Another Africa is Possible: The World Social Forum

World Social ForumTens of thousands of activists and advocates from around the globe gathered in Nairobi, Kenya for the seventh World Social Forum (WSF) in January. The rallying cry, “Another world is possible,” served as a catalyst for debate and mobilization: what might this new world look like, and how are we to achieve it? The agenda was expansive. It included discussions on many campaigns and challenges across the spectrum of social, political and economic justice issues. Notably, the 2007 WSF marked the first time that the gathering was hosted in Africa, shedding new light on the role of African civil society in the work towards global justice.

As representatives of Africa Action, the oldest advocacy organization working to change U.S.-Africa relations to promote political, social and economic justice in Africa, we lent our voices to such discussions at the WSF and learned from the experiences and insights of our African counterparts.

This report, arising from our observations and dialogues, reframes the forum’s primary question and asks: what would “another world” look like for Africa, and how are new alternatives emerging in Africa?

The WSF, which first convened in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, is designed to be a truly open and democratic space, seeking to achieve a people-centered global economic and social order. At this year’s assembly, worldwide participation was easily visible, participants numbered in excess of 60,000 by some estimates, and the level of attendance by African activists was unprecedented. Local participation increased over the course of the week, after criticism emerged over limited access.

As a space for debate, the atmosphere was occasionally tense, as different perspectives were aired and argued. But this dynamic also meant that the space was constantly active, in keeping with its original intent. The mission and process of the WSF continue to be under debate, and the role of African voices must be elevated in the discussion to reflect the true range of global perspectives.

Global Apartheid

Global apartheid is a pervasive system of inequality and international minority rule, where access to wealth, power and basic human rights are dictated by one’s race, gender and place. The effects of global apartheid can be seen not only on an international level, but also within national and local communities. As a result, we see communities of color in the U.S. and globally denied equal access to education, healthcare, housing, and other essential services.

Through this system, disparities in wealth, living conditions and life expectancy become entrenched, as wealthy and powerful elites continue to control global decision-making bodies and to preserve centuries-old patterns of inequality. Global apartheid persists based on the assumption that it is “natural” for certain populations to have different expectations of life.

Global apartheid manifests itself in many ways. We see it in the Global South being dominated financially through overwhelming debt burdens, which decimate access to social services such as education, or through unfair trade policies that stunt economic growth. It is obvious in the low international funding levels for major health priorities such as malaria and HIV/AIDS, neglected as problems primarily afflicting the world’s most poor and vulnerable. Again, it appears in the undemocratic systems of global governance and the international financial institutions, wherein the majority of the world’s voices are unheard and undervalued, despite the fact that it is the impoverished majority that bears the impact of decisions made by these institutions.

The WSF exposes such fundamental global injustices and creates a space for participants to devise alternatives to the current system. Alternative visions emerging from Africa, as the continent most affected by the dynamics described above, must be integrated into the search for global solutions.

What Would “Another World” Look Like for Africa?

Despite the ingrained injustices within our world, the common principles of the WSF’s participants point the way towards a different set of possibilities. These alternatives underscore our common humanity and aspirations towards a new people-centered system. This vision would incorporate democracy at every level – not just in name, but also in practice – and would allow equal opportunity for all global perspectives to be heard. In this “other world,” equal access to wealth, power, basic human rights and social services would be a reality.

The following sections describe the visions elevated by various African civil society and community-based organizations at the WSF.

Health –Structural and ideological challenges stand in the way of access to comprehensive care for most people in the world. Despite the urgency of many health crises around the world, global and national initiatives are hamstrung by failure to acknowledge broader economic issues, by a lack of funding, and by ideological biases that prioritize profits over people.

Discussions among global and national officials concerning the best means of tackling various challenges, such as HIV/AIDS, run the risk of perpetuating an excessively narrow focus. Much debate has revolved around issues of prevention of HIV/AIDS or how to deal with the delivery of much-needed treatment in low infrastructure settings. The weakness of this approach lies in its failure to place the response to specific conditions in the larger framework of general health and wellness.

Advocates at the WSF underscored the need for a more holistic approach to the treatment of illnesses such as HIV/AIDS, with a new focus on food security and adequate nutrition. These pressing priorities, when unmet, can stand as serious obstacles in the treatment of other illnesses and the attainment of good health. Broadening the framework of this discussion will require a removal of the distinction between health and economic security and the leadership of the communities dealing with these challenges.

Participants highlighted the Abuja Declaration on governmental spending on health, signed in April 2001, as a target for civil society and community activism. This declaration marked a commitment by African’s governments to devote 15% of their budgets to improving the health sector. In local efforts to hold national governments accountable to good governance standards, participants urged that the target of increased health spending be an integral component of such demands.

