WORLD: World Social Forum 2011, so intricate, yet perfect 

March 18, 2011

An Article by the Asian Human Rights Commission

WORLD: World Social Forum 2011, so intricate, yet perfect

The reality of Africa
*Sachin Jain

This year, the World Social Forum (WSF) raised several new questions but there are many older questions that we still need to find answers to. Since we met in Senegal, it was quite natural that the focus of discussion was the African question, which proved to be a fruitful learning ground for civil society groups. Situated in the eastern part of the continent, Senegal is considered a resource-rich region of Africa, yet its first major highway was constructed just four years ago. It is said the Senegalese president spent the largest chunk of the country’s budget on building the road, yet it peters out into a dust trail after a mere 40 kilometres!


WSF 2011, organised in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, attracted more than 50,000 people pursuing the vision of creating a better world. But I have been observing a worrisome trend in this forum over the 10 years that I have attended its deliberations – you get a sense of the growing dominance of NGOs over people’s movements at every step. Many of these organisations were, in fact, present this year to advertise and publicise themselves. The ruling political party of China put up a stall. Also participating were USAid and a host of other International funding agencies that push a liberal neo-colonial and capitalist approach to development agenda along with the financial resources they disburse. There should be no illusions about the kind of linkages these groups seek to establish with the WSF vision of building a new world order.

My African interlude began with one of those unpleasant encounters that bring to mind my own country – the Dakar ambience is so like India! The moment I alighted from the Iberia Airlines flight I proceeded to the immigration department to complete the formalities for entering the country. After stamping my passport the immigration officer said something to me in French, which I couldn’t understand. He then called me aside to the door and, gesturing with his fingers, whispered, “Money, money.”

That was my first experience of Senegal. I pretended as if I hadn’t understood. But the thought germinating in my mind was that whatever people said about African countries being corrupt was true. I must admit I was a bit scared as well.

I learned later that not just in Senegal but other African countries as well people in government service (teachers, revenue officials, nurses, etc.) often didn’t get their salaries for six months at a stretch, while 2-3 months’ salary of many petty officials would even ‘disappear’. That creates the ideal environment for corruption to flourish. The only visible symbol of governmental administration is the police, clad in military uniform, armed with weapons, menacing. At first I could not tell whether they were guerrilla fighters or city police. That’s the look the colonial powers groomed in their police to stamp their power across the globe, especially after the first and second world wars, I thought to myself.

It is, indeed, a matter of regret that African countries, once the victims of Spanish and French colonialism – just like India was subjugated by the British – and now free nations manifest their freedom only superficially while continuing to remain under the control of European powers.

Senegal is a country where the majority is Muslim and the native language is Wolof, yet 80% of the people speak French and it is compulsory for students to learn the language. Even the signboards of shops and commercial establishments are in French. It’s like in India where the middle class sacrifices itself on the altar of English, the only difference being that we Indians have ourselves opted for language colonialism whereas the Senegalese had no choice.

Naturally, there are economic and diplomatic dimensions to the subjugation of African nations by European entities. Their natural resources have been systematically looted. Modern Europe, whose beauty is so widely lauded, was built with the resources sent from African countries, from wood and stone to art and cultural materials. Even sand! And the situation today is that Senegal is trapped in a web of poverty where it has little choice but to remain the bonded slave of Europe.

Every third Senegalese is a painter, their paintings beautifully depicting the symbiotic links between nature, resources and the people. They illustrate the relationship between man and woman and the link between gender and social change.

Impressive artistry, but have you ever heard of Senegal being a centre of great art? You probably haven’t, because the country’s art comes to the world via Europe, where its identity is lost in transit. These priceless works of art, which the Senegalese artist completes in 7-8 days, fetches him a remuneration of just Rs. 1,000-2,000 (15-20 Euros), which is the cost of a frugal meal in Paris.

