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After the WSF in Nairobi – some reflections

Friday 9 March 2007, by Michel WARSCHAWSKI

The 7th edition of the World Social Forum, held in Nairobi Kenya, raised a series of important questions which were mentioned at the International Council and will be discussed in one of its next sessions, after we appointed a working group which will try to prepare the discussion. These questions can be summarized as questions of the ethics of the WSF : the place of multi-national and other big corporations in sponsoring the event, from where to accept financing ? How much open should remain the “open space” and does it include fundamentalists preachers or blatant racists ? Who can decide and on what ground ?
In my opinion, these ethical questions are, however, easy questions, compared to the existential ones which concern the very function and future of the WSF itself. After close to a decade of accumulated experience, one needs to question the WSF as such, without fearing to challenge old truths and established taboos.

Important achievements of the SF process

I have been involved in the WSF process since its very beginning, in the Anti-Davos gatherings in Zurich, where the idea of a World Social Forum was raised as an alternative to the World Economical Forum of the leaders of the world. Since then, I have been in all the world forums, except one, as well as in most of the International Council meetings, where I represent the Alternative Information Center, one of the founding organizations of this Council. With this accumulated experience, I can testify about the importance of the Social Forums (SF) process, and to the big progresses made throughout the last 8 years.

The main achievement of that Social Forum process has been, in my opinion, to give a death-blow to the monopoly of the “unique discourse” of neo-liberalism, to unmask it as what it is : a mere ideology aimed to justify a certain socio-economic (dis)order, and not the description of the normality of the world. “Another world is possible” has been our answer to the big lie of neo-liberalism as the only possible framework for humanity, a world where, unlike the neo-liberal dogma, “human beings are not mere goods”. And this alternative discourse has been heard throughout the whole planet, loud and clear.

The second achievement of the SF process, was to build a very large and open space for political exchange between social movements and NGO’s from the five continents, defending a very large range of opinions and analysis. This was possible only on the basis of the Porto Alegre Charter, which decided that it will be an open and horizontal space, without any king of hierarchization and prioritization. As such the SF could not decide anything, neither in terms of positions nor in terms of actions. These built-in limits, created, after a while, frustration among the more radical activist and organizations, but they were indispensable in order to keep it as an open, inclusive forum.

The WSF and its mandate

Quite many activists have been disappointed by the WSF and its lack of ability to be more than a “space of political exchange”. They would expect to see it adopting political statements and eventually initiating global actions, campaigns etc.

Acting according to such kind of expectations would mean the end of the WSF. This structure includes thousands of organizations movements with quite different political agendae and ideologies : revolutionary ones, reformist and even “spiritualist”, secular and religious, socialist and non-socialist. The common denominator is extremely limited, and this limitation allows to unite the global social movement in one – loose, indeed – structure.
One can regret it, but it reflects the reality of the global social movement today, in which there is no hegemonic current, as was the workers socialist movement in the previous historical period. One of the results of that political, ideological and organizational crisis of the international socialist movement has been the blooming of the NGO phenomenon, which influence in the WSF and its International Council is colossal, essentially due to its financial strength, compared to the social movements. The Social Forum process is not only a meeting place for organization and movements with different political agendae, but also of social movements and NGO’s.
Inside this process, we can identify three important political battles on the issue of hegemony in the movement : 1) a struggle between those who are fighting against any kind of hegemony and those who try to orient the movement towards a certain direction ; one can fairly assess that often the “anti-hegemony” current is also trying to impose a certain vision of the world and of the movement needed. 2) a struggle between different political global orientations, especially between a revolutionary anti-capitalist orientation, and a anti-neo-liberal, more reformist orientation. 3) a tension between NGOs and social movements.

If the spirit of unity, cooperation and inclusiveness is very much alive, one should not naively underestimate the mutual suspicion which exists among these various tendencies, and the fear – sometimes legitimate, sometimes not – of the hegemonic aspirations of the other tendencies. Precisely because the structure, the mandate and the self-imposed limitations of the WSF are the product of the reality of the international social movement, it must, in my opinion, remain as it is – and horizontal open space for exchange and discussions. And no more. For those activists who are looking for an organizational tool more action-oriented – and I am personally among those activists – there are other international structures, which have no such self-imposed limitations.

The Assembly of Social movements

At the IC meeting hold in Nairobi in January, I had a strong feeling of disconnection between what was discussed in that meeting – only procedural matters and logistics concerning the SF process itself – and the real world. This kind of bad feeling was shared by quite many other members of the IC : our world is in the middle of a Global War, led by the US, and this war will undoubtly degenerate, in the not so-long future, into new bloody conflicts, including a serious risk of nuclear war. Consistent with its mandate, the IC however was completely ignoring this war, as well as all the other burning issues of our planet, which, for sure, are at the heart of the preoccupations and activities of all the participants at that meeting.

In order to palliate to these self-imposed limitations, some of the participants in the SF process, established the Social Movements Assembly, which is a parallel structure without some of the political limitations of the SF, an action-oriented international coordination. Few other international assemblies have been established throughout the years, including the global Anti War Assembly.

The Social Movements Assembly, has a different mandate than the WSF one ; it can take practical decisions and organize campaigns, days of actions and mass initiatives. Moreover : in the SMA, the relative weight of the Social Movements , compared to the weight of the NGOs, is more important, and thus gives it great possibilities of mass mobilizations.

One of the highlights of the SMA and the AWA was the organization of the huge international demonstration against the invasion of Iraq in February 2003, in which 12-15 million demonstrators took part.

Last year, in Brussels, a three-days working session of social movements, initiated by some of the most active members of the SMA (CADTM, VIA CAMPESINA, CUT etc) discussed the place and the perspectives of the Social movements in the global process, and in May 2007 a second meeting of that kind is planned, in Berlin.

So far, so good.

However, the Nairobi SMA has shown its limits, which, mostly, are the result… of its success. A three hours meeting with a participation of two to three thousands activists can hardly be efficient, certainly for an action-oriented structure. Definitely, the political statement adopted by the SMA was good, as was, more or less, the one adopted by the Anti War Assembly, few hours before.
While the IC of the WSF cannot be changed, if we are interested to keep the Forum as an open and horizontal global structure, the SMA structure can and must be improved. My suggestions are going in three directions :

continuity : the selection of a permanent steering committee, aimed at initiating urgent meetings on thematic or more general concerns, as well as urgent actions. In that sense we will not to have to wait until the next WSF to take our own initiatives as a global social movement ;

efficiency : the Assembly should meet during the three or four days of the WSF, in order to be able to really tackle (some of) the important issues which are on our global agenda ;

thematization : we must think about an internal division of part of the SMA assemblies according to thematic concerns/struggles (as indeed the Anti-War Assembly), allowing to have part of the discussions and some kind of synthesis before the plenary meetings.