World Social Forum: Near chaos in Nairobi
UN reform: less visions, more diplomacy
Near chaos in Nairobi
Luckily, only 50,000 people attended the World Social Forum in Nariobi in January. Had, as originally expected, 150,000 made it to the venue, disorganisation would have tipped into total chaos. The get-together of globalisation-skeptics was certainly substantial in terms of content, but nonetheless failed to meet the highest expectations.
[ By Frank Kürschner-Pelkmann ]
The main reason people attending the World Social Forum (WSF) were disappointed was that the event was poorly organised. Too often, microphones and amplifying equipment were in such a bad shape that one could hardly follow the discussion. The press centre was so inadequately equipped that journalists were happy to send a report back home at all. Rescheduling at the last minute frequently caused frustration too. For example, three groups believed to have the same time slot in one room; an Indian initiative of homeless people was among those who had to leave. As they squatted on the floor, their spokesman stated wearily that they were quite used to being evicted.
It must be stressed that these problems were not typically African. The international WSF organising teams relied on volunteers from many other countries as well. But of course, disorganisation affected the forums quality.
Many fascinating and well-researched contributions, many of which dealt with Africa, did not get the attention they deserved. For instance, seminars on the impacts of oil production and mining in Africa were poorly attended. These side-events could have explained to many more people why local populations only benefit so very little from the contintents abundant resources, and how, as a result, conflicts intensify. Groups from resource-rich countries such as Angola and Sierra Leone met, often for the first time, and agreed to cooperate in future. And yes, it was heartening to watch African groups involved in human-rights, gender or environmental matters elaborate on their causes before a global public, stressing issues such as migration or HIV/AIDS. Moreover, it was striking how prominently churches and church-related relief organisations contributed to the WSF.
Sadly, however, the WSF in Nairobi did not manage to place its more than 1200 presentations into a coherent context. It was impossible to get an insight into the breadth of international globalisation-skepticism. Fragmentation was exacerbated by the lack of charismatic personalities who might have left their mark on the WSF. Speakers such as the Kenneth Kaunda, the former president of Zambia, were controversial. Many people only found out after the event that Desmond Tutu, the Nobel peace laureate from South Africa, spoke at the WSF. Other prominent speakers from the anti-globalisation movement, such as Indias Vandana Shiva, are largely unknown in Africa. Their appearances were not celebrated in advance, they only met with praise after they had made their valuable contributions.
Many Latinos and Europeans complained that large, international NGOs were marginalising grassroots movements from around the world, thanks to money and logistical prowess. Such criticism is only partly justified. Had it not been for the many agenda items presented by international relief organisations and foundations, those attending probably would have been even more dissatisfied. Unlike in Latin America or India, African civil society is not really marked by influential mass movements. There is, however, a number of smaller groups and initiatives, and they did find a forum in Nairobi.
The poor were constantly present but only as the subject-matter of debate. The nearest slum area seemed worlds away from the well-protected WSF venue. When several hundred slum dwellers were allowed onto the grounds free of charge due to pressure from South African activists, they fast established a small market. However, there was hardly any dialogue with these guests. The movements that sponsor the global meeting have decided to take a break after Nairobi: no World Social Forum will be held next year.
is a freelance journalist and consultant. He lives in Hamburg and specialises in development issues.