The Senegalese are also master craftsmen in wood. Only African artistry can achieve such intricate carvings on statues made from the teak, ebony and Sheesham. Yet I found they earned a meagre Rs. 700-800 for 10 days of artistic labour during the days of the WSF when they sold their wares to the congregation of visitors.

I talked a bit to one such individual who told me this was perhaps the first time he had seen so many people from countries other than European. He was keen to sell his wares to Asians even at lower prices. Sitting on the roadside selling his paintings and woodwork he greeted me with a query, “Namaste. India?” As I nodded in assent, he came closer to me and said, “Take something, anything.” He could speak just a couple of sentences in English. “You Indian, you are my friend, you are my brother, I give you good price.” He then touched a finger to my wrist saying, “Same colour. We are brothers.”

An African-Asian bond was established. I could not understand how we had become so far apart in the first place. But I could sense why Mahatma Gandhi chose Africa to launch his journey into public life. It wasn’t just a matter of history and politics but of human civilization, of creating and diffusing familial ties.

Around 50% of the participants in the Dakar WSF were European and 45% African. The Europeans, coca cola can in one hand, almost always used one word in their conversations – capitalist. At night many of them partied in bars, discussing and analyzing the daily goings on at WSF. But there was not a single session in the entire proceedings where colonialism (history, present and future) figured in the discussions. No one had the courage to open up those pages of history that described how African nations had come to such a pass and who was responsible for their plight.

Some of them did suffer a sense of guilt which they sought to mollify by paying whatever the taxi drivers demanded without bargaining, as if by doing so they were returning something of what their forefathers had taken away from here.

Some days earlier, French president Sarkozy had visited Senegal to discuss possible ways of helping the country free itself from its pitiable plight, even suggesting that there may be some benefit in remaining a colony of France. It is in the context of such ideas and views prevalent among the dominant nations that organising WSF is so important and relevant to those of us with an alternative worldview.

African society in a neo-colonial framework

Africa is now becoming a colony of newly developed countries like India and China. Walter Fernandes, a well-known social scientist from the continent and an expert on the subject of displacement caused by development, reports that the rich capitalist class and their governments are currently in the process of usurping 40 million hectares from the Saharan nations. Most of these countries are under the control of dictators and lack any vestige of democratic functioning. At the same time, their people are denied even the basic facilities for living.

Representatives from Sudan and Congo who had come to attend the WSF organised in the African nation of Senegal from February 6 to 11, 2011 related how it took people two years to walk across the Sahara, the world’s largest desert, when they decided to migrate from their homeland in search of a better life. They had to then sail across the Atlantic Ocean in tiny boats to reach European shores. Many died on the way. Many others were caught while slipping across the borders into European countries. The inhuman face of international diplomacy can be seen in the way they were transported and dumped back into the desert from where they had sought to escape. European countries like France, Italy and Spain are now paying around Rs. 10,000 million every year to African and Middle East countries to ensure that they make the necessary arrangements to prevent people from crossing European borders. The developed countries see the influx of migrants as having a deleterious impact on their resources while damaging their image in the eyes of the world, Over a million people from Kenya, Namibia, Congo, Algeria and other African countries are forced to migrate every year to escape their pitiable living conditions but they are not permitted to enter these European countries.

The face of colonial development and progress stands exposed. The colonizing powers first create scarcity conditions and then enslave the people of the country they target. They know that it is necessary to control culture, education, resources and language in order to enslave a society or a country. This process is still under way in the African continent today. But the ways in which colonization is taking place are changing.

A country like India, which was once itself enslaved and a victim of servitude, has over the past two decades adopted neo-liberal policies for its economic development. It is cutting down on governmental support/subsidies for agriculture and social welfare while at the same time increasing allocations for developing an industrial-capitalist framework. The bottom-line is how to increase the growth rate.

Wealth has, indeed, increased but imbalances in its distribution have increased even more starkly and rapidly. Today in India, a single industrial house, the Ambani family, controls 5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). Around 70% of India’s resources have been captured by 7% of its people. It is these Indian industrial houses that are now targeting Africa to expand their colonial empires. This class has begun exploiting the industrial expansion policies of African nations to take control of the continent’s natural resources.

