By Carminda [version française]
During the World Social Forum (WSF) that took place in Tunisia from 26 to 30 March 2013, hope was on every spirit, appearing paradoxically as a pillar in times marked by a deep systemic crisis. The campus El Manar of the University Tunis became the ground of a crowd of over 50,000 people (about 200 from Quebec, where I live), which foreshadowed the diversity of global civil society – questioning Thatcher’s idea that there would be only one model conceivable, the one imposed by global neoliberal ideology. “Another world is possible, necessary and already in construction” suggest the banners here and there. Indeed, that’s what it seems like.
The plurality of perspectives could be perceived quite well by going through the guide which details over 1,500 events taking place during the 5 days of the Forum (although it should be noted that many activities were held in Tunis before and after FSM). The WSF is intended as a process that goes beyond the now bi-annual event, which was in its 12th edition. And, having actively participated in the creation of several activities that took place this year in Tunis, I understand that the preparation, monitoring and evaluation – although very often in the shadows – must be part of the activity itself. Hopefully the steps that should be done after the event will be held with the same enthusiasm that reigned during this week of the spring, and that the links created will be sustainable…
The big Opening march
On March 25, the Opening march launched the ball, with a huge crowd walking the streets of Tunis. Avenue Bourguiba – artery symbol of the revolution, where are among others the Ministry of the Interior (the anarchist friends like to call the Tunisian Ministry of Terror), several luxury hotels, many cafés, the Theatre of Tunis and the imposing clock in the Square 14 Javier 2011 – was besieged by thousands of colors, dialogues, slogans, smiles. A happy cacophony filled the atmosphere while song in Arabic were mixed with the rhythmic dance of South African, and feminist slogans chanted by men passed by the silence of some struggling for freedom of expression… The complexity of struggles around the world took shape before our eyes. NGOs, groups, social movements, etc… working for humans and the environment approached under the sign of the alter-globalization, through the space provided by the World Social Forum.
At the end of the march, which lasted several hours, we were treated to many speeches (especially as one of Besma Khalfaoui, wife of opposition leader recently assassinated Chokry Belaid). Too many, judging by the amount of people who left before Gilberto Gil (former Brazilian minister of culture) rocked our ears and animated the bodies – even the most reluctant – with its subtle samba and Bob Marley songs revisited. Difficult not to see his prejudices stunned when dancing with hijabs, colors, languages and disabilities…
Tunis and Tunisia
Tunis is a beautiful city teeming with life, where poverty runs along the fortune, and where it seems to be as many Milenders as in Montreal. The vast majority of Tunisians I had the chance to meet, whether they where taxi drivers, activists, hotel workers, teachers, students and vendors are generous, friendly, and eager to show the beauty of their culture.
During the 10 days that lasted my short trip to Tunis, time has taken on another dimension. So much to do at once, people to meet, dishes to taste, words to remember… the days had something ephemeral but eternal…
“New social movements” in the World Social Forum?
Since November 2012 I have been involved in an initiative called Global Square (www.global-square.net), which brought together people active in what is called, wrongly or rightly, the “new social movements”. For more than three months we have participated in meetings on a virtual open source platform for chat and voice named “Mumble” (used, among others, by activists associated with Take the Square, Occupy, 15M/Indignados, YoSoy132, VIA22, etc.), imagining different activities that we could take to the World Social Forum, and trying to understand what role we should play in this calendar highlight of alter-globalization.
Indeed, this World Social Forum had the distinction of being the first after the famous Arab Spring and the emergence of new highly mobilized and mobilizing actors in different countries of the world. But, how many people active in the mass mobilizations in Tunisia and elsewhere since 2011, were present at the WSF? Hard to say. Although I rather doubt that the majority of Tunisians that went out on the streets during the Revolution was there – considering the number of people I met outside the University who had no idea that their city hosted more 25 000 foreigners, and much less knew why we where there for. And people who openly showed to be involved in the movements emerging at the international level, I have seen many (especially in the Global Square area) but not masses. It is to wonder if, while approaching the WSF ideals of horizontality and openness, the culture of the new generation of activists would be offset from what is commonly called civil society or the left? How to understand the cleavage (it may be questions like this that create this cleavage…)?
