Programme takes shape for next World Social Forum

With dozens, if not hundreds, of organisations likely to attend next year’s World Social Forum (WSF) — and almost as many issues clamouring to be addressed there — nailing down a programme for the January 20 to 25 event promises to be a daunting task.

Nonetheless, organisers of the event are starting to do just that this week, according to the website of the WSF, which is to be held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi. The programme will be shaped around information that participating groups were asked to provide by August 30 about their aims and work, which can be viewed on the forum’s site.

The Nairobi gathering will mark the first instance in which Africa is the sole host of the WSF. While the first-ever forum to be held on the continent took place earlier this year in the Malian capital, Bamako, it formed part of what was dubbed a ”polycentric” WSF, which also saw meetings being staged in Caracas, Venezuela and the Pakistani financial centre of Karachi.

The WSF was initially convened in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre by various local civil society groups, in 2001. It moved to the Indian coastal city of Mumbai in 2004, and reports indicate that the aim now is to hold the forum in venues around the world every alternate year, returning to Porto Alegre at other times.

A quick glance at the organisations that have submitted profiles to the WSF reveals a wide array of interests and activities, from ensuring that the African Union provides real solutions to the problems affecting the continent (Global Unification Africa, based in Addis Ababa) to including human rights and environmental issues in South Africa’s education system (Rhodes University’s environmental education and sustainability unit).


Overall, however, the WSF is mainly known for rejecting globalisation in its current form, which is accused of compromising both people and the environment (the forum’s charter of principles notes that it is open to ”groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neoliberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism” — ”neoliberalism” referring to the economic and political philosophy that rejects government intervention in the economy).

The official slogan of the gathering is ”Another world is possible” — one where global capital does not hold sway.

In fact, the WSF was founded in opposition to the World Economic Forum, a gathering held at the same time in the Swiss resort town of Davos that attracts business and political leaders viewed as being at the forefront of globalisation. And, the WSF continues to be seen as the counterpart to the economic forum, even though civil society representatives, academics and film stars with activist credentials have also joined the ranks of those who head to Davos.

While globalisation and the related issues of unfair trade rules and debt relief will probably be at the core of discussions at WSF 2007, some hope that unemployment — particularly among the youth — will also receive attention.

”Youth unemployment is a time bomb!” said Venant Williams, coordinator of the Tanzania Social Forum, an umbrella grouping for civic organisations in the East African country that adhere to WSF principles.

”There is a need for this forum to assess what policies are in place to enhance gainful employment for the young people,” Williams said in an e-mail interview.

Government statistics indicate that more than three million people in Tanzania are currently unemployed, most aged between 18 and 34. Rural-urban migration contributes to high rates of unemployment in cities, which in turn lead to crime and other social ills.

In neighbouring Kenya, the situation is scarcely less worrisome.

”I have been jobless since I graduated from university five years ago. What long-term strategies can our government effect to have the young men and women working? The answers will come from such forums [as the WSF],” former student Otieno Karisi said.

In particular, he hopes to see recommendations on how young people can more easily obtain loans from financial institutions, which often set conditions that the youth are unable to meet. As a result, they lack the capital to go into business for themselves.


Next year may see the WSF reach beyond it traditional constituency to ensure that the concerns of people like Karisi reach the ears of policymakers who are able to set in motion new initiatives on unemployment and the like.

”There is a need to build bridges, where we bring in people who are not part of WSF; so that we can be able to debate and inform them of our positions,” Oduor Ong’wen, a member of the WSF 2007 organising committee, noted.

About 150 000 people from around the world are expected to attend the Nairobi forum, which has attracted the support of major international aid groups such as Oxfam Great Britain, Médecins sans Frontières and ActionAid International.

Problems and challenges aside, the WSF is normally also a gathering where a kaleidoscope of different cultures, sights and sounds are on view. The Nairobi meeting promises to continue this tradition.

”Africa has been unfairly marginalised. The only thing we have maintained is our culture, and given that many Africans will be attending, the diverse cultures will be a form of expression,” said Ong’wen. — IPS

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Joyce Mulama
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