Sharing Political Power & Social Capital at the World Social Forum

Arriving in Dakar, Senegal, I immediately was faced with a glimpse of what it might feel like to be a refugee. That is, of course, until I reached the comfort of my hotel room, complete with CNN broadcasting live to capture what was occurring on the ground over which I had just flown. Nine hours from Dubai to Dakar, over one new country recently formed by popular vote, another by popular revolution. It was an appropriate backdrop to this year’s World Social Forum: the annual reification of the alter-globalisation movement. With my appearance so clearly not African – and knowing all of a few phrases in just one of the country’s 12 official languages – I felt apprehensive, even vulnerable, each time I left my room and the breaking news updates.

Having worked with recently arrived refugees in Australia, I now somehow sensed the feelings I couldn’t help but notice at work: the individual’s personal insecurity despite the often resilient and strong, supportive communities that refugees tend to maintain. The first friend I made in Dakar was a young guy, a refugee from Sierra Leone, who introduced me to the rest of the Sierra Leonean diaspora living in Dakar. These people would become my friends and family over the coming weeks. Despite our obvious differences, their acceptance and sincere kindness mirrored the objective of my own work experience in Australia.

I felt I was being warmly welcomed, integrated into a foreign community I knew almost nothing about.

Their resilience was as obvious as their hardship: surviving and struggling to thrive in a society where their social and political rights have become lost in a paper trail of what seems to be intentionally contradictory government and UNHCR documentation. Documentation is the linchpin of life in this region, and is needed for basic human and social rights, to access hospitals, to enroll in schools, to get work, and to keep out of jail. Of course money, for those fortunate enough to have it, talks. The fee for releasing a Sierra Leonean without documentation from lock-up on the former slave-holding Isle de Goreé is roughly 60 Australian dollars – hardly affordable for someone who is not entitled to a job.


Marchers in the streets of Dakar at the 2011 World Social Forum. Photo credit: Pewil. Used under Creative Commons license.

Whilst the Sierra Leonean community in Dakar is the smallest in the West African states, their experience – spurred by a lack of effective rights – is no less severe. Mauritanians, Guineans, Liberians, and Ivoirians all suffer to lesser or greater degrees the same social and political marginalisation. This quickly became evident, not just through the organised talks with the other refugee and diaspora communities represented at the WSF, but also through my friends and hosts. It was, at times, an overwhelmingly sad experience, indicative of an equally hopeless circumstance. I, as they, became frustrated and disheartened as I struggled to see what could actually be done to better their life situations. Toward the end, however, I was able to grasp the utility of what had been achieved, and to point to concrete accomplishments, even if they didn’t represent anything like holistic plans or solutions. In this respect, I suspect my experience with the Sierra Leoneans in Dakar was a microcosm of what many other attendees experienced.

My initial expectations reflected a broader popular interpretation of the WSF, especially amongst the young people I met there. Whilst I would never have openly acknowledged it, I half expected to be greeted at the gate of West Africa’s giant Cheikh Anta Diop University by an excited spokesperson, grateful for my arrival and ready to guide me into action. I had somehow come to imagine that at the forum I would finally encounter what I had long since been convinced no one would ever find: a large-scale, concise, intricate, and coordinated workable grand plan to fix the world. With the world’s leading alter-globalisation theorists and activists in attendance, Heads of State from left-leaning progressive governments, hundreds of NGOs and representatives from international organisations, thousands of functioning civil society organisations from all over the world as well as Tunisian and Egyptian intifadas direct from their mass protests to the North, my expectations made that fatal slip from progressive to utopian.

Perhaps it is the natural side effect of being immersed in such an eclectic, beautiful, diverse mix of people with such energy, conviction, and humility. I was agitated; when were “they” going to unveil the grand plan? What was my role? Where did I fit? What did I have to do? And how do I tie my balaclava?

Needless to say, no grand plan was unveiled. It is far too easy for policy makers and powerful leaders of the dedicated neo-liberal persuasion to point to pre-determined sets of rules, rationales, development theories, and invisible hands, which translate nicely into totalisations and universalisms with no consideration for difference or diversity amongst the world’s populations and societies. However, we of exactly that diversity represented at the forum managed to resist the temptation. I was buoyed to find that nobody among us was so arrogant, so stupid, or so heartless as to propose a single so-called development paradigm for the entire planet, based on either capitalism or socialism or some other ideological -ism.


Members of La Via Campesina support food sovereignty issues at the World Social Forum. Photo credit: Christopher Patz. Used under Creative Commons license.

It is one thing to acknowledge the difference of struggle on the planet from a university tutorial room or via the Internet; it’s another thing altogether to see and talk to those people one’s self.

In a space where the priorities and world view of an attending Amahuacan woman was taken as seriously as those of the former Brazilian president, the prospect of a one-size-fits-all set of priorities or solutions was indeed impossible. An over-arching agenda gave way to a plurality of agendas. This is the generally accepted and celebrated nature of the so-called ‘movement of movements,’ which stands in stark contrast to the structured, defined, and uniform talks of the World Economic Forum. Without seeking to engage in a comprehensive comparative analysis of the two forums, one fundamental difference is obvious. While both purport to better the world, one is clearly neo-liberal in outlook, limiting its exclusive membership to wealthy global companies (typically a global enterprise with more than $5 billion in annual turnover); the other is an open event based on the principles of direct and participatory democracy largely concerned with rejecting a global agenda driven and influenced exclusively by capital.

