There is one word that I’ve heard to sum up this year’s Word Social Forum again and again: chaos. Just days before the WSF started the University which is hosting the event got a new director, who decided that classes would not be postponed for the Forum, leaving it over 400 rooms down.
The daily programmes were therefore pretty meaningless, even when they did eventually go online a couple of hours after the first session had started, because no-one knew which of the hastily constructed tents the session they were looking for might be in. Participants were rather like a very multicultural group of squatters on the dusty, windswept wasteland of Dakar University grounds.
All too often this meant that participants stuck together with their own group of friends or colleagues, unable to branch out into anything else for fear of another wasted two hours. For the truly new activists, unconnected to an organisation, the experience was intensely frustrating.
Not that the event wasn’t enjoyable, as activists were forced to use their self-organising skills simply to make sure their sessions happened at all. Palestinian activists had commissioned their own tent to be built right outside the main library which became a very visible hub for their activities, attracting large groups of students from the University to come and learn the basics of a struggle they knew little about. The forum had something of a festival feel from the fantastic food tents to the street sellers to the grotty toilets.
The location was also appropriate. My hotel window overlooked Goree Island, the point of departure for tens of thousands of Africans shipped into slavery in the New World. This slavery was the basis for the industrial revolution and the economic rise of the global North, as well as being at the heart of the serious under-development which is still so sharply felt across Africa today.
Despite this, and while the fault for the chaos of the forum can clearly not all be laid at the feet of the organisers, the experience has forced a more urgent questioning as to whether the WSF is still worthwhile. Set up as an expression of the rapidly burgeoning ‘anti-globalisation’ movement in 2001, the WSF faces a very different world, and caters to a different movement.
It seems there will be changes to the Forum next year. Some on the unwieldy International Council which organises the Forum are arguing for it to be less frequent, others that the WSF should cease to exist altogether and more focus be given to the regional and issue-based social forums.
But we need to be careful not to throw out what is truly amazing about the WSF. Struggles against tyranny in Egypt and Tunisia have formed a backdrop to this Forum, showing us what is possible, the vital role of solidarity that the WSF can play a role in creating. The thousands of people marching in Dakar as the Forum opened reminds us that the purpose of holding such an event here is the injection of energy it can give to struggles in the regions in which the WSF is held. One activist told us that the point is not how many meetings we go to, but the effect of the preparation of the WSF on the size and unity of the movement in its host country. It didn’t ease our frustration at the time, but is clearly an important consideration.
I leave the WSF convinced of why I work on debt. Seeing 2,000 activists dancing to a famous Senegalese hip-hop band singing about debt in an assembly festooned with the banners of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt, is a pretty powerful reminder of just how central this struggle remains in Africa, even if it doesn’t always feel that important in London.
None of this can be compromised, even if reform is necessary. The World Social Forum is an intensely frustrating, unwieldy and chaotic process. But perhaps that’s the nature of our movement.
Nick Dearden is director of the Jubilee Debt Campaign.
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