Evaluation of the World Social Forum held at Dakar in January 2011
Two postings from the mailing list of the international council of the World Social Forum from April and May, 2011.
> Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2011
> From: Susan George
To the Evaluation Team,
Weve been asked by the members of the permanent WSF organising committee to comment on the Dakar WSF. Im not following the list of proposed questions, however pertinent. Im sorry if that makes your task more difficult, this isnt my intention.
As all your correspondents will have already told you, despite serious competition for the title of Worst Organised World Social Forum, Dakar won 1st prize among the five or six I have attended. This had nothing to do with “Africa” or “Africans”-the one in Bamako in 2006 was extremely well organised. [I didn't go to the one in Nairobi]. I am willing to accept part of the standard explanations and excuses offeredthe Government, the change of University Rector, the strike time being compensated for and so on. However, I also learned from a person who had to put together an emergency press conference for a lot of furious foreign journalists, that the organisers had known about the change of Rector and the likely consequences since November. Madame Diop, the Director of the UCAD Library to whom I paid a courtesy call, informed me that she had had to find places in her library at the last minute for journalists for whom no arrangements had been made. Since 10.000 students per day want these places [the student population is 60.000] it was a struggle for her to give up 200 out of the 1700 that exist but she gave the journalists the whole mezzanine floor. She had also contributed 28.000 photocopies “until the budget ran out”. Madame Diop was supposed to be at a conference in another African country during the time of the WSF but felt obliged to cancel her participation because of the huge and unforeseen demands being made on the library.
Apparently all decisions concerning the WSF were concentrated in the hands of a very small number of people and nothing could advance without their approval, so bottlenecks necessarily developed. Despite the absence of facilities, of information, of rooms and of programmes, the city of Dakar was plastered with large colour posters announcing the forum. On the central Place de lIndependance, there was one about every 2 meters. Frankly, this would not have been my priority .
We simply cannot allow this kind of disarray to continue. People who were new to the process and didnt know anyone except the people they came with were completely confused. Those of us who already had our networks were informed by SMS and phone where to go for what activity-the various people responsible performed miracles, by the waybut the result was that one really saw mostly the people one already knew. My hope was to meet Africans-thanks to a woman I know from North Africa, I was able to sit in on part of a large session Samir Amin was holding-where everyone but me was African. Im pretty sure Samir would have been happy for Europeans, Latin Americans etc to attend but they didnt know about it. I met a few other Africans by chance or because they sought me out. For me, the forum wasnt at all a waste of time because I managed to get to my 4 or 5 engagements but I can imagine the sum of disappointments and sense futility that many must have felt. All this has an obvious political cost.
The evaluation team may want to consider having a permanent team of paid, experienced organisers who know all the things one has to think about to organise a successful forum and then go to each site to cooperate with the local hosts on the spot long ahead of time. They find out how to reach all the goals locally; they check off all the points on the checklist in that particular place. The needs are always the same, its not a question of “culture”. I dont know, but something has to to be done. We have to stop re-inventing the wheel at every WSF. We want to change the world and cant even manage our own affairs.
For years I have been proposing that the Forum decree a day of action worldwide-an attempt was made to do this in January a couple of years ago and apparently there were events in as many as 1500 locations. The problem is that no one but the participants knew it. We should have a day with a common, very broad theme and a commission of imaginative and artistic people should be charged with making a nice long list of suggestions about how to make the action visible and media-friendly, with inexpensive materials and not requiring great numbers of people. This is part of being effective in doing politics. Everyone can interpret the theme according to local culture and preferences but without our own efforts we are invisible and in todays world invisibilty means irrelevance. January isnt the best time in the Northern Hemisphere! Maybe we could compromise on a Spring-for-you/Autumn for us date.
Personally I have benefitted hugely from meeting people, particularly other “scholar activists” doing really interesting work. Collectively speaking, I suppose the best thing to have emerged over the years from the WSF are the thematic networks which are doing really good work. Maybe the same amount of money should just be spent on bringing all the key people in network X, Y and Z together once or twice a year. This would be more manageable for everyone and probably more productive.
Now I must go back to finishing a piece about Obama for a collection being put together by one of the few Africans I met at the WSF-so contacts do often lead to something, even under difficult conditions.