To this end, and despite its heterogeneity, the WSF has formulated a variety of demands which are – if not unanimous – largely shared. These include, amongst others, the suppression of third-world debt, the taxation of global financial transactions toward alleviating poverty, the suppression of fiscal paradises, and a belief in the right of human beings to food, protection, and essential public services.

Some of these economically focused reform campaigns have gained momentum through the movements’ international networks – Attac, Focus on the Global South, Via Campesina, Committee for the Abolition of the Third World’s Debt – and through various other social movements. Most recently, the Attac campaign has culminated in a letter from some 1,000 of the world's leading economists urging G20 leaders to adopt the so-called "Robin Hood" or Tobin Tax designed to take from the system's rich and give to the world's poor. However, whilst the presence of these economic campaigns favouring “reform” over “revolution” help to highlight the dynamic, multi-faceted nature of the alter-globalisation movement, what inspired me more than anything were the ideas of those who truly believed – presumably because they had lived it themselves – that another (not just an economically modified) world was possible.


Crowds fill Dakar's streets during the 2011 World Social Forum. Photo credit: Christopher Patz. Used under Creative Commons license.

For the most part, these were indíginas attending on behalf of the indigenous movements of the Americas, but the sentiment was also shared among anarchists and environmentalists of Western urban movements who succeed in living a life of true sustainability. Both try to convince us of what Latin Americans call el buen vivir – essentially, a world based on shared good values that requires the slowing down of unlimited economic growth that, they tell us, the planet is unable to sustain. Such ideas are supported by feminist critiques exposing the links between the demand for unlimited growth and patriarchy.

This is big change, civilisational change. And it is clear – if one watches the news or reads mainstream media – that nothing of the sort is currently being achieved on a global scale. Indeed, Senegalese President Wade, not invited to attend on account of his staunch neo-liberal conviction and policies, as well as the lack of democratic practise in his presidency, raised this point in his address to the forum organisers from Dakar City’s Le Meridien. “Since 2000, I have followed your movement and I still, excuse my frankness, ask myself this question: have you succeeded in changing the world at the global level?”

The frank answer must, of course, be no, not when compared with, for instance, transnational free market policies that allow massive-scale corporate land-grabbing and mineral exploitation on the African continent and in other developing economies. It is true; the lack of coherency on behalf of the alter-globalisation movement and its disdain for capitalist politics has, for the most part, denied it access to elite and traditional forms of concentrated economic and political power.

On the first day of talks with the refugee communities, it became quite obvious that what they hoped for was the arrival of a first world or international organization (such as USAID or UNHCR) willing to take them away to a better life in the developed world. By the third day, it became painfully clear that nothing of the sort was going to happen. On the fourth day, however, something analogous to the chaotic, incoherent, and spontaneous self-organization of the forum took place.


Members of Attac march during the 2011 World Social Forum. Photo credit: Christopher Patz. Used under Creative Commons license.

Faced with the prospect of their children growing up uneducated, the Sierra Leonean mothers, mostly themselves illiterate, initiated an exchange with the other refugee communities that resulted in the idea to form a makeshift school. Children would be taken to a literate adult’s house, while their mothers would compensate the teacher through doing chores or some hours of extra work. The mothers had no political right to social entitlements from the Senegalese state, nor could they win the attention of first world or international refugee agencies. But through collective action they could create a real alternative to the circumstances perpetuating their social and political marginalization.

One can only estimate the number of similar outcomes from the countless participant exchanges and networking that took place at the WSF. In addition to English gypsies, Russian low-wage earners, Argentinean peasants, and Kenyan slum-dwellers exchanging best practices on how to counter forced evictions (through galvanizing media attention, community education of rights, and, where possible, legal challenges) one also saw lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender communities share ideas on how to combat the rise of homophobia on the African continent through greater education, social networking, and the development of stronger relationships with international communities. These discourses and the sharing of knowledge – for example, European climate change activists meeting with African land rights activists – promote a more open and effective global conversation to make a difference at a microcosmic level.

The dissemination of reliable and routinely restricted information on world issues and progress is where the real potential of the WSF and its future relevance lies. While also working to create tangible large-scale changes, the forum encourages its attendees and followers to speak frankly and openly about the world’s problems, to seek out grass-roots solutions, and to take that knowledge back home with them. Seventy thousand people isn’t a huge number in the scheme of things. But, as Egyptian President Mubarak’s impromptu resignation showed, there is great power in a movement of people. If each forum participant can harness their social networks, we can seek change on an incremental scale. The real question is, what does it take so that people actually start to share and engage? Perhaps a visual introduction to the peripheral marginalized world, through exhilarating pictures, stories, and anecdotes. After my experience, I am certain that the marginalized world is actually the most exciting place on earth.

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