Since its founding in 2001, the World Social Forum (WSF) has gained international prominence as a space for various activists and NGOs to converge, meet, discuss, and strategize against globalization and imperialism. Organized to counter the annual World Economic Forum, the WSF has grown both in size and influence. Since 2001, hundreds of regional social forums have emerged all over the world. Several such forums are held in Canada.
We are happy to present the following two articles by Carmelle Wolfson and Lesley Wood, which reflect on the seventh forum (held in Naroibi, Kenya) and critically analyze both the relevance and future of the WSF. Activists, including large segments of the Canadian Left, have embraced the forum as an opportunity to organize against capitalism and imperialism. Yet, as these articles suggest, many contradictions exist – not only within the forum proceedings, but within the overall vision of the WSF itself.
Carmelle Wolfson is a media activist involved with Grassy Narrows solidarity work in Canada. She spent seven weeks in Kenya reporting for Carrefour International de la Presse Universitaire Francophone (CIPUF). Lesley Wood is an activist and teaches global sociology and social movement theory at York University.
Slumming it at the World Social Forum
“They let everyone into the forum for free and the same day everything goes missing.” This is what one Canadian International Development Studies student proclaims, after being pickpocketed at Moi International Sports Stadium in Kenya during the World Social Forum (WSF) in January. She is a white woman in her twenties, with long brown dreadlocks tucked under a pale green knitted cap and big hoop earrings dangling from her ears. She journeyed from southern Ontario to central Kenya to attend the WSF because she’d like to get a more global perspective on youth issues, the focus of her internship for CIDA in Belize. Like this intern, many Western activists travel thousands of miles to the WSF, often jumping from conference to conference, from one continent to the next. They are attempting to meet and network with people from around the world in the hopes of getting a more genuine sense of on-the-ground organizing efforts and experiences in the global South.
The CIDA intern says that while she is critical of the British who colonized Kenya, she recognizes she shares a commonality with them. “I can appreciate that I’m not necessarily like them, but in many ways I am. I benefit from capitalism everyday. I’m able to be here because I benefit from systems of capitalism that privilege Canada and the Western world.”
Vita Randazzo Eisemann, a WSF organizer, says, “Solidarity is not saying how things should be done. Solidarity is not asking for help or helping because you are coming from a better situation. Solidarity is putting yourself side by side with someone.” She explains that sharing some of her experiences from Latin America with Kenyans has opened their eyes. But when I ask her what has come from the interactions between foreigners and Africans at the forum, she can only give the example of a mural outside the doors of the stadium. She says they worked on it together. It seems that while those traveling from the developed world to this year’s forum acknowledge their privilege, they don’t necessarily know what to do with it.
In trying to create forums for international solidarity against neoliberalism, the WSF emerges as a contradictory space when it comes to activists trying to figure out what to do with their privilege. In some ways it is reminiscent of the summit-hopping days of the anti-globalization movement. Activists would meet at alternative summits to share ideas and resist corporate globalization. In the current context of continued neoliberalism, militarism and occupation, the WSF was created not only to give priority to voices of the South, but to provide a global network of activism.
Indeed, regional Social Forums began to pop up in various parts of the world as activists used the model to discuss international solidarity and the fight against globalization. The vague call of “One No, Many Yesses” emerged as a way to acknowledge a common rejection of neoliberalism in tandem with a diversity of struggles and experiences. Many Canadian activists have committed themselves to supporting the growth of these networks by organizing regional and continental forums and fundraising to attend them. For many, the WSF offers a compelling model for rethinking the project of international solidarity.
However, just as critiques of privilege and access arose during the summit-hopping craze, issues of class, race and gender also haunt the WSF. At the gathering in Kenya, activists from around the world, including local organizers, experienced the contradictions inherent in trying to build a global movement. The forum raised many questions: how should international solidarity work in practical terms, given vast inequalities? How do patterns of inclusion and exclusion arise when activists and organizers make judgments on “authenticity”? How can we ensure comfort for foreign activists without playing into forms of racism?
