World Social Forum 2007: Warts and all

NAIROBI. There are a few things about Kasarani stadium, the venue for the 2007 World Social Forum, that seem at odds with the spirit of this now institutionalised annual civil society gathering. The gates, razor wire and sentries stopping-and-searching at the main entrance certainly contradict the spirit of openness that the WSF purports to foster. So too do the regular patrols of red-beretted soldiers toting AK-47s.

Then of course there’s the Kasarani stadium itself. Officially known as the Moi International Sports Centre named after the former despot Daniel Arap Moi, it is widely regarded as a white elephant by many Kenyans. Built with Chinese money in 1987 for the Fourth All-Africa Games at a cost of 21 million Kenyan shillings (approximately $300,000), it has since degraded to a point where Kenyan journalist Dan Teng’o writes: ‘Today, the stadium is a symbol of the rot that has set in sports in Kenya.’

Too expensive for ordinary youth sporting clubs and casual groups in the area, only rich individuals, firms and religious organisations hire the facility for their events. For some locals here that I spoke with, the WSF is just another of these. Few of the residents of the Kasarani area, a few miles outside of Nairobi, will attend the WSF. While the fee for African delegates is a modest 450 Kenyan shillings ($7.00), that’s still too steep for many people here. They find it hard to understand why an ostensibly ‘open’ forum would require such a fee to participate. This is especially true for the million or so slum dwellers of Kibera, Mathare and Korogocho for whom 450 shillings is better spent on basic needs.

The sight of Oxfam-branded 4x4s cruising around flauntingly, the many well-resourced charity and church groups decking out their stalls (and even their own office spaces) with glossies and branded goodies, all reinforce the suspicion that perhaps the WSF has become too institutionalized. Perhaps more worryingly has been the corporate sponsorship of the WSF.

The Forum organizers proudly announced their partnership with Kenya Airways. The same company that has for years allegedly denied the right to assembly of its workers organized under the Aviation and Allied Workers Union. Workers accuse the company of discriminatory practices in its remuneration and recruitments policies as well as denying their rights to form a union. Strike action over the ongoing dispute has been threatened just a few months ago; time enough for the WSF organizers to reconsider their partnership agreement. Such an oversight may well raise a few eyebrows among the many thousands of union and labour activists present here.

Perhaps the most visible of the corporate sponsors of the WSF here is that of Celtel, the once African (now owned by a Kuwaiti transnational) telecommunications giant. Reps from the company are strategically situated throughout the venue pimping Celtel services and wearing the ubiquitous company t-shirts with the slogan: “Making Life Better”. Is Celtel’s version of making life better its long support of the New Economic Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) – a neoliberal initiative to encourage more of the same World Bank/IMF prescriptions many of the participants here have been fighting for decades? According to South African scholar activist Patrick Bond:

NEPAD evolved under conditions of smoke-filled-room secrecy, in close contact with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair (several times during 2000), the G8 (in Okinawa in 2000 and Genoa in 2001), the Bretton Woods Institutions (in repeated meetings) and international capital (at Davos in 2001). As a result, the plan denies the rich contributions of African social struggles in its very genesis. Instead, it empowers transnational corporations, Northern donor agency technocrats, Washington financial agencies, Geneva trade bureaucrats, Machiavellian Pretoria geopoliticians and Johannesburg capitalists, in a coy mix of imperialism and South African sub-imperialism.

Not exactly the sort of values the WSF espouses, and certainly at odds with the vast majority of the African activists here who oppose neoliberal prescriptions such as NEPAD and its various mutations.

These are worrying trends indeed. With the World Social Forum now in its seventh year, there are some important questions to be asked regarding its future and its stewardship. Despite its problems though, the Forum still has its strongest asset – the people. Walking around, one encounters inspiring committed activists from all over the world all trying to do their part to make the world a better place. The value of this can’t be overstated. People meet, organize, plan and debate. They also laugh, sing, dance and build friendships that last. Put people like this in the most corporate anti-social, inhospitable environment and the Forum would still be alive. It is the people who make it.

Sure there are contradictions and hypocrisies aplenty. And as activists, it is our duty to point them out and challenge them. But despite its problems, the World Social Forum is still a great thing, and maybe; just maybe, all this time and energy, all these strengthened relationships, sharing and training will make the world just that little bit better.

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