February 14, 2011
Fifty thousand activists from around the world descended on Senegal’s capital city of Dakar at the westernmost point in Africa the first week in February for the World Social Forum. Meeting on an almost annual basis since its first gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, the WSF provides a space to discuss and debate proposals and collaborative actions to build a new and better world.
The WSF first met as a response to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Instead of exclusionary spaces that placed corporate greed over human needs, the WSF championed the daring proposition that indeed another world is possible. The WSF now has a decade of bringing together social movements dedicated to a struggle against neoliberal capitalism and militaristic imperialism, and in favor of constructing a world based on humane fairness and social justice.
Through a sequence of global meetings in Brazil, India, Kenya, and now Senegal, as well as many more local, national, and regional forums, the WSF has fundamentally shifted political discourse to the left. Bringing the forum back to Africa helped refocus attention on the region as well as linking local realities to a global struggle.
The forum met in the context of an ongoing crisis in the global capitalist system. This crisis has had its most visible impact in the poorest countries, and can be seen through problems in the financial, food, and energy systems as well as climate change. Neoliberal policies of privatizing public resources that international institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) have promoted have had a particularly negative effect on Africa.
To confront these issues, the Dakar forum was organized around the three main themes of deepening a critical analysis of capitalism, strengthening struggles against capitalism and imperialism, and building democratic and popular alternatives to these systems of oppression.
The six-day meeting began with a massive march from downtown Dakar to the university where the forum subsequently held its events. Participants were in high spirits, and their chants and banners revealed a wide range of social justice issues they had come to champion. The march culminated with a rally at the university featuring a speech from Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales. Morales denounced imperialism, and pointed to the importance of the forum as a school where activists could come to learn how to build stronger, more powerful, and more effective social movements.
A thousand activities were planned over the course of the forum. The first day of meetings focused on Africa and the African diaspora, including a session with the daughters of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X in which they debated the legacies of their famous fathers for today. A meeting with former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva emphasized his work to build closer relations between Africa and his South American country. Not only is Brazil home to the forum, but it is also home to the largest African diasporic population.
The following two days featured self-organized activities representing the wide range of interests and concerns that activists brought to the forum. Evenings were filled with musical and cultural events as well as informal networking. The final two days were dedicated to convergences of organizations, networks, and international movements during which participants proposed actions around common themes for building a better world. The forum finished with a closing ceremony at which organizations presented their statements and programs for action.
The WSF was initially conceptualized as a space for divergent civil society groups to meet and collaborate around common concerns. It was designed to mobilize and empower grassroots organizations rather than creating a unified movement with a specific agenda. Its failure to make statements has opened it up to criticism by some who would like to take advantage of its momentum to advance a specific political agenda.
Facing a hegemonic Washington Consensus that favored privatization of resources when it first met in 2001, the WSF initially emerged out of anarchistic tendencies that viewed governments as part of the problem. Organizers explicitly excluded governments, political parties, and armed insurgent movements from this meeting of civil society. Global political discourse has shifted significantly to the left over the past decade, and nowhere is this more apparent than in South America. As a result, more participants now warm to the idea of using political parties and governments as instruments to solve the problems facing the crisis of global capitalism.
As with all WSFs, most of the participants came from the host country, with large caravans also bringing delegates from neighboring West African countries. Senegal’s former colonial overlord France also contributed a significantly large number of participants. In comparison, Asia and the Americas contributed relatively small delegations. Many WSFs are multilingual events, but in francophone Africa, French became the lingual franca leaving some participants from the former British colonies of Nigeria and Kenya feeling excluded.
The larger social forums have attracted as many as 150,000 participants. In comparison, the 50,000 activists in Dakar seemed to be quite small. Nevertheless, the largest forums have been held in Brazil and India with much larger populations than the twelve million people in Senegal. Since forums draw so heavily on the host country’s population, as forum founder Chico Whitaker noted, the size of this forum should be seen as a success rather than a failure.
Each social forum acquires its own style and unique characteristics. Unfortunately, the 2011 Dakar forum will be known for its frustrated chaos. This is unfortunate because it was a forum with a high degree of unrealized potential. Africa is no stranger to the social forum process, and the region has had more social forums than any other continent.
A series of logical problems plagued the Dakar forum. The task of organizing the forum was apparently more than the local committee could handle, but yet it refused offers of international assistance. In what has become a standard problem at WSFs, the schedule of events came out late and in piecemeal fashion, making it difficult if not impossible for many participants to find their sessions.
Further complicating the issue, due to an earlier strike classes were still in session at the university. Students displaced activists from planned meeting spaces, leaving some participants wondering why the forum could not have done a better job of incorporating students into the events. Organizers quickly set up tents to house the sessions, but the chaos and a lack of space led to the cancellation of many sessions.
Most significantly, in the aftermath of popular uprisings that toppled authoritarian governments in Tunisia and Egypt, Senegal’s president Abdoulaye Wade feared the arrival of well-organized social movements that could similarly place his government under siege. The expense and logistical difficulties of hosting such a large meeting require the tactile consent if not outright support of the host government, but in Senegal an antagonistic president sought to sabotage the forum.
A running debate within the forum is whether a world meeting of social movements is worth the financial cost, environmental consequences, and logistical nightmares involved in organizing such a massive meeting. Too often only well-connected non-governmental organizations (NGOs) with access to the time, financial resources, and visas necessary to travel can attend the forum instead of grassroots organizations that are its intended base. Some activists have proposed holding a virtual meeting instead, yet (as many universities find as they move away from online education) much value is to be had in face-to-face meetings.
After a successful run of ten years of meetings, the future of the WSF is unclear. At the close of the meeting in Dakar, the forum’s international organizing committee met to plan future strategies. When the forum first met in Porto Alegre it embraced a novel strategy of organizing around social and economic justice issues from the perspective of the global south. Although logistical problems have worn some of that initial shine off of the meeting, for many participants coming together every two years in a global meeting still holds much value. As long as the WSF continues to meet, the global justice movement shows no sign of abating.
Marc Becker teaches Latin American History at Truman State University, and writes on social movements in the South American Andes. More information on the Dakar meeting is available on his website http://www.yachana.org/reports/wsf11/.