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Reaction to the World Social Forum in Tunis
Above photo: Indians at the World Social Forum in Belem Brazil, January 28, 2009, discus the rights of indigenous peoples. Photo by Andre Penner / AP.
April 5, 2013
By Tomaso Ferando
“Like a post-modern Trojan horse, corporate power has entered the core of the anti-globalization fortress and has placed its soldiers, including a couple of members of indigenous communities of the Amazon, to disseminate its word and support its commitment toward a responsible exploitation of nature and the people. However, and more dramatically than in the story counted by Homer, it all happened with the full awareness of the organization, and, even more sadly, with the silent acquittance of the rest of the anti-global collectivity, which has not raised a finger against the corporatization of the WSF and refused to organize symbolic actions of protest.”
I waited a couple of days before sitting in front of my laptop and trying to organize the combination of feelings that had been invading me since I left Tunis and the 2013 World Social Forum. It was my first time, and, as every first experience, I had charged it with expectations, hopes, desires, and curiosity. Forty-eight hours after my departure, when the meeting had been officially closed and the attention is now focused on the possibility that the WSF will have a long term impact over the Tunisian situation, the time has come to collect my thoughts, and to say why I do not wish this WSF to become a term of reference for the liberation process that hundreds of thousands of Tunisians started two years ago. And why I think that ‘Another forum is possible’.
Differently from the majority of the people that filled the Al Manara Campus during four days, the Tunisian people have occupied the streets of their capital, they have put their lives into the struggles, they have fought, suffered, and physically opposed the régime of Ben Ali. They have not written letters or motions, they have not educated people through seminars or talks, but they have utilized numbers and dissent to give a concrete signal of their dissent, of their suffering and of their not accepting inequality, poverty, corruption, and the global mechanisms of private accumulation by the dispossession of the public. They have been brave and determined, and they have not responded to the requests of donors, funders, supporters or the media. Their actions channeled a real and perceivable dissent, and their strategy was not at all politically correct.
The Tunisians who flooded Tunis and subverted the régime do not need the people of the WSF to tell them where to go next: on the contrary, they have a lot to teach about techniques of social change and resistance, and about the sacrifices that are required when a paradigmatic shift is the objective. Moreover, there is no doubt that the revolution has only begun, and its subordination under the categories and structures of the institutionalized movement of anti-globalism—which is represented by the WSF—could deprive it of its impact and strength, and transform it in another emancipatory process which attempts to redefine the system from within. In my opinion, that is not what the Tunisian people need, nor what they are asking for.
In the five days that I’ve spent in Tunis, not a lot of time, but enough to talk with people within and without the boundaries of the World Social Forum, the file rouge of their discourses was represented by the request to understand the ongoing lie about democracy and democratic transformation, and to support any further action rather than entrusting the current government with hopes and legitimacy. Despite that, on the other side of the gates that separated the world of the World Social Forum from the real world, it was possible to grasp a diffuse sense of optimism and confidence around the Tunisian democratic transition, which some narratives are already defining with the vocabulary of the state building which is so appreciated by Fukuyama and the supporters of the exceptionality of Western democracy. And that brings me to the second part of this Article, the domestication of the World Social Forum and its sneaky acceptance of the dominant paradigm that it claims to refuse.
In particular, there are at least four elements which support my claim, which do not represent a peculiar characteristic of the WSF, but the simple transposition within the WSF of the paradoxes and inconsistencies which are proper of several NGOs, not to say of cooperation itself.
a) More than one thousand conferences have been organized, the majority of which by international or North-?based NGOs, each one of them based on the traditional structure of the expert talking about one specific subject, while the rest of the audience, mainly members of other North NGOs, i.e. white, educated people who visited Tunis for the first time, only had few minutes to ask questions and receive answers, instead of participating in a collective analysis of the issue or an extended confrontation around the topic. Rather than being a dialogue between the people of the world, the WSF has appeared as a huge transfer of notion and knowledge from the North to the South, or from the expert to the North to the rest of the population, a process which does not differ from the technique utilized by the big global actors, which respectfully reproduces the subordination and silencing of the damnés, if we were to use the term coined by Franz Fanon.