Stressing health as a basic human right, participants held the international community to account for its failure to prioritize people over profits. Specific reference was made to the threats against generic medications for HIV/AIDS made by financial institutions and pharmaceutical companies seeking to protect intellectual property rights.

Economic Justice – Creating a fair and equitable international financial system, in which borrowers stand on equal footing with lenders in negotiations, will require radical restructuring. Representatives asserted that a first priority must be the cancellation of Africa’s unjust debt burden.

The origins of these debts are tangled in histories of dictatorial regimes and the complicity of international financial institutions such as the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF). Moreover, the effects of persistent and overwhelming debt payments by African governments can be seen in the declining standard of living in many countries, in social service cutbacks, and the waning availability of national resources for economic development.

A renewed international financial system must have oversight in place to prevent new odious debts. One solution proposed would re-channel funding for development through the United Nations (UN) or bilateral avenues, and away from the World Bank and IMF. Charges leveled against these institutions emphasized that they have neglected to prioritize internal re-organization to allow for adequate democratic participation.

The issue of international trade was ever-present in discussions of economic justice. Particular mobilization at the WSF occurred in protest against the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs), which seek to create Free Trade Areas (FTAs) between the European Union (EU) and many member nations of the Global South. Such agreements were criticized as not being in the best interests of the latter and for maintaining an unbalanced trade relationship, allowing industrialized countries to exploit the natural resources and raw materials of their Southern counterparts. Demonstrations against these unfair agreements emphasized that respect for the economic sovereignty of all nations must be a cornerstone of restructured international trade.

Human Rights – Recent years have seen augmented levels of global activism for the protection of human rights wherever violations may occur. Connections have been made across borders to create international constituencies for action. Increasingly, this trend is visible in Africa.

For example, at the WSF, activists from Kenya, Uganda, and elsewhere organized marches and passed around sign-on letters, expressing their concern about the crisis in Darfur. This salient example highlights the vibrant African constituency to counter human rights abuses on the continent and to assert the international responsibility to protect. As this constituency grows, we witness an increasing capacity of Africa’s citizens to mobilize pressure to ensure these rights.

Women’s Rights – African women continue to be most affected by global injustice, especially as it plays out on a local level. They are disproportionately affected by the global HIV/AIDS pandemic and face overwhelming levels of poverty and economic vulnerabilities. Furthermore, women are marginalized in decision-making processes, denying them the opportunity to exert control over their lives.

At the WSF many women organized and mobilized to represent their own communities and to improve the conditions that surround them. African women’s organizations were resolute that they be allowed to participate actively in their community’s social, economic and political affairs, and be recognized for that participation.

How Are These New Alternatives Emerging?

The WSF produced several key frameworks for educating and mobilizing the impoverished majority to drastically improve the current global system. Numerous tactics are being utilized to implement new African alternatives to the current global economic system. Coalition building between local and international organizations with overlapping issue areas was displayed as a driving force within these emerging strategies.

The following are examples of how coalition-building, new grassroots mobilization tactics, and a strong effort to democratize the movement itself appeared at the forefront of the effort to transform economic, social, and political systems to achieve sustainable development and social equality.

International Collaboration – The WSF created numerous opportunities for international coalition building, specifically on Africa Action’s campaign areas of HIV/AIDS, debt cancellation, and Darfur. Many grassroots organizations, including the Tutlano AIDS Organization, which focuses on the plight of women in Malawi, the Kenyan Debt Relief Network (KENDREN), and Darfur activists from Uganda, sought to join forces with U.S.-based efforts.

Beyond these projects, linkages are emerging between social and economic struggles in Africa, Asia, Central America, and South America. The Catholic Economic Justice Network and Jubilee South were present at the WSF as illustrations of coalitions that advocate for debt cancellation in the Global South.

Various women’s groups pledged that relationships between the North and South must be strengthened in advocating for the human rights of women worldwide and that men also play a significant role in the implementation of that process. A traveling quilt, on which national representatives had sewn each patch to show continued unity in the gender equality struggle was presented at the WSF as a symbol of reinvigorated solidarity between women’s groups worldwide.

One example of the many attempts to collaborate was led by the African Forum on Debt and Development (AFRODAD), with a workshop on 100% debt cancellation focusing on the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Liberia. During this workshop, panelists representing advocacy work in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and the DRC discussed the destabilizing impact the current massive debt burdens have had in every sector of the economy. After the panelists described local efforts, other participants shared their initiatives with AFRODAD and other Africa-based activists. Among them, the Jubilee USA Network announced their “Have a Heart, Cancel Liberia’s Debt” campaign, in which thousands of Valentines were collected across the U.S., asking U.S. Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson to cancel almost $4 billion of Liberia’s debt.