China is already sending its citizens to cash in on the employment opportunities that are being generated there. In this way, countries that were once categorized as ‘developing’ are now adopting colonial practices, the greatest irony being that we are now beginning to enslave those societies that have always been closest to us.

There is one other commonality that is clearly evident – African society is also the victim of capitalist policies.

In spite of being rich in resources, you will get a clear idea of the distressing state of the country’s economy if you venture into the older quarters of the capital city of Dakar, where you will come across vendors on footpaths and in small shops selling second-hand clothes for children, men and women. The distressing fact is that the second-hand goods are coming into the market from Europe, which means that even the fashion trade is controlled by that continent. When we tried to snap photographs of the vendors they pleaded with us not to do so. They didn’t want anyone to see their condition, which is becoming permanent, the norm.

The state of health facilities in the city will bring tears to your eyes. The people have no access or right to government or public health services. The maternal mortality rate is a distressing 1,000 per 100,000 births because there are no health facilities for women. Even private health facilities are skeletal, their reach being limited only to the capital. I’ll quote just one example to illustrate the pitiable health situation in the country. Rami, one of our companions from the Palestine, came down with the flu and had a throat infection. It took us two hours to locate a doctor to attend to him and he charged 26,000 CFA Francs (the Senegalese currency) as consultation fees, which equals around Rs. 2,600. The antibiotics and paracetamol we bought for his treatment cost another 49,000 CFA Francs (around Rs. 4,900)! Can anyone really dare to fall sick in a country where the average monthly income is less than Rs. 2,000?

I roamed the city, bargaining like a tourist. But in the nine days I was in the country I did not come across a single individual who raised his/her voice while talking. They always listened respectfully to what I had to say, with no sign of guile or crookedness. I have noticed that even the immigration official lowered his gaze while asking me for a bribe and smiled when he didn’t receive one. Can one imagine a more civilized people?

Yet they were subjugated, colonized and enslaved. We found evidence of the violent, inhuman and frightening face of apartheid in a 5sq km island situated in the Atlantic Ocean some 15 km from Dakar. Known as Slave Island, this is the area closest to the rich, developed nations of the world.

In earlier times Africans were captured from different regions and brought here as slaves. It was from this island that they were dispatched into slavery in groups to different parts of Europe and America. One can still see those 80 to 150 sq ft rooms in which 15 to 30 people were imprisoned. They were allowed out only once in the day to relieve themselves. The insanitary conditions caused epidemics that killed thousands of Africans. Young girls were subjected to virginity tests and virgins were kept in separate rooms to be sent later to different places for sexual exploitation. If they became pregnant they were abandoned in forsaken places. Since this was the sole pathway to freedom, many girls sought to get pregnant as quickly as possible.

Official statistics covering over 300 years around the 14th and 15th centuries reveal that as many as 15 million people lost their lives during this period of the slave trade. Those who attempted to escape either drowned in the ocean or were attacked by sharks. Only the healthy ones weighing over 60 kg were sent across the ocean into slavery. The underweight were fed a special diet to increase their weight to qualify for slavery.

The people living on the island today relate the story of how the pope himself came here once from the Vatican to apologise for the depressing role played by the church in the practice of slavery. They told him yes, they could forgive him for this bitter truth of history but they could never forget it. Indeed, mankind has committed grievous sins in its history that cannot be forgotten.

The question we need to ask ourselves today is why European and American countries are still unwilling to fully reject an ideology steeped in apartheid and colonialism.

WSF 2011: Searching for direction in people’s movements

The WSF came into being to explore a possibility. We knew that a society built on the superstructure of the current global economy based on capitalist policies could never be free from feudal and colonial exploitation. We needed to dream of building a new world and have faith in our ability to create such a world. But building a new dispensation would require analyzing and reviewing the direction in the world is proceeding. So we decided to gather together every year in this forum to examine where our world is heading.

