World Social Forum 2011: From Dakar to Egypt and Back Again

Ulrich Brand

These days, world history is being written in Cairo and other North-African cities and countries. But the ten-year old World Social Forum, which took place in mid-February in Dakar, Senegal, has proven itself to be an indispensible transnational space of encounters, for the development of strategy, or for launching campaigns.

For many activists, the Forum began already one week before the official opening, with a migration caravan from Bamako, Mali, to Dakar, which sought to both inform people, and learn from and network with them, about the complex interrelationships surrounding the issue of migration. Beyond this one, a number other caravans towards the Senegalese capital had been organised as ways for their participants to highlight their respective issues, and to learn about other conditions and situations.

The meeting itself began with an opening demonstration, and Monday – the first day of events – was organised around ‘African’ issues. The next two days were dedicated to substantive discussions and exchange, while the two after that were given over to networking and planning. The Forum concluded with an ‘Assembly of Assemblies’.

Dakar as a venue

As always when the WSF is held for the first time in a new location, the first days were marked by significant organisational problems. The government did its bit to exacerbate the situation when President Abdoulaye Wade not only significantly cut back the funding already promised to the forum, but also, only a few days before the start, replaced the president of the University of Dakar – on whose campus the forum was to take place. The new president immediately decreed that teaching and exams were to take place alongside the WSF, which led to an unpleasant competition for rooms and space. This last-minute decision meant that there was little time to find alternatives, a fact that constituted a significant problem especially for those groups and individuals that were not yet (or only to a limited extent) transnationally networked. There were, to be sure, moments where WSF-related content could be injected into regular university events, but many of the WSF’s own events had to take place in tents. As a result of these organisational problems, it was difficult to practically realise the urgently needed culture of dialogue and learning. The WSF would most likely have managed to have a particularly lasting impact on the situation in Senegal if the thousands of university students on the campus could have been better integrated into the preparatory processes. While there was obvious interest in the many different activities at the WSF, there was none, or only weak, procedural integration of students’ organisations.

That the president and the movements are not exactly close friends became glaringly obvious at an event with former Brazilian president Lula and Senegal’s Wade: when the latter took the floor, the audience deserted the grounds en masse, and in a hurry.

The venue where a WSF is held always makes a difference. For many participants from Europe, it was important to experience a pleasantly open and religiously tolerant Islamic country. Two years ago, in the Northern Brazilian city of Belem, the issues of (resistance to) deforestation and clearcutting in the Amazon were omnipresent. This time, key issues were African agriculture, large-scale landgrabbing by international investors – frequently mediated by powerful local interests – France’s military presence as well as Europe’s (neo-)colonial role in the region. Several events focused on the oppression of women, although feminist issues were less present than at other Fora. Towards the end, one of the members of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s delegation – which, while very visible, avoided appearing as domineering – made this rather apposite observation: “Given the thousands of young people here, it will not be until a few years from now that we will be able to see to what extent this World Social Forum acts as a political catalyst – namely, when democratic movements in West Africa emerge significantly strengthened.”

Egypt and the functions of the WSF

It was of course developments in Egypt that were the most encouraging for the WSF and its estimated 90,000 participants. By fortuitous coincidence, it was precisely during the days when the WSF met in Dakar that the importance of democratic social movements was impressed upon global publics. Everywhere the autocratic governments in power in most African countries were being criticised. In spite of the deep crisis as well as the persistence of neoliberal policies in many parts of the world, there was a palpable sense of historic tailwind.

The WSF is an expression of the by no means homogenous movements for another globalisation. Accordingly, the political issues touched upon were legion: the current crisis and neoliberal policies, wars and increasing violence, different dimensions of human rights, education, media and culture, work, trade unions and migration, the ecological crisis, injustices between genders, and racism.

Interchange and networking largely take place within each ‘thematic axis’, whilst there is a continuous search for interconnections between them. What seems somewhat confusing to outsiders has over the years developed structure. More focused discussions take place on issues like financial crisis and regulation, or the link between economic growth and scarce resources. There has been a much-lauded reduction in events during which mostly older white men explain the world their faithful audiences. This fact can be placed in a wider context. Last year, Francine Mestrum of Brussels University and herself involved in alterglobalist networks put it rather well: “The WSF is a reflection of the social movements that participate in it. In Europe, many of these movements have their roots in the state-related Socialist outlook. The financial and economic crisis has created a backlash for different movements who are again simply defending their orthodox Marxist vision, forgetting its known shortcomings and ignoring the global changes and the new political actors. The “old left” is still one of the backbones of the social forum process, but, in so far as it is inward-looking, it is at the same time one of the major hindrances to overcoming the Forum’s shortcomings.” (

The WSF continues to be an expression of the difficult process of transnationalising practical critiques and alternatives. The many local resistances against the use of genetically modified seeds, for example, are arrayed against global corporations like Monsanto and their governmental supporters. Alternatives to the currently dominant and highly ineffective policies on climate change have to be concretely found and formulated in the specific fields of energy policy (and politics), urban planning or alternative forms of production, but they are also strengthened by transnational awareness and mutual learning.

