A report from the World Social Forum
I have recently returned from Tunis where I travelled to take part in the World Social Forum. I had never participated in one before, and the fact that it was happening so close to Europe, was an opportunity that I didn’t want to miss. I left without really knowing what to expect, but brought with me hopes, desires and a lot of curiosity about what I would find.
In the past months, I tried to connect with other people involved in 15M, Occupy, Via22 and other similar movements, who were also planning to go. With them, we started a series of open online meetings that we publicised in our international networks. After a few we decided to participate together in the WSF under the name GlobalSquare. The decision was mainly a practical one, as to propose events in the program one had to do it as a group, while each of us were participating as individuals. With time this grew into an interesting collaborative project which through online meetings and practical coordination, provided a platform of exchange between people of different countries but from similar experiences. This platform is still active, and since Tunis has generated some new projects that I am very curious to see develop and I look forward to write about in the future.
Looking back now at GlobalSquare I think, what it lacked was a clear vision of what it wanted to achieve in the WSF and the capacity to make clear statements within it. In fact our exchange was more about practices, experiences, and concretely organising for the WSF, rather then defining together goals or visions for the future. In other words we came together based on where we were coming from and not where we were envisioning to go. But this isn’t a criticism, rather an observation. I think that this was inevitable given the way GlobalSquare came about, but also that this aspect brought with it positive effects, particularly within the context we were. In fact the structure of the WSF provides a space where often groups come along to promote their own cause, often remaining focused on their own issues, without connecting with other groups. What we did was quite the opposite.
We provided a vacant space. A space that could be appropriated by the people of the WSF , where everyone, including those of us active in GlobalSquare, could express themselves freely within it, without the need to talk with a common voice. In some way we created a space that strongly resembled our local squares. We did this through two means: a physical space and assemblies. We provided a continuous physical open-air space, where people could congregate, discuss or simply relax, but most of all re-meet again and again during the days of the WSF. This was quite exceptional as most groups would move from one indoor lecture room to the other, having only cafes as communal spaces. In this way Global Square became for the WSF more then a group, a space with in it. A real public square within the campus. At the same time, we had a point of reference, where people who wanted to engage with us, knew where to find us. In this space GlobalSquare organised 3 large assemblies, where the topics of discussion were decided day by day with the participants.
The debates generated were all extremely interesting, from accounts on the Tunisian revolution, to discussions on debt, from examples of use of collaborative media, to how to practice horizontality. But how we covered the topics was just as important. We did so, allowing everyone to have their say in a horizontal way, and to share it with people quite different from who they were used to communicate with. We tried to make everyone feel welcome buy providing a safe and accessible space and tried to provide translation for all those that needed it. Apparently this was quite unique also for the WSF, within which there was a tendency of having panel discussions with mainly people from Northern countries talking, often in only one language making it unaccessible to many.
We were very lucky to have high participation of Tunisians, and that they were able to share with us their experiences. We were even more privileged to have met some very determined local activists, who share many of our approaches to horizontality, with whom we were able to exchange our visions both for the near and the far future. With them, on the last day of the Forum, we brought our assembly to the streets in the centre of Tunis (the WSF was happening in a university Campus on the outskirts of Tunis). The reaction of the people here was overwhelming. We explained and started practicing our facilitation methods, and slowly they appropriated them and started moderating the crowd themselves. We then left the assembly to it’s own life and move beside it to create another one, and repeated this a few times. For a few ours, the main avenue Bourghiba, had various assemblies happening simultaneously. Translation from Arabic to English, and vice versa, was provided by those participating and the depth of the debates was impressive, especially regarding the understanding of what is happening in their own country, and how it is related to global geopolitics.
A big factor for me in participating in the WSF, was the fact that it was happening in Tunisia. I wanted to go and see with my own eyes, where the energy of the past years had sparked from. But I would have never even hoped to have so much engagement with the Tunisians. On first account while walking along the streets, it looked like everyone was going with their day to day life as always, working, shopping, hanging out in cafes, chatting. But as soon as you started a conversation, with anyone, they immediately talked to you about politics. I could perceive this incredible feeling of freedom, of being allowed at last to talk openly about their thoughts and to have an opinion on everything. Everyone wanted to tell you what they thought! Unfortunately I did find women to be still a bit intimidated, as they would have conversations one to one, but not all would feel comfortable to express themselves publicly. But this should probably be given its time. In fact my reading of what is happening is that there is a contrast between the desire for things to change rapidly and the need for time to elaborate what has occurred and which direction to take. I felt that people were trying to find solutions too quickly and thus fragmenting into groups each with a different position. My hope is that they will able to keep the debate open and define together slowly the future they would like, even if I understand that there is the risk for already existing structured groups, like the religious ones, to take on the leadership, not allowing a radically new democratic Tunisia to develop.
The Future of the WSF
I also went to the WSF hoping to learn and gain more experience from those that have been active in social movements and anti-capitalist organizations for far more then me. Unfortunately though, I didn’t take into account that, committing to organizing activities for GlobalSquares, would have left me with very little time to explore what other groups were doing. I did though have the privilege to participate in one of the meetings of the International Committee (IC), the main organizing body of the WSF. I say privilege, as the circumstances were quite disturbing. The meeting, the existence of which we found out by accident, happened in the days after the Forum, in the smart conference halls of the 4 star hotel Majestic, accompanied by full catering, in deep contrast not only with the disorganisation of the WSF itself, but more importantly with the principles for which it stands. After a first day of a hierarchically structured debate, in the late evening a few participants of Globalsquare took the simple direct action of rearranging the chairs, from a panel format, to a circular arrangement. Such a simple act, gave the meeting of the second day a much more horizontal imprint, which everyone appeared to transition to quite comfortably. The debate itself was for me quite interesting, even if unfortunately I was not able to participate in all of it.
From what I gathered the WSF is going through a deep crisis, both of identity and leadership. Having said this though there is definitely a general feeling that it is a unique space that is worth not only keeping alive, but re-invigorating, as, if done in the right way, it could still have an important role in shaking the current structures of power. The question is: how? And even more importantly: who will be prepared to take it forward? It was clear from the debate that the future of the WSF should lie in the hands of it’s participants, but that for this to happen, there needs to be some radical transformations of how the WSF is structured. What surprised me was the openness to this from the members of the IC present. I didn’t perceive a desire to hold on to current power structures or positions, but rather an openness to searching for new solutions.
This leaves me wondering, how much people like us, involved in the current social movements, should be taking part in this transformation. My personal position is that the roots of the problems we are facing are global, and therefore we need to be working on networks of global-resistance. Nevertheless, we should be mostly focusing our energy on local struggles, as the transformations need to come from there if we want them to be participatory and democratic. The challenge is to be able to keep the right balance between the two. And that is hard to do both personally and as a movement.
My final words go for my companions in this fascinating journey. It was a deep pleasure to share these moments with people coming from similar experiences as mine. There were as in every respectable horizontal group moments of frustration or contrast, but as one of them said one night “ we always dealt with them with a smile on our face”. I deeply respect all those that are able to work together despite our differences. It shows that there is a consciousness that we are fighting for something that goes far beyond our own personal goals or those of our groups, and this gives me a lot of hope for our building together the future we would like.
Photos: Janie Mac, Shawn Carrié, Santa Cruz