at any of the other WSFs. It was too expensive for most Africans to travel to Porto Alegre or Mumbai." But after nearly six years, where has the WSF come to? Pambazuka News provides questions and answers about the movement that seeks to challenge corporate globalisation.

1. The WSF has been around since 2001. Where is it now and what happened this year?

The World Social Forum changed its format this year. Instead of one centralized meeting (which until now have been held alternatively in Mumbai, India and Porto Alegre, Brazil), several polycentric events took place. Caracas, Venezuela; Bamako, Mali and Karachi, Pakistan will all host the WSF in January, 2006.

This has been an important progression in the history of the forum, as it serves to expand access to the forum by making it easier for activists and civil society players to participate. The forum thus claims to "offer to progressive forces in Africa a very first opportunity, following to the huge range of popular resistances during the nineties, to significantly set their fights and their alternatives in a global seeking of the construction of a fair world with more solidarity and respectful of People's sovereignty."

The goal of the WSF is not to produce agreements on specific policy positions but to offer a space for dialogue and engagement, with resources to strategise, network and plan joint ventures for the future. It has been successful in creating a loose network of forces around the world who advocate for social, political and economic justice. It has often been called an "anti-globalisation" movement, but is in fact one of the most globalised movements in the history of social justice.

The movement has been criticised, however, as simply a popularized gathering of wealthy NGOs and funders. Past forums have also been dominated by certain interests, leading to debates about whether the WSF represents revolutionaries or reformists. The WSF is anti- globalisation, anti-war, etc. This has also been criticised, leaving many people to question the process of the WSF which is characterised by endless debate and pose questions such as: What is the WSF for? What solutions does the WSF offer? How can the movement move forward, rather than simply critiquing social, political and economic problems as they exist? Further criticisms of the forum focus on the lack of structure or organisational support – whether it be the complicated and often non-functioning website, poor planning at the actual event or the need for more support for participants.

2. There seems to be a lot of criticism over its form, structure and decision making. What does this involve?

The WSF is popularly characterized by a reputation of embodying a complex and confusing decision making process. In order to preserve the plural and open consensus style that is the mandate of the forum, the goal of creating a bottom-up, grassroots event is often planned in an extremely heavy handed, top down manner. Some critics argue that the WSF is not transparent or accountable, let alone democratic and that their Charter of Principles, size, lack of resources and goals of planning massive events make organizing unmanageable. The numerous organisations and individuals involved also offer competing views and ideas, adding to the layers of difficulty in planning such an event.

3. What were the focus areas in Bamako this year?

Each year the WSF appoints thematic areas. This year, in Bamako, 10 were chosen. Topics included war and militarisation, security and peace; globalised neoliberalism; aggression against peasantry; the alliance between patriarchal and neo-liberal systems; culture, media and communication; destruction of ecosystems, biological diversity and resources control; international order and the role of the UN; international trade, debt and economic and social policies; social fights, human rights, social organisations and political rights; alternatives. The areas to be discussed are meant to be kept quite loose, and can be kept extremely localised or made to be more general depending on the needs of the participants.

4. What does the WSF mean for Africa?

Africa will commemorate the 200th anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade in 2007 and the 50th anniversary of the independence of Ghana. It's also a year in which the World Social Forum will be hosed in Nairobi, Kenya, so the Bamako forum offers the potential for the WSF to entrench itself in Africa ahead of 2007. Malian author and social activist Dr Aminata Dramane Traoré has pointed out that the polycentric organisation of the forum is the first step in the process of rooting the WSF in Africa and mobilizing those people on the continent who have been hardest hit by globalization (http:// In the same interview, she went on to say: "Holding the WSF in Africa will increase African awareness as far as the link between poverty and globalisation is concerned. Also, Africans will feel more connected to the process than if it were being held elsewhere." The Bamako Forum has also provided the space for groups from around Africa to articulate their concerns, with the Ogoni people from Nigeria and the Yaaku community in Kenya reported to have made their case in Bamako ( tory.asp?idnews=476) , and sessions dedicating to discussing the issue of land bringing together groups from around the continent ( default.asp?2,40,5,925).

5. What global solutions is the WSF generating?

The WSF attracts thousands of people from across the world who work in many different areas and have diverse outlooks, not only about the problems that the world faces, but also in their beliefs about how these problems should be tackled. This has made the articulation of united policy positions difficult and therefore led to frustration in some quarters that while there is a great deal of marching, singing and slogan shouting, nothing much seems to come out of the effort ( orld/wsf_3211.jsp) . Certainly, after six years of existence, its possible to detect a degree of cynicism from veteran WSF travelers that they've heard the same speeches a number of times before. Moreover, while the forums have provided an area for meeting and debate, there's no discernable change to a world where neo-liberalism runs riot and poverty deepens by the day. Before this year's forum there were calls from the likes of Civicus Secretary General Kumi Naidoo for "different civil society actors to find common ground, engage in joint strategising, and plan joint activities for the future" ( wsf2006/views tory.asp?idnews=462) . But, says founders of the forum, this is not what the forum was intended for in the first place. "The primary purpose of the forum is to create a space for free dialogue between social movements, and that its openness should not be compromised by confining participants to any narrow statement of intent," says Chico Whitaker in an article on

6. Who Funds the WSF?

It's very difficult to determine who pays for the WSF: The website cites no sponsors, and it is hard to find any organisations or funding bodies highlighting their role as sponsors. The WSF charter is silent regarding what kinds of international sources of funding may be tapped. The registration fees are minimal. All organisations participating in the WSF are asked to contribute towards a translation solidarity fund, which is intended to help cover the WSF's translation budget.

There is some mention of a funding policy for the WSF held in India, such as the limit of Rs. 25 lakhs limit per donor being raised to Rs. 50 lakhs for WSF 2004. The WSF India website also mentions plans to approach state, local administration, authorities and public bodies to providing facilities free or at subsidised rates and to hold cultural events "with discretion" to raise funds. According to the WSF Charter as adopted in India, the WSF can seek funds from Indian industry and commerce.

Although it appears from the WSF India website that some foreign funding would be raised and managed, Kukke and Shah (http:// .php?id=148) claim that a decision was taken not to accept foreign funds, and that all funding needs would be "addressed by the local organisations that had come together to host the event".

7. Are grassroots organisations represented?

The question of grassroots representation is quite closely tied with those around funding. Organisations working on the ground are usually far more cash-strapped than those that network, train, research or sponsor them, and the former usually (hopefully) spend their money largely on meeting the direct needs of their beneficiaries. Several private foundations did manage to sponsor representatives of grassroots women's organisations to attend the events in Bamako, enabling many to make voices heard that are frequently absent in international 'jamborees'.

Sending representatives to WSF meetings is thus only possible with sponsorship, and again, it is difficult to find information about where to go about applying for travel and accommodation grants. This, together with the fact that air travel within Africa is often prohibitively expensive, leaves grassroots organisations based in the country where the WSF is held. However, the relationships between Northern NGOs and African movements are seldom balanced. According to Njoke Njehu: "Governments tend to listen first to the IFI's and to international NGO's before they listen to their own civil society."

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