Q&A: World Social Forum is Not a Static Platform

  • Terna Gyuse interviews ONYANGO OLOO, former national coordinator, Kenyan Social Forum (cape town)
  • Inter Press Service

Onyango Oloo was the national coordinator of the Kenyan Social Forum in 2007 when the last global World Social Forum (WSF)took place in Nairobi. As another gathering of activists from around the world unfolds in Belém, Brazil, IPS asked Oloo for his views on the Forum's past and future.

IPS: Two years on from Nairobi, how would you evaluate the last WSF? What were the successes? What were the shortcomings?

Oloo: WSF Nairobi 2007 was a groundbreaking event. The fact that it took place at all given its myriad challenges, was definitely an indicator of success. We were able to bring thousands of activists from around Africa and across the world together on Kenyan soil.

Issues to do with climate change, food sovereignty, awareness about GMOs, South-South solidarity, campaigns against the EPAs to cite a few were foregrounded and later on became a basis of pan-African initiatives across the continent.

Locally, the emergence of the Kenyan gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered community was a dramatic manifestation how the WSF can strengthen the struggles of marginalized social groups.

One of the key shortcomings had to with locking poor communities out of the event. Another drawback was how elements within the organising committee fostered the privatisation and commercialisation of the WSF space. Unfortunately, corruption - which is endemic in Kenyan society - reared its ugly head at the 2007 event.

IPS: There were many who expressed disappointment after Nairobi, who suggested the WSF may have outlived its purpose as an alternative to the very different ideas and networking at the World Economic Forum, and has been domesticated into a trade fair for NGOs and the better-funded sections of civil society - what's your view?

OO: While I sympathized with the essence of the sentiments described above, I do not fully share that pessimistic assessment.

As a social justice activist, I firmly believe that cynicism is a luxury we can ill afford. The World Social Forum is an arena of struggle, not just between the big imperialist forces and those working for fundamental transformation, but also of contestation within and among progressive forces. It is not a static platform.

From time to time, negative tendencies will appear in the WSF process. It is our responsibility to combat and transcend these reactionary tendencies within our movements and communities.

IPS. How has the WSF been good for African civil society?

OO: I strongly feel that activists should challenge the very definition of 'African civil society'. Is it limited just to the NGO community and those organisations associated with the African petit-bourgeois elite? Or does it extend to embrace social movements, radical and revolutionary forces (some of them in the anti-establishment political arena) and other spheres?

I am conscious that I am pushing the envelope here since the WSF process is quite wary about including organised political actors [ie. political parties] within its milieu.

IPS: 'Another world is possible' - it feels like a limited set of those possibilities have been absorbed into mainstream.

Africa is maybe just past the crest of a wave of elections, of the steady consolidation of bodies like the AU and regional bodies. The continent is in the relative aftermath of the IMF's economic prescriptions to liberalise and privatise, cut back on government spending and instead recover costs from citizens-as-clients - the casualties of structural adjustment have been buried and now we see solid macro-economic numbers in Ghana, Rwanda, Uganda, South Africa...

And it seems some of the passion and effectiveness of the Jubilee campaigns, of various pro-democracy movements, the urgent and organised demands for things like free anti-retrovirals has subsided.

Is this it? Are we already living in the other possible world? Who and how is pushing beyond this?

Oloo: As a slogan, 'Another World Is Possible' is woefully inadequate with its core assumption that all possible worlds can only be better than the existing one.

Yet the experience of Hitler in Germany, Mussolini in Italy, Bush in the USA, Idi Amin in Uganda, Pinochet in Chile, Papa Doc in Haiti, Suharto in Indonesia and a slew of blood stained dictators and despots across the globe attests that for every utopia, there is a nightmarish dystopia waiting in the wings.

We need to define the contents and parameters of these other possible worlds.

It is a weakness of the WSF process that over the years it has valorised ideologically ambiguous terminology that seems, in my view, calculated to mollify the waffling liberals and right-leaning social democrats. What happened to old-fashioned terms like imperialism, socialism, revolutionary transformation and so on?

I am saying that the WSF will eventually lose relevance as long as it is unable to frontally confront global monopoly capitalism and suggest clear socialist alternatives and organize progressive humanity to defeat this imperialist monster.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service