The 10th anniversary of the World Social Forum (WSF) should be a cause for celebration. The WSF defines itself as ‘an open meeting place where social movements, networks, NGOs and other civil society organizations opposed to neoliberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, to formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action’.
The first WSF took place in Brazil in 2001. It developed as a direct challenge to the World Economic Forum of the rich and powerful held annually in the Swiss mountain resort of Davos – to which civil society and grassroots movements are never invited. This year, it comes to Dakar, Senegal’s capital, and will have an African focus, with a special day, 7 February, dedicated to Africa and the diaspora. The organizers promise that WSF 2011 will emphasize South-South relations – and serve as a platform for those who understand the current crisis not only in financial and economic terms, but also as a crisis of civilization.
Some, however, say the WSF itself is in crisis. It has been criticized for becoming undemocratic and exclusive of grassroots social movements, which are being replaced by NGOs. Mzonke Poni of South Africa’s Shackdwellers’ Movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, has written that despite the Forum’s successes, the differences between the haves and have-nots in attendance remain all too visible.
New Internationalist reported four years ago on worrying trends that appeared during the 7th WSF in Kenya: the unnecessary and unaffordable $7 entry fee for African participants; the suspicion that the WSF had become too institutionalized; and the event’s corporate sponsorship. The latter referred especially to the partnership with Kenya Airways – an anti-union company which denied its employees their right to assemble, and Celtel, a corporate telecommunications giant. Wasn’t the Forum supposed to be ‘opposed to a world dominated by capitalism’?
Acknowledging past criticisms, Dakar promises to be different. Not least, it will celebrate the linguistic wealth of sub-Saharan Africa, opening up its debates to languages such as Wolof (the most widely spoken language in Senegal) and Swahili, rather than restricting access to those who speak the main colonial languages, as happened previously.Giedre Steikunaite