Just metres from the track on which the Kenyan gods of distance running continue to enter the record books, 90,000 pairs of feet recently made history. From 19 to 25 January, the colossal Moi International Sports Centre in Nairobi played host to the first World Social Forum (WSF) to be held in Africa.
At around the same time, in Davos, Switzerland, the annual meeting of political and business leaders of the world, known as the World Economic Forum (WEF), was about to begin. The WEF claims to be ' committed to improving the state of the world by engaging leaders in partnerships to shape global, regional and industry agendas .' But according to Brazilian journalist, Renato Gianuca, who has attended every WSF, it was precisely because the WEF was failing to consider globalisation's effect on people particularly those in the developing world that a counterpoint was developed in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001.
Now in its seventh year, the WSF brings together representatives of non-government organisations and civil society from around the world under the banner 'people's struggles, people's alternatives ... another world is possible.' This year's forum proved challenging for co-ordinators, but provided some interesting outcomes for the host country, Kenya.
Despite housing the United Nations Environmental Program headquarters, Nairobi basically breathes carbon dioxide. The bi-products from diesel-guzzling trucks and buses are compounded by locals who commonly burn piles of rubbish on street corners. Kenya also suffers heavily from corruption, the burden of malaria and HIV/AIDS and the undermining strain of hundreds of millions of dollars of debt-servicing and interest payments to its Northern creditors . The reach of multinationals is highly visible in Nairobi, and was strangely highlighted by the chief sponsorship of the WSF being provided by multinational telecommunications company Celtel, and Dasani, a subsidiary of the Coca Cola Company, providing bottled water for participants.
Nairobi is also home to the third largest slum in the world. A mere 100 metres from many of the foreign embassies and the estate of former President, Daniel Moi, lies Kibera, a square mile of squalor where an estimated 1 million people face daily struggles for clean water and employment. They also struggle with what resident Davis Bagaka calls the stigma that 'nothing good can come from Kibera.'
Despite the prohibitive cost of transport to the Moi International Sports Centre, 10 kilometres to the east of the city, slum-dwellers from Kibera participated in the WSF en masse. Pre-printed shirts pronounced: 'We are poor but we come together, we save daily, we make collective decisions, we negotiate with these strengths, Kenya Slum Dwellers Federation.'
The slogans seemed less powerful as I sat in the mud brick home of Kibera residents Michael and Isaiah Odhiambo, with sunlight piercing through the many holes in their tin roof. I had laughed while walking down the hill to the Odhiambos' home when a middle-aged man, dangling his legs over a puddle of sewage, called out, 'Eh man, I am in my beach.' Inside the home, however, the mood was sombre. What real change did the WSF actually offer for the people of Kibera?
Michael and Isaiah's cousin, whose name is George Washington, said it had been a great privilege to meet different people and to share ideas at the social forum; opportunities, he says, that are rare within Kibera.
It was only later I discovered that Kibera residents had not focused on sharing ideas and strategies pertaining to their social welfare, but had attended to discuss issues such as the war on terrorism and carbon trading. These men were hungry for knowledge, and a chance to shine. With their brothers, Michael and Isaiah have established the Hope of Kibera project, which has 30 members and focuses on local cleanups, performing dance and drama, and has recently developed a proposal to establish a pool cleaning business.
A woman in Kibera. Image from sxc
Back at the Forum, activities organised by participants from more than 100 countries were underway drums were beating, women were singing and the crowd was milling around the stadium, popping in and out of the 300 daily events. Renato Gianuca says in the history of the WSF it has always been impossible to follow everything. With poor signage and the disappearance of event programs before the first discussions, 2007 appeared no exception.
I was totally overwhelmed. I considered listening to the 'big names': Nobel Laureates Wangari Maathai Desmond Tutu, Shirin Abadi and Jody Williams, or to Former Irish President, Mary Robinson. I even entertained the idea of hearing Danny Glover speak about reclaiming democracy, but in the end I opted to focus on smaller groups and just a couple of issues.
In an early session I listened to Pat Mooney from the Erosion, Technology and Concentration group, based in Canada and long at the forefront of the anti-Genetically Modified Organisms movement, talk about the emerging field of geo-engineering. He explained, in scary detail, the potential for carbon-trapping nano-particles, embedded in the seabed and stratosphere to be seen as a technical-fix for current climate concerns. Dr Vandana Shiva, a renowned Indian activist and physicist by training, was equally concerned that 'new technologies lull us into thinking there is a technological way out.' The discussion largely focused on carbon trading, which was presented as an unjust and ineffective neo-liberal measure to deal with climate change.
Some of the proposals coming from subsequent sessions included a general agreement that, particularly because of problems with the Clean Development Mechanism clause, the Kyoto Protocol should be scrapped and an effective, equitable international emissions reduction treaty be written. This was supported by calls for an international carbon tax and reassessment of pre-World War II technologies such as gas-to-liquids diesel.
Kenyan Jamine Madara, who works with local sugarcane farmers, was part of a minority whose interest is in alternative sources of energy. He believes the Kenyan Government needs to reintroduce power alcohol as a motor fuel to reduce the overdependence on fossil fuels and ozone depleting gases from the atmosphere. He noted that this would have the side-effect of creating competition for Kenyan sugar cane prices.
From the majority, proposals focused more on suggestions for reshaping civil society's approach to climate change. Some suggested the need to reframe 'positive appearing' language such as 'carbon credits' and others agreed there was a need to bring climate change out of the 'environmental box' to highlight its wide-ranging impacts.
The effectiveness of these sessions seemed hampered by an unbridgeable rift between the academic activists, who too-often occupied the panels, and those driving grassroots struggles. The 'socialist' atmosphere meant those chairing sessions were not inclined to cut off audience members who felt compelled to jump on their soapbox during question time because the academics had done all the talking. This meant sessions rolled overtime, strategy meetings lacked strategy outcomes and the converted remained converted.
The 2007 WSF Secretariat had been careful to note in its statement of principles that it was not a 'body representing world civil society.' The resulting lack of united, alternative economic and social strategies to the WEF has proven a focus point for critics of the WSF. Does there need to be pragmatic consensus? Dr Vandana Shiva said that the important thing was 'exchanging the best of practices with the best of hopes and also exchanging the smartest ways to sieve through the glib lies pushing the global agenda.' Although mentioning the danger of just 'talking shop', she noted that past forums had already resulted in extensive societal changes such as the development of the 'anti-privatisation of water' movement in India, following the 2005 WSF in Mumbai.
Adding to the meeting's challenges were the internal politics that have plagued the Forum since its inception. Protests during the week often targeted organisers. One couple's banner, which read 'Capitalism sux. A true social forum would be free for poor people,' highlighted a common criticism that poorer people had to pay roughly $10 for entry. Similarly, many journalists expressed concern that they were required to make a 'contribution' to cover and promote the Forum. The exclusive rights to the main food stall, charging four times local prices, were given to the catering company of John Michuki, Kenya's Minister for Internal Security.
As a result of the participant pressure, from day three, free entry was provided for all Kenyans and small vendors were allowed to trade inside the Forum's gates.
Woes aside, there was something so inspiring about being in a crowd of people focused on creating a better world without masses of police on hand with batons, tear gas and capsicum spray. In such a peaceful environment, despite differences of opinion, there was immediate affection and solidarity.