Very good wishes, solidarity and good luck to the Team which has an extremely difficult job,
New book: “Whose Crisis, Whose Future?” Polity Press, Cambridge
Livre recent: “Leurs Crises, Nos Solutions” [Albin-Michel]/ “Sus Crises,Nuestras Soluciones” [Icaria/Intermon]
> From Mikael Böök
> Date: Thu, 5 May 2011
Dear Susan George and all,
thank you so much for your evaluation of the Dakar WSF! Yes, I agree with you: the organisation failed miserably, and many participants, especially newcomers, must have been astonished and consternated to begin with, but frustrated and disappointed in the end. As you say, it is easier to make something out of the social chaos supposed to be the social forum for those, like you and myself, who have previous WSF-experiences and contacts.
As I wrote earlier to this list, I spent most of the time with the staff of the UCAD Library (btw, thanks for mentioning their head, Marietou Dionghe Diop, who made such a great job for the WSF) to develop the role of the library in the continuing process of the WSF, and to organise a collection for posterity of the WSFs activities. I still think that was very meaningful, so I do not regret for a moment that I attended the Dakar WSF.
You identify, correctly I think, one of the reasons for the organisational failure, namely, that the decision-making came to be concentrated to a too small group of people. Now, when that happens, which btw is more the rule than the exception in all groups and societies, it is all too easy to put the blame on some members of that same small group of decision-makers. In this case, then, one could point at, say, Taufik, Buuba and Minou. However, in my opinion, it would be rather unjust to accuse these persons, the organisers, who also had to work like dogs, just like Mme Diop at the library.
No. It is necessary to go to the root of the problem, which is that we have to create a new type of organisation or, actually, to continue to develop the new type of organisation which is implied in our concept of the open space. The clue, the red thread ("In Greek mythology, Theseus rescued himself out of the labyrinth of Minotaur by following a red thread, given to him by Ariadne") is to be found in the library, and more precisely in the organisation of the modern library, which is striving to provide all information to all as promptly as possible. There is a certain family resemblance between the library and the social forum, which we need to take as our starting point.
A first requirement, then, is to adopt an own system of classification of our activities. By activities, I mean all our intellectual and cultural activities during and between the forums, which, of course strive not to remain purely intellecual, but to transform into a material force, a hegemony, if we like to use the word which the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci liked to use.
In short, it has to be the hegemony of the open space. This could also be described as the power of the reasoning citizenry (somebody would perhaps like to call it "multitude", if not, more traditionally, "the public"). This is a rather different kind of hegemony than the one A.G. was theorizing about in his prison cell (in the 1930s), because it cannot be led by a political party. Neither can it be ideologically united. Still, it can have that skeleton of an organisation which is provided by a number of actionable themes, or axes, of our activities. This is because, to put it simply, we humans have some hings in common. Water, for instance. Or cities. Health problems. The need to educate our children. Well, the 21 actionable themes which were proposed for the Nairobi WSF by the WSF-IC in the fall of 2006, give you the approximate idea. If you have forgot them, just have a look at www.wsflibrary.org.
An important point here, which I shall mention before coming to the end of this letter, is that we have to stay content with an approximate, that is, unfinished and open, set of permanent themes or axes of our organisation. Thus it has to be a kind of compromise. We have to recognize, and agree, that nobody is in possession of the abolute and definitive Truth, not even the Pope, the Imam or the Professor.
Susan, I immediately wanted to put the text of your letter on the blog of the Network Institute for Global Democratization (NIGD) so that all readers of the library (yes, I think of the internet as an extension of the traditional library of books, journals and manuscripts) might have access to it. And then I thought it would be polite to ask you for permission. However, having pondered this question for a while, I no longer see the need to ask you for your permission. After all, the messages to this list, if any, must be considered to be public domain. Morally, you who post your messages here, own what you write and what we read. From the social point of view, however, this list is a public service the content of which is owned by the library. The decision-making of the WSF cannot be private nor secret. Lets publish all the information immediately to everybody.
Greetings from a small country up in the North, all the best,
PS The new “working party new thematic axes”, which has recently been founded by Francine Mestrum, does not yet have an own mailing list. If it had one, I would of course have copied Susans message and my reflections above to it.
Mikael Böök * book ät kaapeli.fi * gsm +358(0)-44 5511 324 *