Report on the World Social Forum 2011, Dakar, Senegal

The World Social Forum 2011 took place in Senegal February 6th to 11th. Its slogan “Another world is possible” proved especially resonant as anti-government protests shook Egypt during that time. Developed since the first forum in Porto Alegre 2001, the 11th forum in Senegal’s capital Dakar brought together civil society groups from around the world to coordinate world campaigns, share and refine organizing strategies, increase offensive capacity, develop in depth understanding of current struggles by informing each other about social movements from around the world and their issues, and finally develop peer-to-peer alternatives to current models of capitalism.

Photo © Abdullah Vawda/IPS TerraViva

World Social Forum is inherently open, egalitarian, self-organized, and thrives on free speech; as opposed to the secretive, exclusive club World Economic Forum held in Davos the week before. World Social Forum 2011 had 75,000 participants from 132 countries organizing around 1,200 activities. From the small west African grassroots farmers’ associations to the large European NGOs, unions, movements, organizations, intellectuals and artists, together we built a great alliance in Dakar, different from the dominant logic wherein the free-market and money are considered the only measure of worth in Davos.

On the opening day of the forum, caravans of participants rolled into Dakar, bringing groups from from Mali, Togo, Benin, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tens of thousands of people marched through the streets of Dakar to mark the opening of the forum. Activists from Senegal were joined by people from across the world with a mass of multilingual posters and slogans in French, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, English and others.

Over the five days, participants choose from simultaneous plenaries and over hundred workshops. Based in and around the campus of Cheikh Anta Diop University (UCAD), forum discussions and events hosted in auditoriums, classrooms as well as in tents and around ad-hoc gatherings. It was an “open space” for discussion, convergence and alliance-building. There was no formal process for creating and announcing an event, some did posters, some used SMS, emails, and online services. In fact, word of mouth was the best medium for announcements. Although anyone could find a room or tent and propose a meeting, programmed talks and press conferences were held continually; it was impossible to know of all the events which happened. There were also films, art projects, concerts, and dancing.

Translation of documents and signage were limited (mostly French) due to local resources and organizational capacity of the university. For many, it took a day or so to figure out navigation and reading programs. On the other hand, we enjoyed the random serendipity and chance happenings, that I met my great inspiration author and social activist Naomi Klein in of those tents.

Ubiquitous Internet access is a must for such big self-organized meetings. If we had more wi-fi spots in the UCAD campus, event the most random gathering would have better participation.

In the second day, former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade gave a talk at a parallel conference, at the Place du Souvenir, 7 February. Lula, was the centre of attention, he told that “Global Finacial crisis proves that capitalism is broken.” and added “To the G20, it seems as if there is no problem, and we never talk about unemployment.”

Taxation of financial transactions is one of the main topics, mostly led by the French association ATTAC. France’s Socialist party leader Martine Aubry was a speaker with former Senegalese minister Mamadou Faye at the launch of the campaign to end financial secrecy in tax havens by multinationals, which civil society groups say deprive developing countries of billions in revenue. The launch of ‘End tax haven secrecy’, by civil society organizations from three continents: Christian Aid, CCFD-Terre Solidaire, Latindadd, Oxfam and the African Tax Justice Network. At Oxfam’s Robin Hood event petitions are signed on three long banners to be sent to three ambassadors in Senegal: Germany, France and United Kingdom, urging them to make sure their country will adopt taxes on financial transactions and banks as soon as possible.

On the third day, fishermen and participants from the World Social Forum converged on the streets and on the coast by the Frontex office in Dakar, for a demonstration against the EU border agency. They said that “the border patrols off the coast of Senegal are forcing pirogues to turn back on the open sea, which threatens migrants seeking to make the journey to Europe and to local fishermen who take to the coastal waters to earn their living.” In fact, on the east border of Europe, same Frontex issues with Turkey’s Aegean sea border.

Along with the climate, water, and food crisis, the loot of multinational extractivists in Africa was another big focus in the forum. Multinational corporations make deals behind the scenes with the corrupt governments all over in Africa and get exclusive rights on the extraction of natural resources, which in fact belong to the people, not the government. Those mining and metal companies also get the cheapest electricity in the world, while civilians struggle with constant electricity cuts. Big resistance to multinational extractivists in south and west Africa, which is similar to what’s happening in Turkey, the most recent Vermeyoz movement against the privatization of natural resources.

While the chain of revolutions in Magreb were being discussed in one of the forums, Turkey mentioned as the Islamic democracy model for the Magreb nations. But quickly, the rising neoliberalism in Turkey came into focus, that it was clearly naive to think Turkey as an ideal model for Magreb while we are discussing counter strategies for neoliberalism.

I met the impressive Tostan group, grassroots educational development organization, in one of the tents in the forum. They empower African communities to bring about sustainable development and positive social transformation based on respect for human rights. Their aim is to increase community engagement in projects related to health and hygiene, child welfare, human rights and democracy. They apply non-formal education techniques to teach technology (e.g., using a mobile phone menu, solar fireplace cooking, solar cellphone charging) and civil rights to people in the rural regions. As one of the results, villagers started doing demonstrations and demanded new rights from the local government.

Open Source Do-it-yourself Washing Machine Design, by Bricolabs

In Africa, free libre open source software (FLOSS) and do-it-yourself technology is not an alternative, it is the norm. Ubuntu, Drupal, Pure Data, Android are some of the projects/systems adopted rapidly by the tech savy youth. No iphones, macbooks, or app stores here, people develop their own tools based on their needs. People learn the most through creative workshops, like artist Karen Dermineur’s ateliers all over in Africa, and through self-realized or community projects. Do-it-yourself washing machine by Bricolabs was one of the most interesting projects presented in the Open Source for Civil Society session. It is obvious that open source ideas and processes are both a need and inspiration for the civic development in Africa.

I met three artists, who were sharing a stand and collaborating in the forum area. Edi’s life time civil trash decomposition practice, Pascal Nampemanla Traoré’s Plastiqueman statue along with great plastic take on the traditional African masks, and Kyd Campbell’s do-it-yourself recycling vertical garden project. Together the experience is a hybrid of civic tools and artistic statements.

Two nights in a row, we ended up at the club Just4You, enjoyed the local bands from Dakar, Wolof hiphop, and Senegalese drum Mbalax. This club was across the street of a Turkish Islamic school called Yavuz Selim. In fact, Turkish Airlines has direct flight to Dakar, no wonder.

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