This year will mark the first occasion on which an African country, Kenya, is serving as sole host of the World Social Forum (WSF) — a gathering that had its beginnings in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre seven years ago.
While the WSF did come to Africa in 2006, this was in the context of a so-called “polycentric forum” that also saw gatherings take place on other continents. Last year’s WSF was held in the Malian capital of Bamako; Venezuela’s capital, Caracas; and the Pakistani financial hub of Karachi.
Sometimes referred to as the “carnival of the oppressed”, the WSF brings together those who oppose globalisation in its current form and international domination by capital, among others.
Hassen Lorgat, campaigns and communications department manager for the South African NGO Coalition, is one of those who applaud the decision to locate the latest forum in Africa. He says the 2007 WSF — to be held from January 20 to 25 — will provide an opportunity to train the spotlight on key challenges facing the continent.
What is the significance of having Africa as sole host of the WSF this year?
There are many reasons why it’s significant to host the seventh WSF in Africa. Given Africa’s marginalisation in world politics and economics, the continent remains a net exporter of raw materials. We sell our raw materials at a give-away price, and buy them [back] from the West after they have been processed, at an exorbitant price.
We are struggling to get representation in major international fora like the United Nations. If you look at the World Trade Organisation, many of its members are poor and susceptible to receiving bribes. Africa suffers from corruption both internally and externally. Our trade unions are struggling and weak.
This [WSF 2007] presents for us time to reflect and rededicate ourselves to fighting the immense poverty that’s gripping Africa. In Nairobi, we’ll take stock of all these challenges.
Besides, the previous gatherings in Latin America had a Latin-American flavour. It’s time we indigenise the Kenya gathering with our African peculiarities.
Are African participants travelling to Nairobi unified around common issues for which they hope progress will be made at the WSF — or is there a sense that people from different regions of the continent have different hopes for the forum?
The forum is an open space: different movements in Africa will have different approaches and different styles. Sometimes they even have different ideological perspectives. This bring us to the question: Is our diversity strengthening or weakening us?
I think we have similar hopes and [sources of] despair. Take, for example, the 24Â 000 people who die of hunger every day, globally — and the 8Â 200 people who die of Aids every day, a large number in South Africa. If we don’t come back to these core issues, with 1,1-billion people having no clean water globally, we’ll be doing humanity an injustice.
More importantly, we must start getting agreement about what causes poverty and inequality and what reproduces it.
Is there any particular issue that you, personally, would like to see dealt with?
I think we need to claim corruption discourse as ours, and integrate it in a progressive agenda … Recently [President Olusegun] Obasanjo of Nigeria spoke about it [corruption]. He said millions of dollars — both in the public and private sectors — get lost in his country every year. But corruption is not only confined to Nigeria: it’s a global problem.
What can the WSF bring to addressing Africa’s problems that other conferences do not?
The WSF is a jamboree … Everyone goes there, organises their meetings and wonders about their own things. You have religious leaders, women’s groups, Aids activists, who come with their agenda. All of them want to be heard … [But] we have to find a few points of agreement. That’s a challenge for us.
Many delegates from other parts of the world will be in Kenya for the WSF. What sorts of international alliances should Africans be looking to build to address issues of global concern, such as unfair trade rules?
The South-South cooperation that people talk about should be brought to civil society levels. For example, the India-Brazil-South Africa alliance is government-to-government cooperation. Civil society should be involved in it.
What do you expect the delegates and activists to take home from Nairobi?
More action, more thinking, working together. We have to learn from Brazilians and Indians and from the revolution in Latin America, where countries are moving to the left of the political spectrum. — IPS