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What exactly is the WSF achieving?

Feb 04, 2007 Leadership, Sunday Nation

The World Social Forum is done, and the throng is gone. Nairobi had the honour of hosting the first African WSF; the assembled delegates had the honour of looking African poverty in the eye. “Another world is possible” was the slogan. And another world – a fairer, braver, more equitable, more sustainable world – is indeed needed. But now that the grand event is complete, are we any closer to such a world?

Good and great things did, of course, happen at Kasarani. It was a platform for the radical, the innovative and the interesting. In a world that only seems to respect the bottom line, the WSF is a useful antidote. It should in fact be a seedbed for the new ideas that may actually change the world, someday. But is it?

The organisers seemed to take great pride in the fact that they ran 1,200 events in just six days. World poverty, land reform, water rights, environmental concerns, gender issues, health access, the rights of gays and lesbians – all got a place in this biggest of tents. There is an argument that says that great innovation does indeed require this ‘many experiments’ approach. Let us never forget the power of ideas: a genuinely transformative, breakthrough idea gathers its own momentum and changes the world.

Is that what was really happening at WSF, though? Did the great ideas emerge, and if so, who knows what they are? Is a plan being prepared to mobilise world opinion, or was it just bishops preaching to pastors? Are we awaiting a genuine breakthrough in world affairs?

The shambolic event that was WSF 2007 would be hard put to change a diaper, let alone the world. And we Kenyans did ourselves no favours in the way we organised it: chaos and corruption were predicted, and they appeared on cue. From the airport to the stadium, nothing appeared to go right. For one thing, perhaps a third of the expected 150,000 delegates actually showed up; for another, the official programmes ran out, leaving hundreds of people milling around with no information. And finally, events were rescheduled without warning and without notice, adding to the confusion.

WSF also continued its perpetual wrestling match with capitalism. Self-righteous ideological statements were made: ‘multinational’ drinks were not permitted at the event – so our own Softa made a killing, and was reportedly selling at 40 bob a bottle. The imperialistic demon Microsoft could not be allowed to darken the screens of WSF computers – so Linux software, more noble because it’s open-sourced, was prescribed. What people actually choose to consume is forgotten, in favour of top-down decrees. Who makes the computers themselves: noble peasants, from natural materials gathered in the rainforest? And would anyone actually choose to consume a Softa at many times its regular price?

The ironies: the event had a key official sponsor – Celtel – which made great hay in the sunshine by selling mobile-phone connections and airtime to the newly assembled. One presumes that this Kuwaiti-owned multinational passes muster on the social stakes, where others do not? A more basic trade also thrived: those street-warriors of capitalism – commercial sex workers – reportedly thronged Kasarani’s environs to be greeted by many a willing foreign buyer.

There was strife everywhere. The high entry charges kept the poor outside (poverty matters, but the poor must be excluded). Until they thought about pulling the walls down themselves, and then charges were hurriedly revised downward. Key catering contracts were given to five-star hotels – and therefore the poor tried to raid their kitchens to help themselves. Clamour and confusion everywhere; hardly a laboratory in which the ideas that will end world poverty will be incubated.

WSF is in danger of becoming farcically irrelevant. Worse than a talk-shop, it is fast becoming a shout-shop: a maelstrom of vested interests, obscure causes and ideological grandstanding. It engages in grandiose confrontations with capitalism, but relies on that very system to fund and feed its events.

The world’s social problems are too deep to be handled in this carnival of causes. History tells us that if you want to change the world, you get large numbers of people mobilised behind just two or three path-breaking ideas. For me, those ideas will revolve around education, enterprise and self-reliance. The poor will haul themselves out of poverty. All they need is a framework.

We need an action agenda, not stilted posturing. We need co-operation, not brainless high-volume altercations. Protest is indeed necessary, and sometimes the decibel count needs to get high. But at the end of the day, the WSF needs a clear sense of purpose; it needs a mission; and it needs a small set of strategies that will harness the people of the planet in their millions. Then, politicians, corporations and institutions will start to pay attention, and the first buds of a new way will appear in the ground.

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