This year’s WSF organised in Senegal was significant for two reasons. First, it was organised on African soil. Second, the people’s movements and activist groups who assembled in Dakar sought to understand how they could strengthen themselves for their struggle to change the political contours of the world. The organisation of the event may have been found wanting in many ways but it nevertheless provided the ideal opportunity to examine the critical Middle East and African question.

It was a time of turmoil in the region. Even as 50,000 people gathered to explore the way to democracy and happiness, in neighbouring Egypt hundreds of thousands of people came out into the streets to free themselves from the clutches of dictatorship and fight for the restoration of democracy in their country. It was an exhilarating experience to watch people at the forum excitedly discussing Egypt and tracking whether Hosni Mubarak had abdicated power or not. A large rally was organised in Dakar in support of the people’s movement in Egypt, which ended in a demonstration before the Egyptian embassy.

It was during these days that a similar political environment was building up in many other African and Middle East countries like Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, Iran and Libya. And groups from around the world were rallying in solidarity with these people’s movements. For those 10 days, newspapers across Africa and Europe devoted most of their space to report what were happening in Egypt and these other countries because of its spill over implications across the region. From this you can get a sense of the political climate across the Middle East and Africa.

Incidentally, around 1,000 delegates were activists from countries like Burma and Congo who had sought political refuge in France, South Africa and other countries after being forced to flee their home countries because of their participation in revolutionary struggles.

This year the focus at the Dakar forum was on international migration, democracy and the political character of different countries, the exploitation of land and natural resources, and other related issues.

Over 50,000 social activists from across the globe gathered in the first week of February in Dakar, the capital of Senegal, a country situated in the western fringe of Africa, to participate in WSF 2011. This series of global meetings has been held regularly every year ever since the first forum was organised in Porto Allegro, Brazil, in 2001. It provides a platform for social activists from across the world to share their ideas, strategies and struggles for creating a new and better world.

The first WSF was a response to the World Economic Forum organised at Davos in Switzerland. It boldly articulated the stand that it is possible to create a world in which basic human needs would gain precedence over ever-growing corporate rapaciousness and exploitation. Ten years have gone by during which WSF has sought to unite social movements across the world struggling against the forces of neoliberal capitalism and militarism, seeking a world order based on social justice and dedicated to humanity.

The chain of global meetings held in Brazil, India, Kenya and now Senegal reveal that the political orientation of not just local, national or regional forums but even the WSF is veering leftwards. In Africa this year, the attempt was once again to link local conditions with the global struggle for justice and equality.

The main agenda of the Dakar forum was the current recession in the global capitalist economy, which is impacting most severely on the poorest countries in the world. Its effects are clearly evident in the turmoil we are witnessing in the financial, energy and food sectors of most countries as well as the climatic changes taking place the world over. Privatisation of public resources under the neoliberal policies supported by global institutions like the World Bank and International Monetary Fund has had its most deleterious effect on countries in the African continent.

Keeping in mind the current global economic conditions, the Dakar forum focused on three main ideological issues: the growing criticism of capitalism, the growing strength of the struggles against capitalism and imperialism, and using democratic and traditional methods as an alternative to repression and exploitation.

The six-day forum began with a huge rally from downtown Dakar to the university, where the programmes were subsequently organised. There was unbounded enthusiasm among the participants, the diversity in the messages sporting the banners they carried and the slogans they shouted pointing to how wide range and depth of the concept of social justice. The rally ended with a speech by Bolivia’s leftist president Evo Morales. Denouncing imperialism in no uncertain terms, he underlined the importance of WSF, pointing out that it is like a school where activists learn how to develop, consolidate and strengthen their social revolutions to make them more effective.

A host of activities were planned on the forum agenda. The first day was devoted to Africa and emigrants from the continent. The daughters of Franz Fanon and Malcolm X participated in this session, discussing the legacy of their famed fathers. There was also a session chaired by former Brazilian president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva in which he urged stronger ties between African and South American countries. Brazil is not just home to WSF but to the largest number of African emigrants.

