Re: [OPE-L] What happened at the WSF in Bamako?

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Fri Jan 27 2006 - 10:59:48 EST

Hi Patrick,

Thanks for the <> report. You should be
interested in the following, highly crical, article originally
published on <> and re-published (surprisingly?)
at <>.  Do you and others on the
list agree with the points made by Solana Larsen?

In solidarity, Jerry


The World Social Forum pioneered new forms of global activism and
democracy. Now it is being pressed to take the shape of an older
politics, reports Solana Larsen in Caracas.

  By: Solana Larsen - OpenDemocracy

Published: 26/01/06

When 100,000 optimistic activists get together in one of
the most colourful and dynamic events the world has ever
seen, you've got to expect a good deal of music and
dancing, clapping and stomping. But as the sixth World
Social Forum slowly unravels, first in Bamako, Mali and now
in Caracas, Venezuela, there is also a great deal of
frustration over the fact that "nothing" seems to be coming
out of this enormous effort.
Certainly, the world is still a terrible mess, and many of
the participants of the forum – or in most cases the people
they represent – live in extreme poverty and face early
deaths. Neoliberal capitalism is still king, and in spite
of victories across South America especially, the global
left still has less impact that their counterparts at the
World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland who are also
gathering this week.
"This forum will not lead to anything; we'll just hear the
same speeches," said a teacher from Bamako to South
Africa's Mail &amp; Guardian on 18 January, the eve of the
forum. "Before, it was politicians putting us to sleep with
their words – now it's those who question globalisation..."
Similarly, the secretary general of Civicus, a world
alliance of non-governmental organisations, Kumi Naidoo,
called for the forum to agree on and propose real solutions
instead of only complaining about the world’s problems.

The impulse to raise the stakes and turn the World Social
Forum into a more consolidated political force is in some
ways an expression of frustration. But several of the
founders of the WSF, among them world-renowned social
activist Chico Whitaker, are unequivocally opposed to the
growing number of calls for manifestos and proposals.
"If people are frustrated, it's because they are expecting
something they can never get from the forum, " said
Whitaker over the telephone from Brazil on 20 January.

*The end of the WSF?*

Whitaker insists the primary purpose of the forum is to
create a space for free dialogue between social movements,
and that its openness should not be compromised by
confining participants to any narrow statement of intent.
More importantly, he says it would be "impossible" to
represent the views of such a diverse gathering in one
statement. "The forum would be finished," said Whitaker.
"Those who disagreed would stop coming – I would stop
coming." (This year, Whitaker was in Recife, Brazil
planning a national Brazilian Social Forum.)
One group of very influential intellectuals at the forum
disagree with him. At the 2005 World Social Forum in Brazil
"a group of 19" – including Frei Betto, Immanuel
Wallerstein, Eduardo Galeano, and Tariq Ali – signed a
document they called the Porto Alegre Consensus Manifesto
and urged others to sign on (openDemocracy translated it
into English, here). It created intense controversy and an
uncomfortable divide between those who agreed with the
manifesto and those who didn't. Many also questioned the
undemocratic way the document was conceived and proposed.
It doesn't take much imagination to foresee a situation
where the global social-justice movement spends all its
time arguing about how to phrase joint statements. As if
the world needed yet another arena for internal power
struggles and empty words in place of direct action.
Consensus language could also easily provoke more wrath of
the type offered by Fred Halliday in the Observer in the
aftermath of the 2005 forum.
But a year later, the Porto Alegre Consensus Manifesto has
not been forgotten, and the mere mention of it makes
Whitaker huff. "It was an initiative by only a small group
of participants at the forum," he said. "Their views do not
represent the forum as a whole."
Alarm bells rang again for Whitaker and his colleagues,
when they heard that WSF organisers in Bamako – among them
Samir Amin, director of the Third World Forum and a
signatory to the original Porto Alegre Consensus document –
were planning to use the opening session of the Forum to
revive the Bandung initiative, an alliance that brought
twenty-nine African and Asian countries together against
American and Soviet power-blocs fifty years ago.
Concerned that they were trying to represent the views of
everyone at the forum, Whitaker says he helped write a
letter to Amin a few days before the forum began. It
politely asked whether this session was simply a separate
"initiative", or whether they in fact were launching the
Bamako forum in a manner that goes against its charter of
principles. The response arrived shortly after the forum
began. It was simply an initiative, and it was presented as
But Whitaker – whose book on the WSF will be published in
English later this year – said he was also concerned about
talk of "countries" doing anything at a gathering of social
movements where neither governments nor parties are invited.
Of course, judging by the number of different socialist
party banners at these conferences, you would think someone
had forgotten to tell participants this. Star speakers at
the Brazil Forums in 2003 and 2005 were President Lula of
Brazil and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela.
"As 'people' from parties they can show up," says Whitaker,
explaining that participants organising sessions are free to
invite anyone they want. In 2005, Lula was invited to launch
the Global Call Against Poverty (GCAP); and the Brazilian
landless people's movement, MST, invited Chávez. This year,
in Caracas, many feel Chávez's people are playing too strong
a role in the organisation of the forum. A group of young
activists have even organised an Alternative Social Forum,
which many local youth and Venezuelan bloggers are
attending instead.
This struggle between governments, parties, and WSF
organisers is inevitable. From Porto Alegre to Recife to
Caracas, it is impossible to organise a Forum without the
support of local government. "They always try to
interfere," says Whitaker, adding that it is ultimately up
to the local organisers of any event to stand their ground
against interference with the programme. "If they don’t say
no they will be manipulated," he said, "I hope this is not
the case of the organisers in Caracas."
This was the case of the European Social Forum in London in
2004 which was so dominated by the Socialist Workers Party
that people left in frustration, and it has been difficult
to find backing for a new European Forum since then, says