This was the first unicentric WSF held in Africa. The forum began in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, initiated partly by the Landless People’s Movement (MST). The first WSF became a platform for the election campaign of President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (aka “Lula”), when he and the Brazilian Worker’s Party were promising land reform in the region. In recent years, the WSF has drawn large numbers of anti-globalization activists from the West, many of them middle-class white people who fly in for the five days of the forum, then fly back out as soon as it ends. Every other year, the forum returns to Porto Alegre. It has been held in Mumbai, India, and in various other locations simultaneously (in Caracas, Venezuela; Bamako, Mali; and Karachi, Pakistan). The forum’s objective is to create a meeting place to discuss problems with and alternatives to global neoliberalism, while at the same time building international alliances and strategies for concrete social change. The WSF attracts numerous academics, experts and even politicians (although political parties are officially barred from the forum), including Noam Chomsky, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and this year Kenyan Nobel Peace Prize laureate, Wangari Maathai, as well as the former president of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda.
Kenya seemed the perfect place to hold this year’s WSF. While Kenya is seen as one of the better off economies in post-colonial Africa, the presence of the forum helped bring the problems of Africa to the attention of global social movements. Scars from British imperialism are still visible in the tea and coffee plantations dotting the agricultural landscape of Kenya. Although the East African nation is one of the world’s largest producers of coffee, finding anything other than Nescafe in the country is nearly impossible outside of a few major cities. Multinational corporations like Coca-Cola have sunk their teeth deep into the developing nation – corporate paintings and billboards are visible in even the most remote communities.
Not only did many of the Westerners arriving at the sports stadium in the suburbs of Nairobi seem unaffected by and unaware of the poverty and oppression surrounding them, the forum itself created the framework for exclusion of Kenya’s poor. Companies and organizations spent a lot of money to ensure that amenities and food would be available for foreign activists. In a sense, the WSF in Kenya resembled a tourist resort, where activists could remain shielded from poverty while enjoying a comfortable stay.
As with other World Social Forums, the issue of local involvement was pressing. The question facing organizers was whether or not the WSF should be a voice for the voiceless or whether it should provide a forum where those unheard voices could themselves take centre stage. Much of the controversy with this year’s forum concerned the participation of Kenya’s “voiceless.” This year, after a series of protests and complaints, the WSF committee opened the forum to all Kenyans, free of charge, allowing many people involved with grassroots organizing in the slums to participate. Although a number of people criticized the way in which the decision was made, limiting participation in the forum would have set a major precedent for the future. The WSF operates under on the basis of the principle that everyone who is interested is invited to take part in the space, regardless of race, class or status. To open the doors to the demonstrators was not seen as a compromise by some, but as the fulfillment of a central principle of inclusion inherent in the forum.
Another issue of contention was the daily fee charged by the forum, which Eisemann says was meant as a donation towards the costs of putting on the event. If participants understood that, she says, maybe they would not have been so upset by the prices. “We didn’t explain well to the people that it’s also a contribution to make us more independent, to not only liaise and rely on agencies and donors but to do something on our own. If that would have been explained and people were more involved in the process I don’t think this anger would have come out in the way that is has.” However, most Kenyans at the forum had to be sponsored by organizations to attend the six-day event.
The CIDA intern I interviewed believed that not all Kenyans belonged at the forum. “Kenyans should have been let in for free, however I feel that this is not a place for everybody. Not all Kenyans have an interest in social justice, not all Kenyans have an interest in what is going on here,” she says. “I would’ve preferred a process in which Kenyans could’ve registered in advance to come. There was no registration process, they just simply opened the gates. And there is a lot of poverty in Kenya – not that we should be shielded from that. But we came here for a certain purpose and I feel that the security here was not prepared for that. This is quite a large target. There are many Westerners here. So it drew some people that came for purposes that are not those of the World Social Forum.”
L. Muthoni Wanyeki gave a similar account, in an article entitled “Food Raids, Pickpockets…Fun!” She wrote that:
The result was that the gates were finally flung open – enabling a good number of Nairobi’s impoverished (of the unorganised kind) to have a field day. Food stands incongruously supplied by the Windsor and the Norfolk Hotel were raided, several participants were relieved of their mobile telephones and other small items in the interests of redistribution of wealth and, worst of all, the WSF’s media centre suffered an armed robbery which saw its computers and other equipment vanish.
