16 February 2007

Looking back on my WSF experience: personally, a success; politically, a failure?

Apologies for the pause in posting: I started travelling, and my internet connection was never good enough to edit the blog. C’est la vie

On Saturday the 26th of January, I was able to attend the International Council meeting. This is a group that oversees the WSF process. There were some initial thoughts on the WSF in Nairobi, with the Kenyan Organizing committee starting the feedback session. They were on the defensive from the get-go. They remained ultimately positive, however, and stated that the forum was a success because it actually happened. So their criteria for success was the mere fact that the WSF was not cancelled – it ‘happened’.

The arguments coming from the other side were slightly more rigorous, and based on the events of the 5 day forum. Here is a non-exhaustive list:

  • The 500 Shilling entrance fee was brought up time and again;
  • high cost of water and food. The main chairperson of the Kenyan Organising committee informed the council that 50,000 litres of water was actually donated, but the many volunteers who were in charge of distributing this ended up selling it;
  • There was the overall participation of the WSF, with only 50,000, which did not even reach conservative estimates of 60,000, and was way off the hopefully number of 150,000;
  • And then, there was financial mismanagement all along the way. Many who invested in bus services, tents and camping facilities lost a considerable amount of money;
  • The presence of religious groups whose views were anti sexual and reproductive rights. Firstly, there was a display of a crucified pregnant women (pictured below), which some groups asked to be taken down because they considered in blasphemous. Secondly, there were anti-abortion stands using the propaganda tools of displaying enlarged photos of mutilated foetuses;
  • Commercialisation and institutionalisation of the forum: Celtel – one of two major mobile phone services – was one of the main sponsors, as well as Kenya Airways; lots of Oxfam 4x4 driving around the stadium delivering the late programs.

But is it all negative? There were lots of issues, but in the end lots of people came away feeling positive. As for my experience:

I met a lot of great people at the youth camp (although there were only around 200 people out of a projected 1,500 – so there was a feeling of emptiness with so many vacant tents!). These have now added to my own global network of politically minded friends. I had a chance to connect with some really inspiring Kenyan groups who can get so much done with so little. I also witnessed some really important networking. On this last point, the Belgian-based CADTM (committee for the abolishment of third-world debt) was able to connect with the People’s Parliament as a radical NGO wanting the forum to do better. And aside from making new friends, there is now talk of translating some of CADTM’s books on debt into Kiswahili, which would be amazing. It’s a great example – one among many more – of global networking that helps assist local struggles: directly, through providing support in terms of discussions, sharing of knowledge and contacts; and indirectly through a more general process of raising awareness and overall solidarity.

What is great is that the problems were identified so quickly, and people took action right there and then. It may even be that many of these contradictions were already in the WSF process itself, and the Nairobi edition helped to flush them out. At any other large international gathering, the organisational process is usually much more inaccessible and difficult to engage with and change.

So what of the future of the WSF? There were moment when I had some serious doubts, because of all the problems that occurred and the immediate feelings of frustration, and seeing that some people came away feeling more embittered than inspired. However, there is still a significant amount of energy to keep the process going, and the anger due to poor organisation has resided.

In 2008, there won’t be a WSF, but a series of local actions and forums to be held around the same time in January. In 2009, the WSF will continue as normal. The next WSF-related event will be the International Council meeting in Rostock Germany, which will coincide with the meeting of the G8, and the subsequent counter-mobilisations. (on an interesting side-note, if you google ‘G8 2007’ the first hits you come up with are to do with the planned protests and not the G8 summit itself).

So it seems as though the broader ‘movement’ – alterglobalisation, global justice, global solidarity – is doing alright for itself, and maintaining a sense of direction, build-up and overall continuity.

Over the past few weeks, there have been multiple reflections and reports on the Nairobi WSF. Here are some links to the ones that I think jive most with my experience:

Patrick Bond: http://www.zmag.org/sustainers/content/2007-02/01bond.cfm
Firoze Manji: http://www.pambazuka.org/en/category/features/39464
People’s Parliament: http://www.cadtm.org/article.php3?id_article=2437

more later...

27 January 2007

More protests, solidarity marches, and initial evaluations of the WSF

So much has happened in the last few days, I’ve not had a chance to sit down for even a minute! I will separate the blog into two.

24th on Jan: The gates (partially) opened, and the protests continue.