Through my experience in Global Square (and other similar initiatives), I found that many indeed position themselves critically in relation to structures of civil society (on which is based the WSF), sometimes seen in these environments as hierarchical and perpetuating colonialist and capitalist logics. On the other hand, I have met many people who work in different organizational structures of civil society (including trade unions, associations, etc.) wondering – sometimes a little awkwardly, I should admit – how to deal with the actors of recent citizen mobilizations and how to be inspired by their modus operandi… The World Social Forum will be able to leverage for mutual recognition of these different perspectives, which do not seem to have had the opportunity to truly cross and where many prejudices persist? Yet hearts are in the same place, but some vocabularies and perceptions still differ. The next World Social Forums will probably have to face this challenge.
What seems certain is that if we wish to have real and lasting impact on the course of history, we must cultivate humility with an active attitude. To advance the mutual reinforcement of our different struggles locally and globally, we should already recognize the contradictions in ourselves and in others. And there were some were large contradictions during the WSF, such as funding by large corporations whose logos were displayed during certain activities, or on tents inside the campus… Unfortunately, we all involved in the current economic system – through our bank accounts, our electricity, or our daily habits. But the utopia of “other possible worlds” make us move towards alternatives much needed in times of crisis. And one of the good points about the WSF is to give to some people (those who are lucky enough to travel or receive the event in their region) the very concrete possibility to meet its own forces and contradictions, and those of others – hence the need to multiply this type platforms. Let’s not be afraid of paradoxes, because they prove ultimately to be an engine of creativity …
How to work beyond the WSF 2013?
It is precisely the encounter of the plurality of perspectives that we wanted to encourage through a series of participatory and creative activities, which I co-planned for the WSF 2013, with people involved in VIA22, Uni-Alter, Real Democracy Now Paris and Eyes Network. These spaces aimed to put the emphasis on the necessity of dialogue between people involved in emerging and more established movements, and the sustainability of the links created during the Forum. On March 30, we called an Assembly of Convergence in the ambition to arrive to some concrete proposals (including some from the activities we offered during the week) that could contribute to the process putted forward by the World Social Forum, beyond the event in Tunisia. The idea of VIA22 (www.via22.org) – encourage the connexions between different struggles around the world on 22nd of each month, including international virtual conversations – in which I’ve been very active since its launching in October 2012, appeared in the eyes of many as a concrete alternative to the strengthening of the links created in Tunis. The next Global Assembly of VIA22 will be held on April 22 at 4pm GMT. I hope that those who read this text will come (email me for details : email@example.com)! Also, a working group was created for the establishment of a newspaper that could encourage exchanges between participants of the World Social Forum (to take part of this initiative, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org).
After the WSF, the meeting of its International Council…
The World Social Forum 2013 officially ended on March 30 with around thirty Assemblies of Convergence and a large Closing march in support the Palestinian people (which I have not had the courage to attend, failing energy after a week which in which every minute was counted)… The departure of many foreigners was already felt, and the atmosphere was more like what I had experienced in Tunis before the WSF.
However, in a large of a prestigious hotel in Tunis, the meeting of the International Council (IC) of the WSF was ready to start (some random notes that I took are available on this pad, French and English mixed : http://piratepad.net/Fx6kBkaaW3). A hundred people – amongst them perhaps two thirds of observers, as we were named – met for a day and a half to participate in the evaluation of the event that just ended, and to re-question the structure and relevance of this Council.
The first day, the atmosphere was ceremonial, with Council members sitting around a long table at the end of which sat the people trying to facilitate the meeting. During the first part of the day, a retrospective was made with input from the organizing committee and the people sitting in the IC (it was clearly stated that only these people could speak, although many observers had the opportunity to speak). People seemed to agree that the WSF in Tunisia was among the best organized until now, although many weak points were raised – such as the relative absence of people from sub-Saharan, Latin American and Asian countries, or the lack mobilization of the Tunisian population outside the university.
