Reflections on the World Social Forum in Dakar, 2011
Date: 11 March 2011
The mood at the closing of the World Social Forum at Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar was euphoric as speakers paid tribute to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and held a moment of silence for those killed in the demonstrations. But the World Social Forum, a convergence of an estimated 75 000 activists, journalists, academics, trade unionists and NGOs, now in its 11th year, has left many participants speculating on what was achieved in the 5 chaotic days of workshops and meetings in Dakar.
Does the World Social Forum, an initiative born of the alter-globalization movement and proclaiming to be a dynamic, non-governmental and non-partisan forum engaged in working towards a more democratic and fair world, actually achieve much in concrete terms? In the last decade of social forums, have real alternatives been articulated and acted upon and do we have a set of solutions to the continued destruction and expropriation of life brought about by neoliberal globalization? Did this forum in Dakar provide strategies to continue the fight against capitalism, epitomized by its rival conference, the World Economic Forum? Was this forum of any importance to civil society in Senegal?
I asked myself these questions while rushing between one workshop and the next to record interviews with the diverse people who had come to the forum to talk, debate and strategize. The simple task of getting to the right workshop proved difficult and at times exhausting since the university management had allegedly changed and had withdrawn support for the forum 3 days before it started, allowing classes to continue as usual and leaving the organizers the formidable task of re-organizing much of the logistics. Students were unsure of how to continue studying with thousands of foreigners wandering around the campus and congregating in tents in the main square. The shortage of rooms meant some workshops were unable to meet at all and participants and journalists were frequently disoriented trying to find the right place to go. President Abdoulaye Wade made clear his lack of support for the forum at its opening.
What was most shocking to me as I reported on events during the week was that a microcosm of a much larger political conflict was taking place in a space that had brought together the most progressive thinkers and activists engaged in struggles for justice. Reports emerged in the first days of the forum that the Saharawi delegation to the forum had been attacked and intimidated by a group of Moroccans brought in by the Moroccan government. The Moroccan delegation prevented the Saharawis from holding a workshop titled “Western Sahara, the Last African Colony” and during the opening march of the forum, reporters say that the same group of Moroccans asked facilitators not to chant slogans in support of the decolonization of Western Sahara. While these incidents did not lead to the removal of the Moroccan delegation, it did increase publicity and support for the Saharawis. Two days before the forum ended they held a demonstration outside the media centre and attached scotch tape over their mouths to symbolize their experience of being silenced during the forum.
Aside from these incidents, the forum’s strengths lie in its bringing together political activists from across the world engaged in common struggles for justice that perhaps would not otherwise have the chance to meet. Activists with the international movement La Via Campesina told me how glad they were to have met fellow landless peasants and farmers from other countries. I conducted a very informative interview with Africa Mthombeni, of South Africa’s Landless People’s Movement, a member of la Via Campesina. In the mornings, I attended a series of panel discussions and learnt about efforts to mobilize against land grabs across the African continent, about the revival of Pan-Africanism and about current political issues in Egypt, Ivory Coast, Morocco and Zimbabwe.
It was also inspiring and encouraging to see the enormous strides made by some of the Latin American organizations and political leaders. Pablo Solon, the Bolivian Ambassador to the United Nations, gave an interesting workshop on Rio + 20, the Earth-Summit to be held in Brazil in 2012, which he says will be another opportunity for governments and corporations “to develop capitalism into nature.” The workshop, led by members of La Via Campesina, Pat Mooney, Pablo Solon and others, aimed at envisaging a strategy for the next year, to mobilize civil society in preparation for both the Durban climate conference in November 2011 and Rio + 20, and to follow the lead of landless peasants, farmers, fisher communities and other activists in fighting against the expropriation of resources and the planet.
After the end conference, I wanted to learn more about local struggles in Senegal. I took a trip to the fishing village of Ngor to talk to fishermen about the ongoing expropriation of their resources by industrial trawlers and the effects of economic policies on the future of traditional fishing. While the conference was instrumental in bringing together activists and focusing on diverse issues across the global South, perhaps the forum’s delegates would have learnt more by connecting with local struggles in and around Dakar, which will continue long after the Forum is over.