Lessons from Nairobi
When more than $3 million is spent on an event – the World Social Forum – aimed at strengthening struggles against injustice, there has to be a rigorous political balance sheet.
Key players in the WSF are constantly debating whether the Forum process is simply a space or a potential actor in itself. For me, the positive experiences of Nairobi made very clear that the potential of the WSF lies beyond this dichotomy – in the way it enables movements and networks to intensify their capacity for coordinated action, extend their international reach and popular participation, deepen their strategic knowledge, and develop innovative thinking.
But Nairobi’s negative features (the registration fee and process; the commercial provision of food and water; the failure to build on the innovations of earlier forums in the programme; the overbearing presence of large NGOs) illustrated that these achievements are precarious.
The potential of the WSF becomes clear when we analyse the balance of power between the elites assembled at the World Economic Forum in Davos and the movements gathered in Nairobi. For behind the back-slapping and self-promotion, Davos is in crisis.
The corporate and ministerial elites have not recovered from the collapse of the WTO negotiations in Cancun in 2003 and again in Geneva last year. They had hoped these would guarantee secure access to Southern markets and natural resources.
Instead, they have faced a new willingness by Southern governments to challenge the biases of a system dominated by Northern negotiators cutting secretive backroom deals. Vital to this stiffened resolve has been the impact of the increasingly successful campaigns against every move of neoliberal pillage since demonstrations first closed down the WTO negotiations in Seattle in 1999. By bringing together activists from anticapitalist, anti-militarist organisations on an increasingly global basis, the WSF has provided a unique source of sustenance and renewal.
We need now to be more self-conscious about precisely how the WSF has been important to these and other developments. From talking to organisers of the key established networks and observing the emer-gence of a new network on labour, the following impacts and potential impacts of the WSF are clear:
Extending the networks’ international reach. In this respect, holding the WSF in Nairobi can be considered a move forward against considerable odds. In spite of the problems, all networks reported a significant, in some cases dramatic, increase in African involvement.
Deepening the popular base of campaigns – educating new waves of activists, especially in the host country. Here, the Kenyan organisers and the international committee seriously let the process down. But participants in many Northern countries (such as the UK) have also failed to connect the global WSF process to local campaigns and movements eager to make international connections.
Encouraging political connections and convergences – a crucial process for the development of alternatives and for the strategic power of resistance. Here, the Nairobi WSF was a mixed experience. Since the fifth WSF, a lot of work has been devoted to developing a methodology for this by, for example, organising the programme around ‘terrains’ based on connected themes. Little of this was followed through in the formal organisation of the programme in Nairobi. However, there was a selfmanaged dynamic – for example, preparatory seminars leading to very productive self-organised assemblies, and a very successful ‘social movements assembly’ on the final day, which brought together the demands and actions of all the main campaigning networks and agreed a common mobilisation against the G8 in Germany on 28 June and preparation for the international day of action that will replace a WSF in 2008.
An important lesson from Nairobi, then, is that if we are to regain the initiative in challenging the neoliberal and militarist world order with a visionary alternative, we need the WSF. But it will only meet these needs if all of us who believe that effective international networks require strong roots in local popular struggles take responsibility for it.
In the UK we need to consider how we use preparation for the international day of action in January 2008 to overcome our fragmentation and to break out of our relative isolation. The future of the left in the UK will depend on both its ability to internationalise itself and to root itself more firmly in localities and workplaces.