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European Social failure?

The sixth European Social Forum took place in Istanbul at the beginning of July. Sophie Haydock and James Robertson found it left something to be desired

July 11, 2010
5 min read

What location could be better for this year’s European Social Forum (ESF) than historic Istanbul – where, in tourist-brochure lingo, ‘East meets West in spectacular style’. What a fantastic opportunity to explore Turkey’s domestic issues: the Kurds, relations with Greece and the Turkish military presence in Cyprus – and perhaps, most crucially, how the people of Europe should respond to the financial crisis and get the P.I.G.S out of the IMF/EU pen?

The opening ceremony on the Wednesday 30 June certainly showed that some of this initial optimism was not unfounded, featuring a large Kurdish delegation performing a traditional dance. Under normal conditions, that action would have resulted in the swift and heavy-handed arrest of those involved. What’s more, the 2010 European Social Forum took place just five weeks after Israeli soldiers shot dead nine Turkish activists on board the flotilla bound for Gaza. Surely Istanbul would be the place to unite those wishiing to work together to end the siege of Gaza and challenge Israel’s impunity?

Although workshops and seminars on Palestine cropped up (with some inevitability) in the ESF programme, they tended to cover old ground rather than harnessing the opportunity to agree a forceful post-flotilla where-do-we-go-from-here? What’s more, the pro-Palestinian demo that we planned to attend on Friday at 8:30pm (as advertised in the booklet we were given on registration) actually took place 24 hours earlier, with no warning or advert of the change. By word of mouth alone, around 60 people show up. Not exactly a healthy number for a solidarity march at an event that – in theory – represents a dynamic international meeting of like-minded activists and organisations.

Sadly, the lack of organisation around the Palestine demo was far from a one-off. Of course, criticising the organisation of a social forum is a favourite pastime of many participants but that the Istanbul ESF was organised on a shoestring doesn’t entirely excuse the Turkish and English programmes advertising different schedules, that the demonstrations weren’t advertised properly, or that they ran out of food for the paltry number of participants. We spent hours on hot streets and crowded trams trying to find the forum’s main venue, which was particularly difficult in the absence of directions or signs. We were mildly encouraged by other red-faced delegates, equally lost. Finally we registered late on the Thursday morning. Our lanyards suggested we were only the 36th and 37th people to do so.

Cropping up in the conversations of the more disgruntled participants of these things, since Porto Alegre in 2001 is: ‘What’s the point of social forums anyway?’ A kind of lefty existential ‘why are we here’ from those who’ve taken the time to show up in the first place. It’s certainly a struggle to find a definitive answer to that question, at an event supposedly characterised by plurality and diversity. Nevertheless, forums certainly seem to work best when they operate as an opportunity to share ideas, establish networks and agree strategies for action between activists or organisations working on similar issues.

For us the greatest criticism of this forum was its failure to provide non-hierarchical, participative, polycentric spaces in the meetings themselves. With notable exceptions, every seminar or workshop (there seemed little difference between the formats) was conducted in the same way: the ‘experts’ sat at the front, the floor listened to them reciting what they already knew. This series of laborious, monotonous monologues would come to an end, after two and a half hours, to allow for ‘questions’ – and a further 30 minutes of non-sequiturs. Even when direct questions were asked, the sessions were so poorly facilitated that those asked the questions were rarely given the opportunity to answer. All this made engaging and productive dialogue a practical impossibility.

These kinds of problems have been evident at previous European Social Forums, and in any case the hosts cannot necessarily be blamed. In the spirit of the forum we must all take collective responsibility for injecting creativity, passion, flair and excitement into the process. Nevertheless, when groups like Climate Justice Action or the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation attempted to break down these front-loaded sessions by creating smaller discussion groups, they were not unilaterally welcomed. Where was the New Economics Foundation with their dynamic ‘Fink Club’ debate format when we needed them?

This said, sessions such as ATTAC’s workshop, exploring people’s proposals to deal with the European debt and social crisises, provided proof that forums like these can still, at times, work effectively. Activists from Austria, France, Germany, the UK and Italy converged to agree a strategy for resisting EU governments’ coordinated attacks on social and welfare systems in EU countries.

War on Want was one of only a handful of UK-based organisations at this year’s ESF. One of their delegates, David Tucker, reminded us that the success of social forums should be measured not by what happens during them, but by what happens after. Such things are undeniably hard to quantify.

However, with its great potential squandered and the stakes so high in Europe, what should happen now that the ESF 2010 is over is a thorough assessment of social forums as a means of actually transforming opportunity in to reality.

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