In fact, the media centre was ransacked at the start of the week by a group who passed through security with rifles, before the gates had been “flung open.” The attack on the Windsor Hotel restaurant was more political in nature: the hotel is owned by John Michuki, Kenya’s Internal Security Minister, who was responsible for ordering raids on The Standard media group and Kenya Television Network last year. He has also been accused of torturing Mau Mau freedom fighters during British colonial rule. The question of local corporate sponsorship of the WSF speaks to the divisions and disparities between the delegates, where particular histories were forgotten and/or ignored for the comfort of foreign activists.
The forum was held a 20 minute drive from Nairobi, in Kasarani. Andrea Browning, organizer of the London, Ontario Regional Social Forum, says that while relations within the gates of Moi Stadium were not very racialized, this was not the case outside. “Most social forums are held in a city, whereas this one, being held in an athletic complex, was all very contained, was all fenced in. And then there’s a very regulated way of letting locals in who aren’t registered delegates,” she explains. “I think this brings up a lot of the tensions about how people are participating in the forum, because as soon as you leave the gates you get people asking for money, assuming that white people have money.” While the forum in Porto Alegre is usually funded by the PT Workers’ Party, the forum in Nairobi did not get a cent from the Kenyan government. This meant that vendors had to pay 4,000 Ksh (about $67 CAD) for the week to operate within the stadium’s gates. Many of those selling food were well-off people and larger companies that could afford the higher prices and consequently, also charged inflated prices for their goods.
Although this year’s forum engaged more African participants than ever before, it was not always successful in creating an equal representation or power balance between Kenyans and foreigners within the workshops and discussions. This happened for a number of reasons: divergent tactics and different experiences of organizing, varying degrees of education and understanding of the issues, differing interests and goals, as well as the tension that arises as a result of discomfort with racial identities.
The forum was held in Africa this year to ensure accessibility to those living on the continent. “It’s just a matter of fairness to the continent,” says Eisemann It’s been very difficult for any country within Africa to participate in the World Social Forum.” The forum has been struggling from the start to effectively deal with the issue of inclusion. The participants and member organizations who made up the forum are diverse not only in their nationalities, but also in their tactics. There were not only representatives from multi-national NGOs like OXFAM, but also anarchists like the founder of Food Not Bombs. To avoid accusations of exclusion or racism, the organizing committee implemented particular panels and procedures to facilitate full participation by grassroots activists from around Africa.
This is what Browning calls “romantic tokenism.” On the last day of the forum there was an open space for people to reflect on the WSF process. “Something that would come up,” she explains, “was that if a lot of people from the North were speaking, people would request, ‘Have someone from the South.’ And then there was this particular moment when the moderator said something like, ‘Ok, someone from Africa come and speak.’ There was no response. Desperate to find a ‘marginalized’ voice, he asked ‘Can anyone from Asia come and speak?” As soon as someone stood up, everyone applauded in encouragement. These sorts of attempts to reverse racist practices are in actuality a form of racism. As Browning points out, asking someone “from Asia” to speak puts a burden on this person to represent an entire continent.
Burden aside, the process reflects a naiveté that simple presence and access is somehow safe and relevant to grassroots activists. Furthermore, the process reinforced a specific paternalism in the attempt to share power without authenticity or critical engagement with the lack of involvement of particular members. One local activist from the Pillars of Kibera Youth Group explained to me that he felt there was a tension in the room when someone from Kenya would speak.
In contrast, Browning says she attended a workshop called “Identity Crisis in Democratic Formation in Africa, where she was the only person in the room identified as white. Browning explains, “I would sometimes have the speakers look exclusively at me. As if I was the most important person they needed to address this to. As if I was the one that needed to learn this and take this back to other ‘white’ people. As if I was the link to disseminating their issues more broadly to the Western world.”
Experiences, Knowledge and Aims
It is not a surprise that many workshops were heterogeneous in the makeup of their participants. Some workshops were geared towards North American activists while others attracted African activists. However, the difference goes further than political interest. It reflected the various priorities and political contexts in which activists were rooted. Differences emerged around identity and environmental justice. While many of these differences are based on access to information and resources, they are also based on the immediate needs of particular communities.
