Global Democracy News and Ideas Special Report May 2009

Back in Africa, Forward to Another World:Challenges of the World Social Forum 2011 in Dakar

by Teivo Teivainen, Network Institute for Global Democratization

Source: NIGD Newsletter

The International Council (IC) of the World Social Forum (WSF) decided today, 8 May 2009, in Rabat that the next WSF shall be organized in Dakar in 2011. The Senegalese capital was presented as a consensual proposal of the Council of the African Social Forum, after months of intense deliberation.

Various kinds of doubts had been expressed in previous IC meetings about the conditions for organizing a WSF in Africa in 2011. Nevertheless, the decision was made in Rabat without opposition or contestation. This does not mean that doubts would have ceased to exist, but in my opinion it speaks well of the WSF learning process that a consensual decision was constructed on this issue that had caused sometimes heated debates in previous IC meetings.

Even if there has never been a formal decision to always keep holding the main WSF events every two years, in practice this is the rhythm the forum process has had for some years now. After the Porto Alegre WSF in 2005, which was the fifth consecutive WSF global event organized annually, there was a polycentric (decentralized) experiment in 2006, held in Caracas, Bamako and Karachi. After the centralized WSF in Nairobi in 2007, so-called Global Days of Action were organized in 2008. After the Belem WSF held in January 2009, there has been some uncertainty about where the main WSF event would be organized next. Now one part of this uncertainty is over.

As the decisions of the WSF International Council tend to take quite some time to circulate, I decided to make some brief initial reflections on the decision. These are based on my involvement in the IC since its inception in 2001 as well as conversations and interviews with some key people during this IC meeting held in Morocco. Together with Giuseppe Caruso, I participated in this IC meeting as representative of the Network Institute for Global Democratization ( and I thank Giuseppe for comments on this hastily written report.

Learning from Nairobi

As some of the critical questions about organizing the WSF event in Africa have had to do with the experience of the previous global WSF event held in the continent, I talked today to Edward Oyugi, who was one the key organizers of the Nairobi WSF in 2007.

Edward seemed optimistic about the Dakar WSF, because it will benefit from the experience of various previous WSF events in Africa, including the Nairobi WSF in 2007, the polycentric WSF held in Bamako in 2006 and various events of the African Social Forum process, most recently in Niger in 2008. There are also plans to hold a thematic social forum event in Niger in 2010, as part of the preparations for the Dakar WSF. Therefore “back to Africa” does not only mean back after Nairobi but a continuation of a process that has taken place in and around Africa during many years.

Differences with the Nairobi WSF preparations mentioned by Edward included a stronger focus in the world and in Africa on the crisis of global capitalism. In particular, he thought that the Economic Partner Agreements (EPAs) between the European Union and various African countries will be one of the key points of concern for the organizations participating in the Dakar WSF. Edward also referred to the differences between Kenya and Senegal in state-society relationship, something I will explore below.

One more novelty will probably be the increasingly strong focus on the environmental and climatic questions. Various Nomadic groups that are particularly vulnerable to environmental crises were already present in Nairobi, but Edward deemed probable that they would play a much stronger role in setting the agenda for Dakar.

I also believe the Belem WSF where there was much focus on the importance of learning from the indigenous ways of living to confront the environmental crisis, has strengthened the capacity of the WSF process to take into account groups that have been previously excluded from the agenda-setting of the process. This capacity was already significantly strengthened by the presence of dalit groups in the WSF 2004 organized in Mumbai.

The Dakar Decision

Making the decision to hold WSF 2011 in Dakar took relatively long time, after the IC initially decided in May 2007 that the 2011 event should take place somewhere in Africa. The initial decision was taken simultaneously with the decision to organize the 2009 event in Belem. As there had been some proposals to organize already the 2009 event in Africa, deciding on Africa 2011 was one element in building consensus around Belem 2009.

In the following IC meetings, there were ambiguous and tense moments when African participants demanded a stronger commitment of the IC as a whole to organizing the WSF in Africa in 2011. Doubts about the conditions to organize the WSF in Africa were expressed more often in the corridors and informal beer sessions than in the plenary debates of the IC. (Though for some expressions of this debate in the plenary sessions, see my report from the Abuja IC meeting here (external link)).

In the Belem IC meeting, organized in February 2009, it became more or less clear how complicated and embarrassing for the IC it would be to decide to organize WSF 2011 anywhere outside Africa. There was some speculation on the possibility to organize it in the United States, but it soon became obvious that this was neither realistic nor really proposed by the organizers of the US Social Forum. It was therefore decided in Belem, and this time with more commitment than before, that the African Social Forum organizers would work toward a unified proposal and this would be decided in Rabat.

As recounted by Taoufik Ben Bella today, within the African process there were initially four main possible host countries for the African WSF: Senegal, Niger, South Africa and Tanzania. By March 2009, there were only two countries were able to present a proper application, after the South Africans had decided not to continue with the possible candidacy. Thereafter, with a deliberation process that Taoufik called “quite democratic”, Senegal became the consensual proposal. Perhaps as part of the negotiation, the Africans decided to hold a thematic social forum in Niger in 2010 as part of the preparatory process toward Dakar.

