Steve Ouma (2007-02-07)
A critical examination of the WSF highlights the imbalances between on the one hand the NGOs and CSO and on the other, the people’s movements. The conclusion is that the former must now begin to listen to the latter in order for globalisation to occur from below and for the masses to speak to power.
The World Social Forum (WSF) has carved its space as an assembly of movement of movements. The latest forum was held in Nairobi between 20th and 25th January 2007.
This discussion paper is part of the broader project by the author aimed at examining the role and place of human rights discourse in shaping the global social justice and human rights movement within the context of the WSF. At the outset, the paper explores two items based on the author’s observations and experience at the forum.
First the paper reviews the extent to which the Nairobi session stimulated or accelerated the vertical and horizontal linkage(s) between the various movements. In so doing, it attempts to appraise the counter force by the citizenry against the onslaught of capital-led globalization. Second, the paper attempts to review the utility of the human rights discourse and language in shaping the character and principal issues around which these movements do organize. The analysis reveals that although the connectivity of the movements seems to have been realized, the Nairobi session failed to emerge focused as a counter force to the Davos-led and capital-centered globalization.
Ultimately, it is only by defining the contours and ethical values as seen and experienced by the poor and marginalized themselves that real globalization will be promoted from below and the WSF made a strong, relevant and viable force.
The 7th session of the World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Nairobi from the 20th to 25th January 2007. The Forum demonstrated the coming of age of what started as a resistance session against economic-centered globalization. The first session of the WSF was held in Porto Allegre Brazil in 2001, as a response to the World Economic Forum (WEF) -an annual meeting of top business leaders, journalists, national political leaders (presidents, prime ministers and others), and selected intellectuals and renowned personalities- usually held in Davos, Switzerland.
The main aim of the Davos forum that was founded in 1971 is to define the trajectory and architecture for more capital-led globalization. The thinkers behind the WSF intended to counterweight or shape the agenda of the Davos economic moguls. This greatly explains why part of the success criteria for the WSF has always been in demonstrating that it is made of large, visible and devoted international community. No doubt one of the indicators has been the rapid growth in the number of participants who attend the WSF. It is reported that the first WSF in 2001 had a participation of about 12,000 people, while the one held in 2005 had an approximate participation of about 150,000.
The Character and Message
Despite a decision that was made in 2003 to halt the monopoly of Porte Allegre in hosting the forum, the WSF has maintained its initial character guided by its ‘Porto Allegre’ charter of principles as an open forum. Additionally, the WSF has witnessed diverse initiatives from social movements, non-governmental organizations, activists and people committed to a better world founded on justice and human dignity converge for some sort of carnivore of resistance, especially against imperial globalization.
Despite the dwindling number of participants at the Nairobi session (estimated at about 40,000 from the initially projected 150,000) the Nairobi assembly still provided the much required moment and opportunity to define another world. In almost all sessions, the agenda was clear: that the current of globalization must change. This is more so because it has produced and continues to support a system where too few share in its benefits. It is characterized with deep-seated and persistent imbalances in the current workings of the global economy, which are ethically unacceptable and politically and economically unsustainable.
Through the various informal sessions at the WSF 2007 in workshops, art, theatre, processions and mute courts, the various grassroots movements were able to complete the picture of the nature and intensity of the unjust global system. It worked in linking residents of slums with landless squatters, the indigenous and the minority with the disabled and the excluded and the various other networks of men and women in the resistance movement. From the Forum, it was further clear that this movement is becoming stronger and bigger than the NGOs and CSOs which may have played a role in facilitating some of the community-based movements and organizations in attending the forum. It is however a shame that some of the CSOs are unable to let go beyond the facilitation.
A key message that one could carry from the Forum is that the middle class-based CSOs need to let go the space for the social movements. The CSOs must allow the movements to radicalize and define their claims within their own space. Truly, a time has come when the CSOs and NGOs, both local and international, must agree to be led by people’s movements.
In any case, as it did emerge during the Nairobi session, the WSF has now become bigger than the organizers, and this is why I say the WSF has come of age. A case in point is when community groups at the WSF 2007 protested vehemently against the local organizing committee that was adulterating the environment of the WSF.
The community groups fought back against the exploitative price of drinking water, the domination of food supply by the middle-class hotels, the arrogance and some of the unethical practices allegedly conducted and perpetuated by the organizers, and so on. In fact the protest march to the offices of the organizers seemed to state that the participants in the WSF and its organizers were no longer comrades. While some chose to see this as being disrespectful, such efforts are commendable as it did demonstrate that globalization from below shall be about clarification of value from within the movement and connection of the grassroots resistance. Indeed, the poor and the marginalized people struggles must protect the egalitarian nature of the WSF and safeguard it.