The next two days of introspection brought out the wide range of concerns and rights issues that had brought participants together from across the globe. The evenings were devoted to music and cultural programmes as well as informal meetings. The last two days were devoted to the coordinators of various organisations, networks and revolutionary groups who expounded their plans of action for a better world based on the collective thinking of the forum. The closing ceremony had organisations making their announcements and reiterating their responsibilities.

In the initial years the WSF concept was of a platform where civil society groups could sit together and reflect on their common concerns. It was conceived to assist and strengthen grass roots organisations so they could grow and develop rather than to create a one-point programme to pursue any special agenda. But the forum became increasingly open to criticism for its inability to articulate a stand on several issues, especially with many organisations coming forward to seek help for furthering their political agendas.

In the first forum in 2001, a consensus was reached on the influential role played by Washington in the privatization of global resources. In subsequent forums one sees a tendency to view governments as part of the problem. This led to the organisers excluding governments, political parties and armed terrorist organisations. However, subsequent global political developments over the past decade point to a polarization of left forces, most clearly seen in South America than elsewhere. As a result of this process most participants today enthusiastically accept the view that political parties and governments can be used as weapons to resolve the problems raised by the crisis of global capitalism.

As in previous years, most of the delegates this year were from the host nation. In addition there were large contingents from neighbouring African countries. There were also a large number of delegates from France, Senegal’s earlier colonial master. The preponderance of Francophone countries from Africa meant the language of discourse was mainly French, unlike earlier forums, which were mostly multilingual. This led to many delegates from former British colonies like Nigerian and Kenya feeling a sense of neglect.

Until now, most forums had attracted more than 100,000 delegates, hence the 50,000 who congregated at Dakar made WSF 2011 look comparatively small. The largest forums organised until now were in Brazil and India, which have a population far larger than Senegal’s 12 million. But since it is the host nation that usually contributes the most delegates, the Dakar forum should not be seen as being unsuccessful.

Every forum has had its own style and character. Unfortunately, the Dakar forum will be remembered for its limited size. Truly, this is unfortunate since this forum had tremendous potential. Africa is certainly no stranger to the WSF process, having hosted the forum more times than any other continent.

The Dakar forum had to contend with many logistical problems. The local committee given the responsibility of organizing the event was not up to the task. In spite of this it refused any international assistance. It was thus inevitable that the forum suffered from a problem that is the hallmark of all WSF’s – chaotic organisation. There was little concept of punctuality. Many delegates found it difficult to locate the venue of their sessions. The extra classes organised by the university to make up for the loss caused by a strike a few days earlier compounded the problem. As a result, in many cases the students shooed the delegates away from their allocated locations. This surprised many delegates, who felt that the organisers should have made some attempt to invite students to participate. Some haphazard attempts were made to put up tents to keep the sessions going but the general confusion prevailing led to many sessions being cancelled or organised with no contrast to the schedule.

The greatest setback was the backlash from the successful rebellions in Tunisia and Egypt to overthrow their dictatorial governments. It generated a fear in Senegal’s president Abdoulade Wade that such an organised and disciplined assembly of social activists may somehow catalyse the fall of his own government. The help and permission of the host government is crucial for organizing food, housing and other necessities for such a large assembly. But in Senegal, an unwilling president tried instead to ruin the forum.

One issue of discussion in the forum was whether it is at all necessary to organise such a gathering of social activists from around the world considering the large capital expenditure involved, its organisational shortcomings and the environmental impact. What mostly happens is that NGOs with time, financial resources and visa facilities find it easier to participate in such forums than grass roots organisations, who do not have such facilities or resources.