*A forum without "-isms"*

The autonomous structure of the programme and stubborn
refusal to transform into a united movement is actually one
of the best defence mechanisms of the World Social Forum
against government and party interference. If the forum
became a platform for proposals or joint statements, it
wouldn’t take long for some party or local government, or
even a clever group of academics, to license the views of
thousands of participants without their knowledge or
Do the people at the forum represent the views of the
organisation whose name they carry around their neck? Do
they represent all the people their organisations claim to
work for? It wouldn’t be democratic to pretend they always
did. A new study by Ibase in Brazil actually shows the
majority of participants to belong to an "unaffiliated
leftist elite", that rejects hierarchical structures and
"the old practices" of power politics.
Having a space for social movements to meet away from the
politicking they deal with at home is crucial to their
growth and success. The amount of information and ideas
exchanged at a gathering like this is impossible to
quantify. It’s the ideal occasion to develop "new
practices" for power politics – of the kind described by
Simon Zadek in openDemocracy's "Peer Power: reinventing
accountability" debate.
However, there are ways the forum could become more
effective without falling into old power traps. The 2005
forum left openDemocracy's bloggers in despair at the sheer
amount of boring and repetitive events. It was also
difficult to get a clear sense of what the forum is for
from the programme and organisation of activities, in spite
of an inspired attempt to create a system of "thematic
terrains". This year's programme has six themes (the online
version seems to be nonsensically ordered by alphabet).
If organisers offered more guidance on what participants
were supposed to leave events learning, they could steer
organisations into offering different events with stated
outcomes. The first kind could be for learning and
information exchange; the second, for planning specific
campaigns and events with interested participants; and the
third, a networking space for meeting other organisations.
Finally there could be a space for discussion about the WSF
process itself, where participants could partake in debate
about the process.
By organising the events of the forum primarily by
"purpose" instead of themes (or the alphabet) the forum
process might help direct participants (individuals and
organisations) to create more new initiatives and campaigns
that transcend global borders. It might also help quell
critics who say nothing concrete is gained from the forum.
Plain old statements on behalf of thousands of activists
are boring. It might seem cowardly not to propose
"anything" as a group, but the most courageous thing the
World Social Forum can do is to resist calls to turn it
into a version of politics we see in plenty of other
places, and continue to pioneer and develop new forms of
global activism and democracy.

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