The story of the Peoples’ Parliament – a group perpetrating real moments of action during the WSF – continues to unfold. After numerous protests, they eventually got the organisers to wave the fee on the last day of the WSF. Within the giant sports complex itself you could notice the difference with an influx of vendors and street kids running around asking for the participants to hand over the radio sets used for translation.

Peoples’ Parliament did not stop there, for there were plenty of other injustices to confront. One such injustice came in the form of two restaurant tents that where selling the most expensive food, even more inaccessible to the average Kenyan than the initial entrance fee. The worst part about these two tens, however, was that they were the extension of a hotel company owned by the country’s internal Security Minister John Michuki. He was known for his harsh tactics as “the crusher”. His most recent abuse of human rights was to raid the popular Kenyan daily newspaper, The Standard. Through a few simple text messages, People’s Parliament quickly mobilised many of the hungry children in the stadium to demand that they be fed for free. The pressure during their sit in mounted, and eventually the staff started to hand out free food until they were all out. The police stood by, to late to do anything and with too many cameras to use force. An hour later they packed up and took down the tent. Check out the following report on the BBC

Swift and efficient action to correct yet another ethical and political blunder made organisational committee.

It has been moments like these that have injected the forum with a sense of relevance and connection with the issues concerning the poorest of the poor who face multiple forms of oppression everyday - like hunger.


25th: Marching through the slums

The final day consisted of a solidarity march from a near-by slum to Uhuru park in downtown Nairobi. I went with some comrades from the Youth Camp: a Brazilian, by the name of Andre who worked in Mozambique and caught Malaria; Shim, an Israeli refusenik who spent 21 months in jail instead of going to university and thinks he actually ended up learning a lot more about life; and Juliana, a youth activist trained as a nurse who likes to teach street kids how to juggle.

The march through the slums brought a sense of what the real Nairobi was like. It was sobering to get away from the spectacle of the Kasarani sports stadium and the business centre of Nairobi. We started at 10am, and marched 16km through three of the main slums. Now that’s a long way to walk by any standards, but add unpaved roads where dust is so easily kicked up in the air, and dodging the multiple puddles of who-knows-what, shaking all the hands of the street kids who enjoy the novelty of having a ‘mzungu’ pass by, and to top it off, the hot hot sun relentlessly beating down, give any good sun block a run for its money.

Along the way, we talked about how right it was to expres solidarity with the slum dwellers, and to see some of the ‘real Nairobi’; but also felt uneasy at being such ‘poverty tourists’, and the fact that we were blocking the traffic and hence hampering the ability of many to make their daily bread. Slowing traffic down in the business centre is justifiable and makes a point, but in the slums it just pisses people off. Luckily, the mass of people we found ourselves marching with were mostly Kenyan; otherwise the solidarity component would have been watered down a tad.

We also began reflecting on the WSF, and how we conceive of the event, and the sort of space it comprises. Some saw it simply as a space for critical encounter, others as a platform for radical social movements to plan actions, and a few saw it as a moment of ‘global civil society’ where new forms of global citizenship are beginning to form. Some of the most critical, who were slightly embittered by their experience saw it as a form of political capitalism, each group vying to undercut the competition in selling its issue.

From my initial evaluations based on my experience, I would argue it is a place for critical encounters between groups and individual, and one that needs to be carefully managed so as not to lose its legitimacy. If it is ‘global civil society’, it is only one among many global civil societies, each with their own collection of contradictions; and if it is where new forms of global citizenship are forming, it only one node in a series of networks that are fundamentally rooted in local places.

The next entry will divulge a little on the International Council meeting held after the WSF, and due to popular demand, I will discuss how the filming for the documentary has been taking shape.

22 January 2007

Food or Forum? Contradictions at the Kenyan WSF

On the eve of the World Social Forum, there was a gathering of all the French delegations at one of the plush hotels in business centre of Nairobi; they started with the first among thousands of speeches that will be made in the coming days. The French ambassador chipped in, they had one of the founders of the of this annual global jamboree, Chico Whitaker, comes and say his piece on the maturation of the forums over the last seven years, and many other leading French intellectuals and activists identified themselves.

