World Social Forum: is another world being constructed without Africa?

The World Social Forum believes 'Another World is Possible'. judygr/flickr

The 12th World Social Forum (WSF) was held in Montreal, Canada, in August 2016, bringing together 35,000 activists from social movements around the world. This was the first time in its history the forum had convened in the geopolitical north.

All participants, except those from the US and Europe, were required to obtain visas to enter Canada. This limited African participation as many were denied entry. The most prominent case was that of Aminata Traoré, a former cabinet minister in Mali, head of a large NGO and a member of the WSF’s International Council.

In another notable case, one group from Nigeria reported that only five or their group of 25 obtained visas. This is despite year-long fundraising and successful participation in past forums. This led writer and translator Danica Jorden to observe:

Another world is once again being constructed without Africa.

To put these comments in perspective we need to recall the origins, purpose and controversies of past forums. These kinds of controversies are not new, and each WSF inevitably reflects the concerns of the place where it is held.

The fact that this year’s forum was held in Canada is not a sign of Africa’s exclusion but rather an indicator that the negative impacts of neoliberal capitalism are globalising – and that the struggle needs to globalise with them.

Alternative to the World Economic Forum

The World Social Forum was founded in 2001 to counter the World Economic Forum (WEF) – an annual gathering of powerful corporate and political elites held in Davos, Switzerland.

While the WEF purports to tackle global challenges such as inequality and climate change, it works to further corporate globalisation, which some would argue is at the root of these problems.

In contrast, the WSF is:

… an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas and formulation of proposals.

Under the theme “Another World is Possible”, activists can gather and provide critiques and alternatives to neoliberal corporate globalisation.

Founded by European and Brazilian global justice activists, the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in a city and province controlled by sympathetic leftist governments. It quickly grew, attracting more than 100,000 participants annually.

From 2004 these forums were held outside Brazil for the first time on a biannual basis. Local, national and regional forums also mushroomed around the world.

A diverse history of exclusion and incorporation

Social forums from the beginning generated controversies over who was included and excluded. For example, at the 2007 WSF in Nairobi, poverty activists who felt economically excluded crashed the gates of the forum, which led to free access for the marginalised from the slums.

In another case, it was argued that certain voices were too dominant – for example northern NGOs with access to resources that many grassroots movements in the global south lack.

These and other challenges of inclusion have been progressively overcome with the gradual incorporating of marginalised voices – women, indigenous peoples and Dalits (India’s so-called untouchables).

Every WSF reflects the local realities and concerns of the region where it is held. This is indeed the point of moving the forum. At any forum event, about 80% of participants will be from the local region, with the balance drawn from the rest of the world.

Since 2006, Africa has hosted the second-largest number of forums, including global events in Bamako, Mali, Nairobi, Kenya, Dakar, Senegal, Tunis and Tunisia. WSFs in Nairobi, Dakar and Tunis tackled issues such as debt, HIV/AIDS, migration, land-grabbing, democracy and the Arab Spring.

The WSF in Montreal reflected issues specific to the region, including resource extraction, pipeline expansion, climate justice and the situation of indigenous peoples. But, issues affecting many regions of Africa were also addressed, such as land-grabbing, a major issue in sub-Saharan Africa, the rights of women and the impact of extractive industries in the south.

African presence in Montreal

What was the reality on the ground in terms of African presence and participation in Montreal? Using the WSF online program and search function we can provide a rough estimate.

Of the 1,200 self-organised events, 16, including two conferences, were focused on African issues. These included questions of democracy in Africa, human rights and migration, peace and development, decolonisation, health, poverty, climate justice, womens' land rights and food security. Of these, 13 had African speakers and organisations sponsoring the session – less than 2% of all sessions.

There was never any question that participation from the south would fall by holding the forum in Montreal, given the visa restrictions as well as the costs of accommodation and travel. It was the concerns about this that led some to question the legitimacy of holding the forum in Montreal.

Globalising the struggle

One African activist argued:

Africans should commit to launching an African Social Forum to compensate for their absence at the WSF 2016.

Another approach may be to use this moment to think about global social justice in a more holistic way. The decision to hold the forum in Montreal does not suggest the concerns of the south and Africa have been marginalised. Rather, it highlights there has been a shift in the impact of neoliberalism.

Austerity, debt, and cutbacks to public services are no longer restricted to the south but have come north. These new realities sparked off the spontaneous indignado protests that began in May 2011 in Madrid.

Inspired by the Arab Spring, the indignant activists gathered at a square in Madrid to protest against austerity. Inequality and the power of the 1% were rallying points for the Occupy! movement, which began in September 2011 with the occupation of Zuccotti Park near New York’s Wall Street financial district. These protests spread across many cities in North America and Europe.

As one Montreal organiser notes, the division of north and south when it comes to global justice is simplistic. The second-richest man on the planet (just behind Bill Gates) is Mexican and corporations from the south are engaging in land-grabbing in sub-Saharan Africa.

The plight of indigenous people in Canada, as many WSF participants in Montreal learned, has many parallels to the challenges affecting the most marginalised in the south. Injustice in the north and south are structurally and inseparably linked.

As Father John Patrick Ngoyi – a Nigerian religious leader and WSF activist – noted:

We have a north and a south, even though in different proportions. The struggle must indeed be globalised!

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.