Africa Action also contributed to the discussion by announcing efforts to engage the African immigrant community in the U.S. and to continue mobilizing people within the religious and student activist communities to join the global movement to cancel Africa’s debt. The workshop closed with a call for more frequent dialogue to foster closer-knit relationships within the global advocacy community and to create more long-lasting partnerships.

Art as a Public Education and Mobilizing Tool – The WSF also created a space where budding artists within the areas of film, theater, poetry, and performance could display their mobilization strategies. For instance, there was a tent dedicated to screening documentaries on the issue of economic disparities perpetuated by the system of global apartheid. One of the new films shown in the tent, Kibera Kid, documents the daily life of a Kenyan child living in Africa’s largest slum, an illustration of a result of Africa’s colonial legacy.

A night of spoken word and song served as a powerful tool in bonding, reenergizing and reminding the global advocacy community of the history of social movements. Art also played the role of reassuring the community of future success in our work, as long as consistency and commitment persist. Dennis Brutus, a long time anti-apartheid activist performed a powerful spoken word piece, revealing the intergenerational and diverse composition of Africa’s activist community.

The response of participants to the various art forms, including up-and-coming Zimbabwean singer Chiwoniso and Vibe Culture, demonstrated the power that art possesses in making local and global connections in societal struggles.

Democratizing the Movement – Kenyan media outlets reported how coalition building within the WSF process was not limited to the transformation of economic systems but also social and human rights struggles. For instance, the “Q Spot” tent was designed to connect the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBT) community. East African LGBT groups led workshops, representing a region of the world where advocating for the rights of these minorities is largely taboo, even within some parts of the African activist community. The area provided the opportunity to challenge concerns within the community with a focus on stigma, awareness, and human rights issues.

Women and youth-focused workshops displayed the emerging tactics led by some of the most underrepresented members of society. One Tanzanian youth-led HIV/AIDS organization demonstrated how it has been educating youth on practicing abstinence, and redirecting sexual energy towards learning Tai Chi. Kenya-based organizations FEMNET and Daughters of Mumbi, as well as other women’s groups, led workshops that tackled strategies combating violence against women and female circumcision, two very sensitive issues on the continent.

Rallies during the WSF demonstrated tactics used by activists around the world to move policy makers. The most captivating rally spoke to the economic and living situation of local Kenyans and to specific weaknesses of the WSF process. A group of local residents, effectively barred from the WSF due to high registration fees, stormed the WSF main office in an attempt to bring attention to this and other issues that had been overlooked. In addition, they protested the exclusion of local vendors from the WSF site in favor of food and service-providing companies.

This exclusion had the effect of preventing local Kenyans with less buying power from gaining access. The protest resulted in the elimination of fees for Kenyans during the final days of the WSF and in the opening of the WSF to local vendors. In this case, underrepresented voices were acknowledged, and solutions were implemented. The actions that were taken as a result of this rally exemplified what activists, as part of the WSF, strive to accomplish within the global community.

Opportunities to Improve U.S. Africa Civil Society Solidarity – New alternatives to the current global economic system are emerging through the growth of coalitions worldwide. The WSF represents one way for the U.S. advocacy community to begin building solidarity movements with counterparts in the Global South. At the same time, the WSF also highlighted an additional option for advocates focused on Africa. The Africa Social Forum gives activists the opportunity to strengthen dialogue between those working diligently on these issues on the ground. The last meeting was held in Dakar, Senegal in December 2006 and tackled debt, free trade, democratization and gender equality, among other pertinent issues on the continent.

Representatives from the Africa Social Forum were in Nairobi and solicited membership and partnership from the global advocacy community. Members of civil society and activists working on various issues can use this forum as an opportunity to strategize and implement new ways to battle marginalization and social injustice.

Looking Back at Nairobi

In 2007, the African participants at the WSF produced several frameworks and approaches to counter the current economic global system. The forum was a space for activists around the world to tackle major societal and economic issues, and to develop alternatives. These alternatives envision a world that eradicates poverty, provides universal access to basic social services and acknowledges the struggles of women and children as typically underrepresented members of society.

International collaboration emerged as the most suitable strategy to implement grassroots initiates to seek economic justice and liberty. Undeniably, the challenges and issues confronted at the WSF have significant resonance in Africa, and the full participation of African perspectives in the search for a solution is vital. Despite criticisms of the WSF process, the flexibility of the forum itself in responding to popular challenges demonstrates a commitment to democratization of the movement. Furthermore, the WSF shows that there is hope in achieving social and economic justice with the persistence of activism and global solidarity. The true power is in the hands of the people, Amandla!

Diana Duarte is a program associate in the Department of Policy Analysis and Communications, and Evelyn Sallah is a program associate in the Department of Public Education and Mobilization at Africa Action, the oldest advocacy organization working to change U.S.-Africa policy. They are contributors to Foreign Policy In Focus.