Near the end, A Kenyan by the name of Wangui Mbatia took the mic with her comrades holding banners saying ‘Food or Forum?’ This powerful woman laid out some bare facts about the forum that hit most in the room quite hard. She and those that were a part of their political group – Bunge la wananchi (People’s Parliament) – could not participate in the WSF for several reasons: first, they could not afford the 500 shilling registration fee that is charged to Kenyans – a weeks worth of food; and second, they could not get all the way out to the venue because it was so far, and transport is too expensive.

She told the collection of French groups that they were of course very welcome to come and participate in the WSF in Kenya, and discuss issues such as poverty, but that they should all take note that the average Kenyan, who earns under a dollar a day, are not welcome. These were the grassroots voices hat the WSF process has benefited from, and gains any sense of legitimacy. And yet, because of some administrative decision, they were excluded. Now they would have to pay to talk about their poverty.

Many of us were left stooped in a funk for the rest of the evening. How could we carry on? But it turns out, the Bunge la wananchi do more than just complain and protest: they started mobilising immediately to make an alternative WSF in the public parks in downtown Nairobi that was free and accessible for all to attend. Some members of their groups would take the ‘Mzungus’ out to parts of Nairobi they don’t normally see, and would talk politics all along the way. Within a few hours of the first action at the French meeting, they had flyers and a progam; and by the following evening there were tents and chairs set up in the park.

What is more, apparently the gates of the main venue were stormed, and now the fee for Kenyans has been officially lowered to 50 shillings. But if you go to the registration office, you’ll find they are still charging the same fees as originally stated. Having such a diffusely organised event means that any changes are difficult to communicate to those on the ground.

With the gradual smoothing out of some of the most egregious contradictions, the WSF seems to be running along with all its diversity and vibrant energy. The first few days have seen a lot of confused people; it does not matter if you are a virgin to the whole process, or a seasoned WSF organiser: no body really knows what is going on. The eclectic program I mention in the previous entry – now in a hard copy which is roughly the size of three Sunday newspapers – was slow in being delivered, and very nearly caused a riot (who would have thought that people coming together in order to increase transnational solidarity and cooperation would be at eachothers throats over a program). Eventually you work out the idiosyncrasies of the forum - program or not - and learn to just go with the flow and enjoy.

ps: for a first hand account of an even more striking contradiction of having the WSF in Kenya, please read Adam Syned’s blog: http://cottonundrum.blogspot.com

18 January 2007

+A quick glance at the WSF program and some thoughts on what is to come+

The World Social Forum in Nairobi is just a few days away. This years theme is “Peoples’ Struggles, Peoples’ alternatives: Another World is Possible”. This is a slightly nuanced version from previous years, but still just as vague.

A few of other social-forum-keeners got here early. Rest assured there has been planning months in advance, and there are around 500 volunteers to take care of issues of first aid, documentation and memory, translation, media, and last but not least, security, which has been a big concern for many.

The forum will be held at the Moi International Sports complex, the only venue that could possibly fit that many participants. Even then, they are setting up an array of tents and makeshift arrangements to use the space as efficiently as possible.

Chaos will be inevitable, but everyone knows that. The organisers appear on top of their game, and will use vast spaces in order to create varied levels of chaos. From the neatly compartmentalised stadium; to the parking lot transformed into a food court; and the to the youth space, where one organiser commented: “everything will be allowed at the Youth Camp”

But what of the issues? A quick gander at the program - published at the eleventh hour - and it looks like it will weigh more on the NGO side, with Action Aid organising the most activities and workshops. This was to be expected, as Nairobi is one of the Major NGO capitals in the world.

To say the program is eclectic is an understatement. Participating groups range from the Oxfam-types, to the Charleston Rhizome Collective of Alternative Roots – between them putting on an impressive array of activities. A random sample: ‘society strategy session on the extractive sector’; ‘the Iranian nuclear crisis’; ‘decent work and social protection’; and the usual discussions around climate change, fair trade and Third World debt.

This year it seems there is a positive emphasis on gender issues, which thanks to pushes from Onyango Oloo, who presented a paper on “Gendering the WSF process”. The youth presence will also be felt, as well as a focus on the child poverty.

The individual participants will no doubt be just as eclectic. The team of international volunteers, for example, consists of students, artists, video gamers, tree-planting anarchists, political party members and a cadre of interns who managed to swindle some organisation to pay their way.

And what about the big guns, the hotshot activists? Desmond Tutu is due to make an appearance. Despite hopeful rumours, Nelson Mandela will not. As usual, the people have been asking about Noam Chomsky. Vanda Shiva will certainly feature, providing warnings for Africa about the perils of the ‘Green Revolution’.

