Nick Dearden blogs from the World Social Forum
You can read an interview with Nick in advance of the WSF here.
WSF Blog 5: Debt is the issue
11 February 2011, 3.15pm
A very exciting day for debt activists yesterday as the Assembly of Social Movements was kicked off by a famous Senegalese hip-hop band singing two songs about debt while the audience danced and chanted along. 2,000 participants were on their feet. One of the band wore a t-shirt bearing the image of Thomas Sankara, revolutionary leader of Bukina Faso who railed against his country's debt slavery, and was assassinated in 1987.
The band has released an album about debt, organised by the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt (CADTM), a part of the international debt movement, whose banners festooned the Assembly walls. And thanks to their efforts, debt cancellation got the loudest cheers whenever it was mentioned.
The hip hop band sing about debt
An ATTAC activist enjoying the debt rap
Once the band had finished the (false) rumours started coming through that Mubarak was about to step down as President of Egypt. Eruptions of jubilation started across the audience, though the organisers were somewhat reluctant to disrupt proceedings. Eventually a Tunisian activist did announce the rumour however, saying that Egypt and Tunisia's debt should now be cancelled, based as it was on propping up dictators. The focus on debt is a real reminder of the centrality of this issue to activists across the world today.
The Debt Assembly in the morning had been equally inspiring if a little windblown. At times it felt like speaking in the apocalypse and I was pretty convinced the tent would come down altogether several times. We agreed that we would focus on promoting and supporting debt audits across the world in the coming year, including in the global North (countries like Greece), on climate debt and getting the World Bank out of climate finance, and on debt cancellation in south Sudan, Pakistan, and Tunisia.
There was a clear belief that the countries of the global South would ultimately pay the price for the banking crisis – while in fact the banks no longer had a crisis, but soaring profits. This led to a discussion about the nature of debt, with participants saying the problem of debt was not simply its historical injustice, but that debt is used as a means of redistribution of wealth from the poorest to the richest today.
A couple of other interesting points – first an Italian lawyer who is working on an attempt to get a UN resolution of unjust debts which would give countries or activists the possibility of taking cases of unjust debts to the International Court of Justice. Second, activists in Latin America thought it was important to campaign on debt run up to other
Southern countries, trying to ensure that relations between Southern countries are not characterised by the same exploitation as governs relations between the North and South.
WSF Blog 4: A day of assemblies
10 February 2011, 10.50pm
Nearly 40 assemblies have been planned at the WSF to allow activists working on specific issues to prepare a plan of action for the year ahead. This culminates in a giant assembly where the movement as a whole puts forward a plan – though this plan is often a pretty long statement of belief, more than a plan as such.
I'm going to write more about the two assemblies I went to below – though just to mention here the social movement assembly was stormed by some students at Dakar University who are campaigning for free education, going so far as being on hunger strike at the moment. They told us that two students had already been hospitalised. In fact it's been a day for marches with a group of Saharawis demonstrating against the presence of the Moroccan government at the WSF and many more besides.
The students for free education prepare to march into the assembly
I also had a wander around the campus. My colleague at War on Want has been very inventive upon discovering no rooms were free for her sessions on Palestine. Along with other activists she had had her own tent built right outside the main library which has become a hub for their activities throughout the week. In fact groups of Senegalese students seemed to be constantly in the tent learning about the basics of the issue.
Elsewhere the event has some of the atmosphere of a festival, with stalls and meetings taking place in the sun and the dust, not to mention a hundred little street stalls set up selling carved figures and jewellery. One thing that really did remind me of a festival is the absolutely appalling state of the toilets, which would embarrass even Glastonbury.
There is a wonderful food tent, however, where plates of rice or cous-cous, fish or chicken, are brought to you for about £2.
The festival-like atmosphere of the WSF
A lot of the interesting discussions also take place at night, away from the social forum itself, where numerous groupings organise events in bars and restaurants. Last night I dropped in on the Trans-National Institute event and stayed up much too late discussing whether the WSF was still relevant and how it should evolve. It all made sense at the time.
WSF Blog 3: It's the process, stupid!
9 February 2011, 10.19pm
What is going on at the WSF that's not to do with debt? Well difficult to know because there is no real programme, and what programme there is has not been allocated rooms. In fact we're more like an encampment on the grounds of the university – lots of tents, some interesting stalls and the odd impassioned speech rising out of the dusty semi-wasteland landscape. Definitely something a bit post-apocalyptic about it all.