The issue of climate change is a good example of the dynamics that can be generated at the WSF. A number of groups that had come to Dakar are protesting against the repressive and ecologically destructive exploitation of oil in, for example, the Niger Delta, or against the extraction of uranium in Niger. The concept of ‘climate justice’ then becomes a kind of umbrella term for an entirely different kind of energy politics, one that has to go hand-in-hand with a fundamental transformation of our modes of production and living. One of the demands articulated was: “Leave fossil fuels in the ground!” These new forms of energy struggles will be present both at the next climate change summit in December in Durban, South Africa, and at the Rio+20”-conference and the parallel conference that will take place in Brazil in May 2012.

Struggles for better living and working conditions in different regions and sectors have always been among the WSF’s central themes. However, trade unions were significantly less visible at this forum than at others. On the one hand, this is due to a decline in participation by international trade unionists, in particular from Europe, which will limit the event’s resonance within the organised workers’ movement. In Austria, for example, the successful “Stop GATS”-campaign was the result of the participation of Austrian trade unionists in one of the first WSF in Porto Alegre. On the other hand, weak representation by trade unions is also linked to the venue. Senegal, with its ten millions inhabitants and a largely informalised economy, only has about 250,000 formal jobs. The situation in neighbouring countries is likely to be broadly similar. In Brazil, on the other hand, the WSF taking place there received crucial support from the local trade unions.

Alternative development or alternatives to development?

One of the impressions that emerged across many discussions was that, in (West) Africa, ‘development’ remains a matter of struggle and contestation in the classic and progressive sense – the concept of real development kept being mentioned – as the struggle against poverty and corruption, against imperial control from the outside (in particular from Europe, but also China or Brazil), and for the democratisation and improvement of socio-economic, political and cultural living conditions. This perspective was also present at the 2009 WSF in Belem, but the debate there took on a different tone as a result of the fact that ‘development’ in the sense described above is in fact taking place in many Latin American countries – dynamic growth is improving millions of lives, integrates ever more people into formal and informal labour markets, or increases governments’ distributive room for manoeuvre. But the price of all this are extensive environmental destruction as well as a weakening of alternatives to the imperial and neoliberal world market, and the imperial mode of living both in the capitalist centres as well as the middle and upper classes in the countries of the global South. Thus, two years ago in Belem, and in today’s Latin America, we can witness an emancipatory perspective that is aimed at the necessary fundamental reorientation of ‘development’ itself. The term ‘civilisational crisis’, so present in Belem, was absent in Dakar.

To be sure, even in Latin America – with the exception of Bolivia and Ecuador – this debate remains a relatively marginal one. After the WSF in Belem I had suggested that one of the most important effects of the WSF could be putting a stop to the ecological madness currently devastating the Amazon. Nothing of the sort has happened. The giant hydropower dam project Belo Monte, in a tributary of the Amazon, which will create three new dams and two reservoirs, each the size of Lake Constance; which is intended to supply more than ten percent of Brazil’s energy needs; and which has massive socio-ecological implications, entered into its last planning stage in January of this year (originally, the project was meant to cover an area four times as large, but was significantly downsized after powerful protests). Instead of promoting a politics of energy efficiency and –saving, billions of investment dollars are funnelled into a project that most of all benefits the miningand extraction industry with its strong world market orientation.

There were no problems this year, in contrast to the WSF in Belem two years ago, with either the strong presence of progressive presidents – back then, the leaders of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela appeared together – or the dominance of one party such as the Brazilian Workers’ Party. Contrary to what had been agreed with the WSF’s International Council, the local organisers did let Bolivian president Evo Morales speak at an official event, but this was generally not interpreted as an attempt to co-opt the WSF. Also, the major companies still very present in Belem, such as the Brazilian energy giant Petrobras, stayed rather more out of sight this time, although the firm was once again officially thanked for its support.

Perspectives for the WSF: space, or actor, or…

Of course, current developments in North Africa cannot obscure the fact that the WSF, aside from a few very positive developments, is today not able to organize discussions in such a way that they become points of collective global reference. In Belem, the abovementioned concept of the civilisational crisis seemed to hint at such a process, but was not taken up again. The WSF also does not attract a critical mass of intellectuals that could work towards such points of reference in an exciting and plural process of discussion.

Giving the second half of the forum over to thematically specific assemblies focusing on the development of strategies and actions – this year there were more than 40 such gatherings – has proven itself to be an effective way to (re-)gain effective agency in a particular field of conflict. At the same time and in light of the multiple crises, the question of common points of reference comes in sharp relief. How could, for example, a common and comprehensive orientation towards justice and solidarity highlight the specificity of each particular emancipatory struggle while at the same time orienting them towards something common? The neoliberals did, after all, manage to inject and anchor their specific interests (in the sense of a capitalist rationality) into most areas of society by way of the concepts of freedom and efficiency. The movement for a different globalisation acts in specific fields of conflict – something that I believe makes sense – but expressed within each of these fields we find developments affecting them all, which means that common points of reference must be produced. To refrain from organising central ‘large’ debates, such as those that were held at the early WSF, on the one hand makes sense because this recognises the multiplicity of the struggles (plus, those debates at the first WSF were far from exciting). But in these dynamic times, where there is a need for orientation, it also has its downsides.

