Chaotic, inspiring, frustrating and extraordinary – it’s hard to sum up the World Social Forum in one word.
I knew it was going to be a bit special the moment I got on my connecting flight to Dakar, which resembled a kind of NGO school trip… overexcited Frenchmen jumping around the aisles to network, flyers and sign-up sheets getting passed throughout the cabin – and so many different languages spoken that even the most jaded of development wonks would struggle to contest that the event was going to be ‘global’.
The number of different causes and interest groups here is mind-blowing. There are people working on land-grabbing; tax justice; combating violence against women; human rights – and thousands of other issues ranging from the G20 to access to higher education within Senegal itself.
I bumped into one man from Cornwall who was part of the Cornish independence movement, and was meeting up with his counterparts from the Basque Country and other separatist campaigns.
Interspersed amongst it all were thousands of ordinary Senegalese students, who dipped into some of the events, and confused many a delegate who struggled to judge the fine line between ‘networking’ and getting chatted up.
CAFOD are here as a member of Beyond-2015, which is working to kick-start conversation on what should happen after the Millennium Development Goals finish in 2015. We had very clear objectives for our time here: to work with delegates to come up with essential ‘must-haves’ for a post-2015 framework, and collect the names and contact details of organisations who want to help us develop these further. We were pretty successful in this – surviving by the skin-of-our-teeth the chaos that has prevailed throughout the event.
The main problem has been that there is no programme, and rooms are not allocated to events organisers in advance – meaning it is impossible to tell people where and when to come, or to know where to go yourself. At the 11th hour, a room may be allocated but when the organisers arrive there it is filled with students from the university having a lecture. So, organisers take whatever tent or room they can find – sometimes squatting venues that have already been allocated to others. I heard at one point, a venue was grabbed by a seminar about fighting land-grabbing!
There have people who have really turned the chaos into opportunity. There was one student who set himself up as a small business, helping people find their way around the campus for a couple of francs each time.
As the organisers of a seminar on Rio +20 scrambled to find translators and set up microphones, in front of an increasingly listless crowd, a group of students took the opportunity to invade the stage, and tell the assembled delegates about their cause. Flanked by twenty of his friends – stern and angry – the student leader told how they were being denied a place at the University where the WSF was being held, even though they had successfully passed the diploma which qualified them for a place. In response they were going on hunger strike. The crowd were visibly moved, and rose up in applause.
For me, a key lesson was that if you are doing a presentation in a multi-lingual context, stern and angry communicates pretty well. Jokes, caveats and complex points get lost. Too much context gets boring.
Most of the time people can’t follow the translation, but whilst they won’t understand what you are saying, if you give an animated and rousing performance they will know you are passionate about it.
And passion was perhaps most consistent theme in the WSF.
On the march, walking alongside people carrying so many different banners, for so many different causes, from so many different countries, the empty phrases I read in development reports became a believable, tangible, reality. This is what “global civil society” looks like. There are thousands of people, from all over the world, who are trying to make things better – and the feeling of solidarity between them is real. The World Social Forum was messy, difficult and confusing – but so are the challenges we face in trying to make a better world.
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