The second part of the day, in which we were supposed to work in groups, became a long plenary that began with a rather daring proposal from Chico Whitaker (one of the founders of the WSF) : to dissolve the CI that he considers a “white dying elephant that should be euthanized”… He proposes the creation of a renewed collective, consisting of people really interested to participate in the World Social Forum (including the organizers of the various forums), which would take the place of IC. He also suggests a turnover in the Secretariat – which I understand as the technical body that should ensure the communications within the IC, based since the beginning of the WSF in Brazil, and in fact now assumed by only one person. For Whitaker, the new collective should be constituted by international working groups with specific objectives, whose main role would be to determine the location of the next WSF, taking responsibility to analyze in depth the various applications.
The reactions came one after the other during a long afternoon, where general energy was missing as much a meeting methodology. The elephantine character of the International Council hinted, making it difficult to envisage a collective decision – although a refusal to abolish the International Council seemed to come out of the majority of the comments I heard.
I can’t help to share a story somewhat comical… In the evening, after the first half of the meeting of the IC, I found myself with some friends from Global Square, all pretty demobilized by the heaviness of the day. And as someone argued that the layout of the room contributed to the hierarchical aspect of the discussion, excluding those who were not seated at the table, we engaged on a “direct action” – which in its nature somewhat insignificant gave us back the smile, and I believe, the desire to participate. We rearranged over a hundred chairs in concentric circles and took out the tables in the middle. The surprised sound engineers asked us what we were doing, and when we told them we were going to “prepare the room for the next meeting,” they helped us and installed the sound accordingly. It was pretty funny to see the expression on the faces of some of the organizers of the WSF when entering the room (and hear one of them tell me that “they were reorganizing the room due to sound problems”), but it was especially reassuring to see that ultimately they too seemed to prefer a less ceremonious space. Perhaps we did not revolutionized the CI, but we have at least learned that sometimes assert ourselves with a smile can bear fruit…
The second day of the Council meeting was most productive, when the heavy plenary of the day was replaced by working groups (which included observers). Several decisions were taken. Thus, the next IC meeting will be held in the Maghreb/Mashreq region, around October 2013. Applications to host the WSF should be sent to the secretariat of IC (email@example.com, if my information is correct) before its next meeting. The Secretariat will remain in Brazil until it can be taken by the host country for the WSF 2015. The IC will initiate a process of internal consultation to find out who is really active in it, and thus be able to rethink its structure.
Whether you agree or disagree with the proposal to Chico Whitaker, it is difficult to deny that the IC is facing an identity crisis. What is the International Council and, most importantly, what is it for? Who sits on it and how can we integrate it? How can we justify its expenses? All these questions were in the minds of the assistants of the meeting that ended on April 1, without clear answers advanced. Time will tell, I guess…
I spent 10 days in Tunisia, and here you have a brief overview of my stay. There would be so much more to say… On a more personal note, I would like to keep the energy I took from people and activities during the Forum, and foster relationships that I have created. I hope that VIA22 would also contribute to this. Also, I will continue to reflect on leadership in contexts that put forward the need for horizontality, which was a recurring theme in the organization of activities in which I participated. And finally, I’m thinking with some people around me on the possibility of proposing Montreal as venue of the World Social Forum 2015 (perhaps during a polycentric forum?)… We will be proposing an Open Assembly on May 5th to collectivize the idea and see if people are interested. Far from thinking that the city I live is the only good option, I still believe that the organizational strengths that emerged from Occupy in North America, the Quebec Spring and Idle No More could breathe new life into the WSF process. In addition, the experience gained in the development of collaborative web platforms could allow to consider the extension of the Forum on the internet as part of the process (which perhaps could overcome the difficulty of access to Canada). The idea of a World Forum in Quebec was already in the minds in 2011, when Tunisia was chosen for obvious reasons. Maybe it would be time to turn our eyes to the north, bounded on a conservative ideology that causes disasters around the world… Stay tuned!
Carminda, Montreal April 7, 2013