An intense discussion continues to rage over the question of whether the WSF should rather remain a political space, within which very different movements can meet in order to exchange experiences and develop strategies in their respective fields of struggle, such as agriculture, migration, climate politics, gender justice, antiracism or world trade. Another position argues that the WSF should rather become a political actor, that operates with a greater degree of unity on the world scene in order to increase its influence. Bernard Cassen, co-founder of attac France and one of the key players in the tendency that wants the WSF to become more of a constituted actor, claims that this position seeks to overcome the WSF’s weakness, said to arise from its internal diversity. He argues that a “break” with the currently dominant neoliberal model is only possible with and through a WSF that becomes a stronger actor. At first sight, there is something to that position: the ‘assembly of the movements’, which meets towards the end of the Forum as a gathering of the more radical forces inside the WSF, in the end adopted a document as its final declaration that seemed somewhat helpless, lost in commonplaces, and was strategically quite useless.

Cassen is right: we really do lack clear strategies of transformation, and the WSF struggles (and often fails) to improve movements’ strategic capacities. But the implication of Cassen’s argument is that there is much talking in a space, but no action. In spite of so much unused potential, that is as such not quite true.

Two arguments can be made to support the contention that the WSF should continue to be developed as a structured and structuring space in light of past experiences. First, most action takes place in concrete fields of conflict, such as financial market regulation, strengthening women’s rights, migration and antiracism, or in struggles for a different energy and climate politics. Connections and convergences need to be analytically and politically produced. This process cannot be organised ‘from above’, through the International Council or another force, which would imply a dangerous search for a unifying worldview or unified actors. Taking a sideways glance at how orthodox, more often than not Eurocentric and left-statist political currents obscure the diversity of lived experiences and the search for alternatives does not exactly inspire faith in the strategies formulated by these self-professed leading thinkers, which all too quickly end up in the/their radical political party.

Secondly, the last few years have shown that points of leverage or indeed practical political breaks with neoliberal-imperial or even capitalist logics occur rather at the local and national level (see for example the Latin American examples), or within specific fields of conflict. I have no solution to the relative weakness of emancipator politics at the global level. But the political upgrading of the WSF towards an actor to me appears rather as a sign of helplessness. Effective agency, as Dakar hinted at and Egypt proved, emerges in somewhat more complex and contingent ways.


At the level of transnational strategic development, coming years may well see the increasing importance of South-South networks of intellectuals and activists, with their occasionally significant access to progressive governments. In Dakar, Samir Amin organised a meeting to discuss precisely this question, and a working programme is being formulated to respond to these challenges. One of the interesting points here will be how progressive forces deal with the frequently subimperial structure of contemporary South-South cooperation, since, after all, the governments of Brazil, China, India and South Africa are increasingly claiming leadership roles for their respective regions or indeed ‘the’ South more generally. In West Africa, a recent massive increase in food imports from Brazil is as much a threat to local agriculture as imports from Europe.

The forum represents a slow-moving process. And at the same time, there are setbacks, such as the far from progressive management of the economic and financial crisis in the sense of political elites and capital, as a result of which global problems have rather been exacerbated, a fact that has led to increasing frustrations within social movements. There has also been continuous criticism of the European Social Forum process, which, in short, is seen to not be working. But there is no alternative to trying to gain transnational momentum in and through elaborate and laborious processes of learning and exploration. In some areas, this seems to be working – in others, not as much.

In Europe, after last summer’s disastrous European Social Forum, the future of the process looks pretty bleak – in contrast to the experience people had of the US Social Forum that took place shortly before the ESF. Many reports from the meeting in June in Detroit were almost euphoric, because it seemed to have been possible to involve a large number of people, to create a culture of listening and exchange, and to agree on a number of concrete future cooperation.

The WSF in Dakar can in no way be compared to the ESF 2010. At the same time, there was the occasional (to be sure: only occasional) impression that both of them kind of missed the point of the Social Forum movement: to formulate emancipator politics appropriate to the spirit of the age, and under not exactly pleasant conditions.

But there is no alternative to the WSF. It has to keep reinventing itself with the support of the many, in order for it to be a structured and structuring space that can give new impulses to the movements. Whether this means that it should rather be held in the same places as before, i.e. sort of meander between three of four places in order to accumulate much-needed organisational knowledge is a question that is both important and open. But one thing is clear, it should be held in places where there are dynamic movements, where there is something at stake in the experiences of the local movements – something practical.

Ulrich Brand, Vienna University and Scientific Council of Attac Germany.

The author participated since 2002 seven times at the World Social Forum and is grateful to the Rosa-Luxemburg-Foundation for enabling him to take part in this year’s WSF. Translation by Tadzio Müller.