b) Not only were the sources of knowledge pre-selected and reproduced by that Northern idea that recognizes authority only in the expertise and that knowledge equals to education, but these “experts” were kept physically separated within the campus and from the rest of the world. Leaving any logistical reasons aside (it is clearly not easy to organize one thousand events in the middle of a city), whoever has participated in the forum should ask himself or herself if a segregated forum is the kind of forum that we want. Do we want a ghetto event that takes place behind the controlled gates of a campus? Can we accept that the campus was divided into two parts, one dedicated to the Maghreb and Arab world, and the other one, the one with the media center, the majority of the classrooms, the tents of the NGOs and three amphitheaters, almost exclusively populated by international NGOs and non-Tunisian people? Do we want to build a global center of encounter where it is necessary to obtain, pay and show a badge in order to access? Do we want a forum were the participants, the conferences, the themes, and the orientation of the debate is already selected by the actors who have the resources and the power to participate, with very little space for autonomous organization and spontaneous dynamics? Is it a system of physical and ideological isolation, fruit of the decisions of a restricted group which forms the International Commission, that we want to propose as an alternative to the dominant paradigm? Does it or does it not represent something new, or it is simply a hidden form of reproducing knowledge and neo-colonization.
c) Linked to the resource problem, the 2013 WSF, as many forums before, has demonstrated how important money is today, included for NGOs who are officially fighting and struggling against the commodification of life, people and of nature. The choice to organize the meeting in Tunis, whether dictated by the official motivation to ride the wave of the Arab spring and of the Tunisian revolution, has produced an automatic mechanism of selection which at the same time has reduced the number of representatives of the Global South (of the real one, not of fake South countries like Brazil, India and South Africa) and produced a monopolization of the Forum by European and North American, included numerous French people who probably wanted to see what had happened to their former colony. In the majority of the meetings organized by non local NGOs, although there were some positive exceptions, nothing would have made me think that the forum was taking place in Tunis, nor that it was taking place in Africa. Generally held in French or English, mainly attended by European, North American, and some BRICS’ people, the events were extrapolated from the surrounding reality both as to the context and as to the content, as it was not important where we were and why we were there. Although it is not easy to provide a solution to the resource curse that affects the non-governmental world, there is little doubt that the shortcut of private funding cannot be accepted. And that takes me to my final point.
d) On the first day of the forum, while the camp tents provided by the Saudi Arab Kingdom had not already been installed, and while the UNCHR tents were lying on the floor waiting to be mounted, I had the insane idea to visit ‘La Maison de Bresil’ (Brasil House) in order to see what was the message that one of the fastest growing and most contradictory countries in the world had decided to transmit to the post-revolution Tunisia. As soon as I walked into the stand, whose size could only be compared with that of the Morocco delegations (apparently particularly close to the king, as demonstrated by their reaction against some pictures exposing the violence that Morocco is exercising against Sahari people in Western Sahara, and by their not recognizing the existence of the Western Sahara), I thought it was a joke. Or that I was in the wrong place. Rather than being exposed to the contradictions, struggles, dispossessions, evictions, logging, land grabbing, which are currently ongoing in Brazil, I was received by nicely colored boards revealing the beauty of the country, its commitment toward a healthier environment, the force of the cooperation with indigenous people, and the progress in terms of agriculture. All under the clear and unequivocal logo of Petrobras, the Brazilian public oil company, the first (if not only) funder of the ‘La Maison de Bresil’ and the funder of the transport and accommodation for sixteen members of Brazilian NGOs and social movements, one for each partner of the projects that Petrobras is conducting in Brazil in order to clean its corporate image. Like a post-modern Trojan horse, corporate power has entered the core of the anti-globalization fortress and has placed its soldiers, including a couple of members of indigenous communities of the Amazon, to disseminate its word and support its commitment toward a responsible exploitation of nature and the people. However, and more dramatically than in the story counted by Homer, it all happened with the full awareness of the organization, and, even more sadly, with the silent acquittance of the rest of the anti-global collectivity, which has not raised a finger against the corporatization of the WSF and refused to organize symbolic actions of protest.
To conclude, I do recognize the importance and uniqueness of the World Social Forum as a global place where local experiences can be exchanged and discussed, but I think that the current version is not what is needed to obtain a world were money is not the only driving force and inequality is a souvenir of the past. The political and economic relevance of the event have transformed it into a bazar of projects, where people spend more time selling their capacity and their knowledge rather than creating horizontal solidarity among people and organizations, nor confronting their own contradictions (included by covering the entire campus with announcements and distributing fliers while affirming that their encounter is more interesting than the meeting organized next door). There is little doubt that this is not the WSF that I had in mind, and I am sure that this is not the WSF that many of the participants want and would like to replicate in the future. For these reasons, it becomes essential to start a serious and deep reconsideration of where we are, who we are and where we are going. The WSF has a great potential, and we cannot accept the second or third-best version that has been proposed in Tunis. Another forum is possible.