Participants of WSF 2011 discussed the issues of concerns in detail. The focus was on Migration, Land and other resource grabbing, dying democracy, challenges for people’s action, rapid expansion of corporate control over political economy, climate change etc. There were discussions and sessions on the concept of de-growth. We also learned about the agriculture and food crisis from various aspects, like future trading, price volatility, increasing corporate control over agriculture across the world. But at a point of time we, the participants of this grand global even almost failed to discuss the role of justice institutions and seek the possibilities for collective action to activate them. In India we have enormous number of institutions having mandates to protect fundamental rights of the people and simultaneously protect democracy, but we find these institutions line National Human Rights Commission and Right to Information Commissions have started becoming a party in the rights violation. It was not a coincidence that people of Middle-East and Arab countries or even in some of the African countries are now marching towards changing rule of injustice in respective countries, they now feel they are in practice are the colony of their own exploitative rulers. Their rulers don’t believe in democracy, transparency and accountability at any level, and if all such things are asked, bullets and guns will facilitate them.

We have seen earlier in Pakistan, where government ruled the Supreme Court and in India recent ex-Chief Justice of Supreme Court is being charged with corruption. This is not a case from a particular country, but in most of the under-developed and developing countries, judiciary has become a patron to the anti-people policies and integral part of the state system rather then providing justice to people and make state systems accountable. We all are concerned about the media freedom but it was a fact that we need to focus our ideological opposition against increasing corporate control over media and state supported violence against journalists, but somehow knowingly-unknowingly debate on organised attacks on free media were not there on the discussion forums. It is a global trend that all the countries now do every thing what they want to do by making laws and policies to justify all sorts of actions. We all found that land grabbing is not a un-organised strategy, State is with the capitalist corporate and in fact resource grabbing exercises are being performed in a legal framework by following a structured plan, but there are no policies to protect tribal from eviction and forced displacement. The state authorities for ensuring smooth displacement can rape tribal women, patriarchal society keep silent on these inhuman actions. Firing is justified, if people ask for democracy and accountability in the governance system, and out judicial system keeps silent on these incidences, because judiciary also want to be under umbrella of larger state machinery sp that its own wasted interest are protected. It is in deed a fact that existing justice institutions are being used purposefully to serve the purpose of the elitist, capitalists and politically powerful.

Various countries are deeply involved in justice reforms but primarily they want to ensure that corporate interests are protected first, so debt and capital rules are being changed, special courts are established, single window system for land control are in place, police services stand with industries, land ceiling acts have been changed and so on; but there are no steps to protect farmers, so that they don’t commit suicide, acts are their to protect Women, Children, Dalits, Tribal from exclusion and caste based exclusion and violence, but not practiced because it will be an efforts towards power sharing and changing power relations.

Fundamentally; an integrated stroke oriented approach with focused issues making dent on the structural causes of Exclusion, Exploitation, Violence, Injustice, Hunger & Poverty, Eviction and Displacement needs to be defined and accomplished through forums like WSF.

Several activists suggested that instead of holding such forums it might be a better idea to organise virtual forums. But it should be noted in this context that, even now, face-to-face encounters are seen as better than virtual encounters, with many universities pulling back from virtual classrooms in online education to opt for actual classes instead.

Even after a decade of successful organisation of these forums, the future of the WSF is still in a limbo. The international organizing committee met at the end of the Dakar forum to discuss future strategy. When the first forum was held in Porto Allegro, it was decided to hold these meetings to demand social and economic justice from the perspective of the global south. However, the original enthusiasm has paled in the face of the organisational difficulties. Many delegates would still like to come to such forums once every two years. As long as the WSF is held the fight for social justice will not falter. But there is need for a review.

About the Author: Mr. Sachin Jain works in India and leads Vikas Samvad, a human rights organisation based in Bophal, India. The author can be contacted at:

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About AHRC: The Asian Human Rights Commission is a regional non-governmental organisation that monitors human rights in Asia, documents violations and advocates for justice and institutional reform to ensure the protection and promotion of these rights. The Hong Kong-based group was founded in 1984.

Document Type : Article
Document ID : AHRC-ART-021-2011
Countries : Africa,