Almost everyone here is missing meetings, but it's OK, according to a related conversation, because it's all about the process. We shouldn't be so hung up on sitting in meetings anyway, the important thing is the impact on the African social movements. Hopefully they know where they're going better than I do,
I've been spending a lot of time with a debt activist from Cote d'Ivoire whose been telling me about their current impasse with two Presidents, and his hope that it will be resolved soon. He's a level-headed sort of guy, but believes there has been a real upsurge in African political consciousness of late – an understanding that true independence starts in people's heads, and a growing awareness of the history of African resistance – from Patrice Lumumba, first leader of Congo assassinated with Western complicity, to Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania through to Thomas Sankara of Bukino Faso.
Understanding this history will be vital to a revival of African radicalism. And debt plays a key role in this understanding – in highly indebted Zimbabwe, the issue of debt is a hot political topic, defining relations between the old regime, the Movement for Democratic Change and the social movements. We are supporting the debt movements call for a debt audit in Zimbabwe, and hope to get more active in coming months.
Elsewhere, I am informed, Bolivia's President Evo Morales and Brazil's former President Lula have been speaking. Morales apparently told the WSF that capitalism was "dying in the face of a people's rebellion." Both speakers told Africans to unite, distance themselves from their former colonial ties and develop closer ties with Latin America as a means of guaranteeing their independence.
It's all very exciting, and ties in well with a speaker I heard talking about the ongoing exploitative trade relationships of the West with Africa, and the need for a resurgence of Africa Unity. Unfortunately, though, I'd have as much chance of finding them if they were speaking on Mars. But I must accept that it isn't about me attending meeting – it's about the process.
WSF Blog 2: Debt is Slavery
8 February 2011, 11.00pm:
My hotel window overlooks Goree Island – a poignant reminder of Senegal's history and a reason why the WSF is well located here. The Island was the point of departure for hundreds of thousands of Africans being shipped into slavery in the New World.
Goree Island. Photo: TSGT Justin D. Pyle, USAF
Slavery, of course, constituted the most appalling violation of humanity, but it also built the basis for the economic development of what is now the developed world. Finance accumulated by countries like the UK from the slave trade laid the ground for the Industrial Revolution. On the other side of the equation, the damage wreaked on the long-term prospects for African development is still being felt today. Even though most Europeans see the disgusting era of slavery as a distant piece of history, the legacy is still felt very keenly across Africa.
It seems fitting to be here campaigning on a modern global injustice – debt especially but also the trade rules, tax structures and financial infrastructure which keep the wealth flowing out of Africa and into the pockets of the very rich in the global North. Debt continues to stunt development in Africa, even after decades of schemes set up to supposedly tackle the problem.
The library - everyone meets by the library
I popped along to a session of tax justice, with campaigners from right across the world talking about the way tax has changed from being seen as a means of creating a fairer society, to something which should be avoided at all costs. In the 1990s, participants told us how, in country after country, the International Monetary Fund had forced countries to change their tax structures, promoting sales taxes (VAT) as the most efficient form of taxation (which proportionally falls more heavily on the poor), while encouraging tax exemptions for big corporations.
There seemed to be real optimism here though, given the variety of activities taking place. While in Kenya, recent tradition has been that politicians pay very little in terms of taxation – indeed, the idea is 'why would anyone if they could get away with it?' - there is now a Government campaign to promote the idea of tax as positive. Tax brings good things like education and it also brings closer scrutiny of governments. Indeed, campaigners reported that when corruption arises on the basis of tax money, people have been found to get more angry than when corruption uses external aid funds. Tax can and should be at the basis of a just and democratic society. It is a vital element in allowing African countries to release themselves from centuries of slavery and debt.
WSF Blog 1: The revolution will not be organised
8 February 2011, 7.35pm:
The World Social Forum (WSF) is already underway and can best be described as chaos. Just days before the WSF started the University which is hosting the event got a new Director, who decided that classes would not be postponed for the Forum, thus leaving the WSF over 400 rooms down. So although registration packs have run out, it doesn't make much difference because sessions don't have rooms.
Making the best of the situation, we occupied one of the many tents that have been put up around the university and draped it with banners, in order to attract people to our first session of the day, Debt in Africa. As no one knows where their chosen session will take place, we have as much chance as anyone of attracting people in. Indeed it pretty much worked, and we got a packed tent.
Our tent was filled with participants from more than 20 countries from Cote d'Ivoire and Mali nearby to the Philippines, Ecuador, India and Argentina. Across the world, campaigners are organising debt audits to empower ordinary people in their societies vis-a-vis their economies. They see educating people as an essential step to create a global economy that meets the needs of those people.
An Indian activist discussing climate debt.
The final session of the day discussed the global campaign for a Debt Court – the creation of a neutral, international body to adjudicate on debt crises and ensure countries are not repaying unpayable and unjust debts. Interesting work going on to convince the African Union, Obama and the G20. Lengthy discussions as to where such a Court should be located and the nature of IMF conditions, show that no matter how disorganised the event, the activist's attention to the detail of the issue under consideration cannot be swayed.