It was clear within the workshops that many Kenyans came into the talks with a very different background and understanding of social justice. Whereas activists from the North have a comprehension of do-it-yourself ethics as a result of theory and a form of lifestyle politics, people living in the South have come to know this way of living through necessity. Many activists from North America romanticize the DIY ethic of food production or sustainable housing. But for people living in poverty, these skills are not a matter of making choices, but a way of dependence forced onto them by structural processes of the economy.
There was also a disconnect between participants and the workers at the WSF. Some Kenyan volunteers knew very little about the WSF, and their participation was based on receiving some form of compensation at the end. Western activists also seemed surprised at the markup of prices by vendors, as if capitalism stopped at the entrance of the WSF. While having vendors of services and food seemed contradictory in the setting of the WSF, some Western activists did not realize that Kenyan workers viewed them as little more than tourists.
There was a similar disconnect between foreign-funded NGOs that concentrate on international policy making and the anarchist/socialist-based groups dedicated to local community organizing. These local grassroots networks were not present at the discussion on local social forums. In one particular conversation, representatives were present from the West Berlin Social Forum, the Denmark Social Forum and the London, Ontario Regional Social Forum. Yet, no one was present from the Kibera Social Forum, the Central Kenya Social Forum or the African Social Forum. A few Kenyan women did, however, sit in on the session. They didn’t speak, and left after about five minutes. Another Kenyan man sat down halfway through the discussion. He was asked about his experience with local social forums in Kenya. “I’m sorry I don’t know how to speak to a lot of people. I think there’s nothing I can contribute here because I just arrived,” he answered. When they did contribute, many Kenyans spoke quietly, looking down at the ground, which made it difficult to communicate effectively within the spaces of the WSF workshops, which usually held at least 30 people. The question of voice in an NGO-dominated forum is integral when analyzing inclusion. Many of the WSF forums were dominated by national and international NGOs and superstar speakers who celebrated the coming together of diverse peoples. Yet, amongst all that diversity, the power struggles and oppressions that take place across race, class and gender divisions were still reproduced in the conversations.
The alliances built across borders at the WSF seemed to be limited. When I asked some Kenyans about practical strategies they had learned from foreigners, they struggled to give concrete examples. Instead, it seems that talking with allies from outside Africa served as a powerful source of encouragement. A number of people said that they were excited to realize they were not alone in their struggles. For example, Abdul Ahmed Khamis from Kibera, the largest slum in Africa, said that it was important for him to discover from Brazilians that there are slums outside of Africa. An important part of the fight is building international networks so the movement can continue to grow. Hopefully these contacts will be used in the future for this purpose.
Western activists were also able to refuel at the forum. After seeing the anger and determination of activists from the slums who were able to raise important questions about the corporate co-opting of the event, they witnessed the sense of urgency to actually act. In a way, holding the forum in Africa crystallized the problems of accessibility and power relations for organizers coming from the North.
Ultimately, if the WSF is to succeed in building useful international networks, its workshops should not be regionally specific. Instead, we should come to the forum to discuss the ways in which our struggles are connected so that we can make allies with our friends from across the globe. For example, the fight for indigenous self-determination here in Canada involves many of the same dynamics facing the Masaii and Turkana populations in Kenya. As Canadians, we don’t need to go to the “Third World” to witness crumbling roads, a lack of resources and education, or untreated water systems contaminated by polluted lakes. These are all results of the corporate monopoly over community resources, things that are happening right here in our own country, not just “over there,” in Africa. In the last year, Six Nations has been successful in not only linking with other communities within Canada, like Grassy Narrows, but they have also formed international networks with the indigenous people of Chiapas, for example.
We cannot deny that, as white people who hold a lot of privilege in society, we do have something more to offer than painting murals outside of stadium entrances. We cannot be overly polite about our differences. If we truly want to stand with the oppressed, we must recognize and use the power that we hold. We must connect local struggles to the global structures of oppression while at the same time using our own privilege and skill-set to empower those with whom we are trying to build solidarity.