So with the WSF being the event of the year for the global-left, we can ask: is all this commotion worth it? Think of all the time and energy put in to make the gathering happen. What about the horrific carbon footprints all these eco-conscious activist are wracking up just for a week in of talking, listening, and sometimes fruitful exchange and network building. And what if we bring into question how effective is it in serving those purposes? How much networking can really happen in such a short-lived space? Good connections take time to form, and you need lengthily shared experiences.

There is always the hope that the WSF can help pull off another big demo such as the protests against the immanent Iraq war, 15 February 2003. Without the organising at the Porto Alegre WSF a month earlier, the protests probably only been 50% of the size. But these days it seems difficult to find a rallying point. The US is stuck in the mud with Iraq, and there much people can grab on to in terms of protesting.

What about mobilising around old ghost like the dichotomy between 'good' labour and 'bad' capital? Well, the group modestly named ‘Revolutionary Proletariat’ will have four small sessions to make that case. The new banners are a bit muddled, with some pushing the human rights agenda, others looking to fill the ultimately ambiguous space called ‘global civil society’ with ‘engaged global citizens’. Heck, why not go even bigger, like Ubuntu – World Forum of Civil Society Networks – and start ‘Building an Alliance of Civilisations’?

What will come of a – lets face it – slightly quixotic, program? Some global citizen action here, some autonomist spaces there, and all the complexity within and between; it all depends on who you come with and where you are coming from. The fact that the WSF is the first to be solely based in Africa will give a chance for at least one milieu of African social movements, NGOs, CBOs, GROs to make their voices heard and air their context specific problems with the current state of the world. Maybe some of their analyses will resonate with others’ and they will inspire one another to carry on with their struggles, and exchange a tip or two on how to stick it to ‘the man.’

But in terms of more immediate concerns and needs for many Kenyans, the WSF is a bloody good business opportunity for some, and a possible career booster for others. Very few locals I have spoken to about the forum mention anything to do with its charter of principles which talks of opposing neoliberalism, patriarchy and all forms of oppression. For the taxi drivers, it’s a good thing because they'll make a few extra bucks; and the unemployed Kenyan youth volunteers may improve their prospects.

So behind the chaos just on the horizon, there is a hazy hope for other worlds: some only moderately improved, and others, radically different.

13 January 2007

Jambo and Karibu to Nairobi!

On the Air Kenya flight: a five page article on the boom in Fair Trade production in Kenya. First thing off the plane: trees overcrowded with pelicans and other birds you would pay to see in some Western Zoo; and cars that drive in the allocated lanes and wave one another by, much unlike the craziness of Cairo.

The Kenyans I’ve met thus far have all greeted me with an enthusiastic ‘Welcome! Karibu!’ I’ve been discussing the World Social Forum with whomever I can, trying to get at the some of the issues and themes of the forums; but the most common sub topic is logistics: ‘how will Nairobi be able to do it? We can’t fit a 100,000 people here!’ (some estimate 150,000!). But other media sources say the organisers say they’ve been preparing for a long time, and they have the right people and facilities to pull it off. Fingers crossed the participants won't spend most of their time in traffic jams, for there is only a week make the necessary plans to change the world!

One question people ask me is: who participates? In a recent article in Kenya’s newspaper, The Daily Nation, it says that out of the approximate 100,000 participants, there are 15,000 Kenyans registered thus far. This would be quite different to the previous WSFs in Brazil, where the 80-90% of the participants were Brazilian. It means that it would be much more global in its make-up, but also that those attending would largely be part of a global activist cadre that can afford to fly in for the week.

The previous WSFs have also been attended by those with a high level of formal education, with most participants having some sort of university degree. Will the Nairobi WSF be able to attract other members of the population? Or will it be a highly NGOified event, out of touch with social movements and the ‘grassroots’ organisations? Hopefully such a worldly event does not have to become abstract and out of reach from the most real and concrete struggles; many suspect this will be the case.

As for my preparations for the documentary, I have been attempting to meet with some Kenyan activists and NGOs, but they all seem very busy with only one week left till the forum. Like many of these things, it will probably come together last minute.

I will nonetheless begin filming tomorrow during the international volunteer training at the main venue, which is very exciting.

Lights, camera, social action!