Talking to Davos
But, perhaps, it would also be vital to expound on two of the glaring limitations about politicizing and focusing our message and the challenge of using the rights language. As has been stated in the background, the WSF emerged as a counter force to capital organizing under the WEF. Over the years, the WSF sessions were designed to delegitimize Davos and define the agenda of another world that is guided by the principles of individual and collective responsibility, and that requires economic development based on the respect for human rights. Ironically, it is unfortunate that in the multiplicity of activities, the Nairobi session ended completely unfocused and with no message or rallying point to respond to or mitigate the negative consequences and dimensions of globalization.
As one of the usual white-wash mechanisms, the theme for the Davos session of the WEF this year was “the shifting power equitation”. In their discussion, the over 2,400 participants were focusing on the threats of power concentration due to the emergence of China and Asia in general. This theme was, in my opinion, very well-curved for reaction by the WSF. Unfortunately very few of the participants in the Nairobi session at any time knew that the WEF was going on. This serves to give ammunition to those who think that the WSF is a simple anarchist and CSO empty talk.
For WSF to maintain its relevance and significance the en mass must be able to talk to power and organize the social capital to some visible influencing strength that can tilt power to the common citizens.
Human Rights and People’s Struggles
The second decision point is on a major lesson that I leant at the WSF 2007. Having expended most of the time at the Human Rights Dignity and Caucus tent, I did notice the major contradictions between the people’s angle of human rights and the angle to rights taken by the NGOs. It has already been noted that the design of the tent was within the conventional power of a heavy podium vs audience arrangement. This attests that there seem to have been no discussion on how our values would guide how we organize the tent; who speaks; what we eat; in what language and how we communicate, and so on.
Nevertheless perhaps the most salient was the interpretation of the struggles as presented and seen by the communities, and the way it was presented and viewed by the CSOs. First and foremost, the sessions were led by renowned CSOs, locally and globally, and in most occasions the approach was that of articulating rights issues from the point of universal human rights law and regime. Obsessed by these views of rights, which were significantly middle-class, a number of CSO representatives shocked the audience when they, on occasions, attempted to respond even to the opinions of the various communities in the struggle purportedly to put it within the international human rights context.
Testimonies from the communities and presentations on the other hand demonstrated a belief and stand-point that human rights must be defined by the people’s struggle. For instance, the way communities see the struggle of land is what must inform the codification of claim in terms of the rights language. One classical example was the case of the cost of living and survival tactics in Kibera in Nairobi, as testified by a community member. The community representative illustrated very well the struggle for subsistence and dignity in Kibera. Nonetheless, it was such a shame when one of the so-called human rights NGO scholars attempted to engage her later, purportedly to educate her on which of her rights were being violated. In fact, the middle-class discourse, as was popularly the case at the Human Rights tent, has a potential of limiting the space and drive for community straggles. Amidst the communities in the struggle, expectations have run ahead of opportunities and hope clouded by resentments.
About Leadership and Human Rights
Judging from the various sessions at the WSF, the poor and marginalized communities recognize the reality of globalization. What they want is a freer cross-borders exchange of ideas, knowledge, goods and services; what men and women seek is respect for their dignity and cultural identity; they ask for opportunities to earn decent living; they expect globalization to bring tangible benefits to their daily lives and ensure a better future for their children; they also wish to voice in the governance of the process, including extent and nature of the integration of their economies and communities into the global market and to participate more fairly in its outcomes. This means that the human rights worker and activist must realize that social change that we are all struggling for must be informed by the needs of the poor and vulnerable masses, the way they see them and in the direction that they feel to be appropriate for them at any particular time. The only role that CSOs and human rights workers have here is when the poor and vulnerable choose to draw sustenance for their struggle from universal human ideas, and/or the practical experience of other struggles; but they must start from the full acceptance that this is their own struggle and belief that even when they do invite support from other struggles or partners like CSOs, they shall lead the struggle.
The relevance of human rights, therefore, is as far as it expands the space for community struggles; reinforces the realization of their capabilities or serves to legitimize wider horizons of claims for the communities. Otherwise, the attempts to impose the rights language to communities who are already organized in a more radical discourse can serve to limit the energy and organic nature of such struggles.
* Steve Ouma is the Programmes Coordinator and Deputy Executive Director of the Kenya Human Rights Commission. Contact address Valley Arcade, Gitanga Road, P.O. Box 41079, 00100 Nairobi – GPO, Kenya Tel. 254-2-3874998/9, 3876065, 0733-629034, 0722-264497, Fax: 254-2-3874997