Grassroots Strategizing and the World Social Forum
I decided to attend the World Social Forum (WSF) in Nairobi this past January, even though I was skeptical about the event. Like the grassroots activists in Toronto that I spoke with, I’d heard the criticisms. I had heard that NGOs and churches had co-opted the space, that political parties had made it into their platform, that the WSF had blunted the edge of the anti-globalization movement. Many activists argued that the WSF was no longer a space that was particularly useful for grassroots activists.
Since that first forum, many have critiqued the WSF process for being unfairly influenced by NGOs. In response, organizers diversified the international committee and tried to alter the process in ways that give more space to social movements. Nevertheless, NGOs, with their relatively stable funding base, organizational structure and less-contentious relationship with governmental authorities, have, along with academics, gradually and perhaps inevitably continued to gain influence within the forum decision-making structures and program. This became more obvious in Nairobi, where local movements are smaller and weaker than they are in Latin America, and where the foreigners who traveled to Africa needed to be either funded or relatively wealthy. Unsurprisingly, grassroots activists from both North and South were less visible than I had hoped.
The Canadian delegates that attended illustrated this imbalance. They included members from the Anglican Church, the Catholic Organization for Development and Peace, Quebec-based World March of Women, Toronto’s Social Justice Centre, Toronto Community Housing as well as academics and representatives from alternative media. Although some of these attendees are also affiliated with grassroots organizations, this list suggests that in general, grassroots activists from Canada were largely absent.
Still, grassroots activists from many other countries were in Nairobi. I met many people who were organizing against global institutions, working on international solidarity campaigns and engaged in local and national campaigns around issues such as housing, migration, women, AIDS and war. How were these activists using the forum to further their struggles? As one man from France explained, they were protesting, networking and proposing.
Not surprisingly, grassroots activists were directing the hundreds of rallies and marches that took place during the days of the forum. Some movements seemed to spend most of their time at the forum engaged in marching, rallying and chanting. Grassroots activists were also networking with others working on similar issues. Through this networking they learned about other campaigns and issues. One woman from Community Voices Heard, a poor people’s organization in New York City, argued that the opportunity to meet with slum dweller activists in Nairobi had been extremely worthwhile and would enrich future campaigns. Some grassroots activists tried to build support for their own campaigns. The organizers of the upcoming protests against the G8 in Rostock, Germany were there to recruit participants. One organizer from the Philippines said, “Our objective is to get people to come to our workshop and learn about our struggle, and then to join us.” She also noted the value of her organization’s participation in the day-long Africa-Asia summit that had taken place before the WSF officially began. They were there, she said, to “find common ground.”
It seemed that activists from under-resourced movements in the South were particularly likely to identify networking as a route to potential resources. One organizer from a Zambian women’s group explained that one reason for attending the forum was to get exposure for her organization and build relationships with Northern activists who might become vendors of the jewellery that her organization sells to fund their activities.
The importance of networking as a potential source of resources was useful for local activists in Nairobi, particularly the slum dweller organizations. They brought international activists into the slums to tour their projects and to buy homemade handicrafts and artwork. The important confrontations organized by the slum dweller organizations around the exclusionary entrance fees and food prices also gained a great deal of media attention, and may have inadvertently initiated alliances with other movements, subsequently increasing their leverage with the Kenyan and city governments.
Kenyan gay and lesbian activists also used the forum as an opportunity to challenge the law against male homosexuality. The Q-SPOT, a large tent dedicated to struggles around what was referred to as “sexual diversity,” was the busiest hangout spot at the forum. Local radio stations discussed the issue in shocked tones. One DJ on KISS100 said, “why would you ever tell anyone you were gay?” She then interviewed gay activists about their campaigns and lives. A small space had been opened. But it was only a minimal space. A queer activist spoke to boos and jeers at the closing rally. But if such discussions continue, and the alliances built at the forum hold, it may provide some needed support to local queer activists.
Notwithstanding the value of these interactions, many grassroots activists hoped to develop joint strategies at the WSF. According to the WSF Charter of Principles, the forum is intended to be a space for, among other things, “interlinking for effective action by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism.” However, this interlinking was limited.