In Rabat, the tone of the applauses after Taoufik and Demba Moussa Dembele initially presented the proposal to hold WSF 2011 in Dakar already indicated that there would be little resistance to the proposal. The interventions that followed expressed the shared enthusiasm toward the proposal, which at the end of the day was accepted unanimously.

Within the State, Without the State

One of the doubts about the conditions for the WSF process in various parts of Africa, and obviously also elsewhere in the world, is related to the relationship of the movements and the state. Even if the WSF is formally a “civil society” process, the social movements and NGOs exists in contexts of significant state presence.

In his initial presentation to the IC plenary, as “representative of the Senegalese social movements”, Demba stated that “all” Senegalese social movements are behind the application to hold the WSF there. Even if it would be naïve (if not scary) to assume that such an absolute consensus could ever be formed, I have not hear of any major social movements in Senegal that would be vocally opposed to the WSF events. As compared to many other countries of the region, it seems that Senegal does have relatively important social movements, but my possibilities to assess the level of their adherence to the WSF process are limited.

In any case, the relationship of the movements with the state is likely to be different in Dakar than it was in Nairobi. I also asked Edward Oyugi about this. Here again, he was optimistic.

In Kenya, according to Edward, organizing the WSF was tolerated by the state mostly because of the perceived financial benefits it would bring. Ideologically, there was a relatively strong “state-civil society cleavage”, as the Kenyan state had little understanding toward radical or left-leaning social organizations. Edward compared this to Senegal, where the state would be less hostile toward left-oriented organizations and more prone to appreciate radical proposals. He even referred to the legacy of Leopold Senghor, ex president of Senegal, as an indication of this openness.

Of course, I need to add, this may also imply the risk that the relationship of the WSF organizers with the state may become too close, which is one of the doubts that have been expressed about the possibility of organizing the WSF in places like Dakar. Close relationship with the state has its pros and cons, and much depends on the capacity of the social movements to act autonomously in different contexts, whether with more or with less hostile government. As such, and with various contextual differences, this question has also been present in other places where the WSF has been organized with at least some support from the local state, including Brazil and Venezuela.

According to Demba, the state authorities want the WSF to be held there because they consider it an “honor to the democratic nature of Senegal”. According to him, the government is aware that the movements need to be able to express themselves “quite freely”. I do not have enough understanding of the situation to speculate on

When talking about the government, it is useful to distinguish between local authorities and the national (or federal) state. Demba pointed out that the municipal government of Dakar has a particularly good relationship with the movements. “The mayor is one of us”, he said, adding that the mayor has worked on themes like the foreign debt and Economic Partnership Agreements. Also Rabia Abdelkrim, who expressed some fears that the Senegalese state might want to control the WSF process, found the mayor and the municipal government a more suitable partner.

One of the ways through which the organizing process might increase its autonomy vis-à-vis the Senegalese government is the creation of a South-based transnational organizing committee for the Dakar WSF. This initiative, announced by Taoufik, was also commented approvingly by Virginia Vargas, who in general tends to be critical of the attempts of assumedly progressive states to control the WSF. It remains to be seen how this and other new proposals will function in practice, but today it does seem that the process is advancing through learning.

Money, Culture and Power

One of the main challenges for most forums has been financial. The question of how the Dakar WSF will be financed was not discussed much in the plenary sessions of the Rabat IC. It seems that the Finance Commission of the IC did not have possibilities to meet properly in Rabat either because people were busy in other commissions and activities.

Even if there exists a proposal to rely on significant South-South? networks in the organizing process toward Dakar, the North-South? dimension is likely to play a role in the finance question. Compared to the forums organized in Brazil or Venezuela, the WSF 2011 will be organized in a country with significantly less available resources even assuming the political will for state financing would exist.

During the first years of the WSF process, questions of finance were often seen as simply technical issues. In recent years, more attentions has been paid to the political dimension of finance, the links between money and power, and hopefully even more so in the preparations for this next forum in Africa.

As was pointed by some participants of the Rabat IC, we should not rely on overly dichotomous conceptions of the North-South? cleavages. One of the big challenges in this context is the civilizational one. Senegal is the first overwhelmingly Islamic country, in terms of the religious affiliation of the majority, in which a global WSF event is held.

In the assessments of the Nairobi WSF, much attention was paid to the presence of fundamentalist or reactionary church-based organizations that had positions that many feminist organizations found in outrageous violation of the WSF Charter of Principles. Some, such as Virginia Vargas, have expressed concern about the possibility that such Islamist organizations that might have similarly intolerant attitudes toward, for instance, reproductive rights could have presence in the Dakar WSF. Its seems the best way to deal with these dilemmas is to try to follow the Charter of Principles in defining what kind of organizations are supposed to participate in the WSF process.

Islam, however, is an example of a theme in which the Forum process should not assume simplistic dichotomies. As the existence of a growing number of European Muslims, it is by no means a purely North-South? issue. The Dakar WSF could present an opportunity for the forum process to tackle complicated politico-cultural questions related to coloniality and Eurocentrism, for example as regards Islam.

All in all, the feelings in the Rabat IC about the challenges of organizing the WSF 2011 in Dakar were enthusiastic. In this hastily written instant report I have only touched some of the issues at play. Now it is time to start the hard work.