Grassroots activists wanted to create and influence proposals for linked action. Many have long recognized the need for horizontal coordination amongst movements working on debt, water, housing and women’s rights. However, there were difficulties in doing this within the WSF space. Of course, the challenge of using global events for effective strategizing is not unique to Nairobi. As ex-United Farm Worker organizer Marshall Ganz has written, effective strategizing depends on having participants in the dialogue having “strong and weak network ties, and access to diverse, yet salient repertoires of collective action.” This was true at the WSF, which brought together an incredible range of activist experiences and networks. Brainstorming was rich and productive. Ganz also argues that strategic capacity is greater if an “organization” conducts regular, open, and authoritative deliberation. Among other things, deliberation is characterized by an equal opportunity to participate, and reflexivity. This type of strategizing was rare at the WSF.
It was easier for some grassroots activists to use the space to develop joint strategies than others. This depended on two things; whether the locus of one’s campaign work was targeted at the local, national or global level, and where one usually organized. Global or internationally-oriented activists were able to facilitate and participate in conversations that developed strategy most easily. These included solidarity activists and those who were engaged in fighting international financial institutions like the World Bank. These type of activists seemed able to use the space more easily than others because of at least partially shared interests, shared targets and pre-existing relationships.
As a result, the workshops that had a global or international focus were some of the most participatory of the forum. I attended one session on the burgeoning campaign against Israeli apartheid and another discussing a proposal to develop an international campaign to stop donor governments from funding the World Bank. The contributions were serious and reflexive, and although there were few African participants, these sessions appeared relatively diverse and egalitarian.
Nevertheless, even when focused on shared targets, there were challenges. Mirroring difficulties from other forums, like the global encuentros of People’s Global Action, differences between Northern and Southern participation created challenges. These included differences around representation and accountability of different participants. Northerners were more likely to be in leadership positions or staff from funded (often more moderate) organizations, or self-funded members of smaller, more radical movement organizations, often attending for the first time. In contrast, southerners were more likely to be in the leadership of large, (often radical) grassroots movements who attended the WSF each year. These different organizational contexts made joint strategizing difficult. Sometimes it was unclear whether the participants, especially those from the North had any accountability to an organization, or any capacity to enact agreed-upon strategies. Because the deliberation at the meetings was not authoritative in this way, decision making was difficult. Nevertheless, grassroots activists at the forum continue to demand that such strategizing and coordination become more central to the forum.
This concern led to an innovation in this year’s program. On the fourth day of the WSF, thematic sessions devoted to developing action and convergence were held. I attended the morning sessions on migration, anti-war organizing and housing. Attendees appeared enthusiastic about trying to reach to some joint decisions. However, in each of these sessions, the process was fraught by time limitations, a lack of effective facilitation and confusion amongst participants about the process. In the end, the results of these sessions consisted of lists of proposals for events, days of action, an e-mail list and a few initial ideas for possible campaigns. There was almost no discussion of the proposals within the sessions, nor any attempt at prioritization. There were also afternoon proposal sessions, but these events attracted little participation, as they appeared to replicate the morning’s activities. In the end, there was no real deliberation about the proposals. Those who had been sent by their organizations to propose items would be able to go home with some sort of weak “endorsement.” For the casual participant, however, it was unclear if anything had been accomplished.
The social movement assembly was an attempt to bring various social movements together. This event, taking place on the last day of the forum, attracted over 2,000 people affiliated with different social movements. The goal was to agree to a joint statement. The statement, which was read by one of the slum dweller organizers, expressed critiques of the commericalization, inaccessibility and corruption at the forum. It proposed common days of action in 2008, and it questioned the role of NGOs in the WSF process. Once read, Kenyan activists had the first opportunity to respond and add their amendments. Speaker after speaker from both local and global movements added their issues and struggles to the statement. Global days of action were informally endorsed against the occupation of Iraq, calling for the Palestinian right of return, against the Group of 8, for the rights of migrants, on climate change, against evictions and against debt. But however inspiring, the WSF was not a space for deliberation or strategizing. It appears that a number of things need to happen in order for grassroots activists at the WSF to be able to build joint strategies.
First, we need to recognize the implications of our diversity on any strategizing process that takes place within such a global context. At present, coming to agreement often means watering down strategies to the “lowest common denominator” of shared global days of action. A more in-depth process will take more time and a recognition of the differences activists from various contexts face even before they arrive. In order to create sustainable strategies, we need to recognize the unequal levels of access to resources, and the different organizational forms in operation. Stated crudely, most activists from the North are operating in a different context from those in the South in terms of resources, networks and access to authorities. Activists in large organizations are likely to make decisions differently than those in small, neighbourhood groups. Constituency-based organizations will have to balance out any campaign with the other needs of their members, while those who work on the basis of “conscience” may be more flexible in terms of strategizing, but less accountable about their actions.
It goes beyond recognizing diversity. We also need to recognize the way that privilege affects strategizing between activists who may have access to symbolic, informational or material resources and those activists that do not. Effective deliberation requires both equality and some sort of reflexivity about the rules of the dialogue. For example, Northern based activists may influence deliberation within these international spaces by having additional information about targets, allies, resources or cultural norms, or by facilitating discussions or socializing in particular ways. We need to be pro-active about these differences in privilege, and experiment with mechanisms that will challenge these dynamics and allow for deliberation.
Third, in order for grassroots strategizing between social movements to be effective, there needs to be better ways for activists to communicate, before, during and after the forum. While this has been recognized by the social forum organizers, and various websites have been set up, their use and accessibility has, so far, been somewhat limited. Indeed, the wsfprocess.org space that currently exists reflects patterns of NGO and Northern domination within the forum process. If grassroots housing activists knew that other grassroots housing activists working on a particular campaign were going to ask for input into that campaign at the WSF, potential collaborators would be better able to engage in authoritative, accountable discussion and make real commitments to joint projects.
Fourth, local participants need to think about the relationship between the WSF process and their local organizing. While Canadian movements had no joint approach to the forum, in the US, Grassroots Global Justice sent a delegation of 70 activists from poor people’s organizations. The international connections and experience that these activists gain may have a number of effects. They may alter the campaigns of their own organizations, but perhaps more importantly, they may alter the power dynamics between different types of organizations within the US context. The participation of poor people’s organizations will also impact any global strategizing that took place at the WSF, meaning that decisions made on housing, migration and work will be that much more accountable to poor people’s movements in the US. Canadian grassroots activists should consider whether there are ways to ensure that Canadian participation in the WSF or other global forums is similarly representative of the movements of poor people and people of colour. By ensuring that those who attend are likely to have an interest in building linked, grassroots strategies, such work will become more central to the forum and more effective to our ongoing work.
Fifth, if movement strategizing is to take place within the WSF space, we will have to resist a tendency towards dogmatism about particular models of organization. This holds true not only for the proponents of the forum, but its critics. Yes, in addition to issues of corruption, elitism and a lack of democratic process, the WSF is full of party organizations, NGOs, and religious groups and as a result, it is tempting to reject it outright. But no similar project will be without at least some of these contradictions. The WSF is a complex and dynamic process that continues to hold a lot of untapped possibilities. It’s also the only space that attracts such diverse, global grassroots participation. Serious activists from around the world do participate. The question for radical North American activists interested in global strategizing then becomes: do we want to join them?
In Nairobi, strategizing between grassroots activists most frequently resulted in announcements of global days of action. This limited outcome reflects the challenges of strategizing within these spaces. The global day of action is a useful tactic, but we need to go much further. At a minimum, we need to begin to strategize about how different local actions might complement each other within a larger strategic framework. Grassroots strategizing will also produce new and different tactics, frames and ways to collaborate in creative ways. To make this more likely, we need to commit to making changes around the WSF. We need first to recognize the realities of our diverse contexts and how these realities affect the way that we interact in egalitarian and oppressive ways. We need to find ways for grassroots activists to be able to communicate before, during and after the forum events. We also need to think carefully about the relationship between the WSF process and our local and national organizing, and find ways that they can improve our effectiveness on both levels. Finally, we need to be less dogmatic about models of organization if we want to be able to collaborate across cultural, national, and ideological boundaries. This is a long list of things to do. But we have a little time. The WSF plan to make 2008 a year for local organizing and not for global fora provides us with an opportunity to move forward. Let’s use this chance to make our strategizing both local and global.