Factor At Wsf Worries Activists
By Humeira Iqtidar
16 February , 2004
the third week of January, close to 90,000 people from around the world
gathered in Mumbai as part of the fourth World Social Forum (WSF). The
level of organization and sheer number of activists and intellectuals
who participated in this event reflected the growing intensity and momentum
of the anti-globalization movement.
began in earlier forums were taken further in Mumbai. Similarly, organizations
of participants, which had their genesis in earlier meetings, strengthened
and expanded in the Gurgaon's setting of the meeting.
The process of understanding
the injustices and contradictions of the new world order, and looking
for alternatives to the oppression perpetuated by it, continued with
predictably, the mainstream media coverage of WSF portrayed it as a
one-of event. If that were indeed the case, its importance would be
relatively marginal. However, that is not the case. The WSF represents
a process rather than an event. Each of the four WSFs so far has been
followed by a continuous process of mobilization involving ever larger
number of people.
Moreover, it has
expanded with local social forums being held in all the regions of the
world, including Europe, Latin America, North America, Asia and Africa.
It is this process
of mobilization that has led to millions of people joining the various
social justice protests and anti-war rallies in the world during the
The WSF has provided
a focal point to various resistance movements. The increasing credibility
of the threat it poses may be discerned by the fact that the very people
it opposes are now trying to gain access to it. The president of World
Bank, Mr. Wolfensen, reportedly requested the organizers to let him
speak at the WSF 2004.
Given that mainstream
media already devotes too much time to his view of the world, thankfully
he was denied further airtime at the WSF. But his request to speak at
WSF represents an important milestone for the anti-globalization movement.
No longer can the
powers that rule the world afford to ignore the WSF. Speaking at the
World Economic Forum is not enough any more. In order to gain any legitimacy
among their constituents, they need to co-opt the budding world-wide
movement which is threatening to bring down what they have so painstakingly
Just as the WEF
provides a forum for the powerful elites from around the world to take
stock of their achievements, the WSF provides a key rallying point for
activists who refuse to assimilate in the global corporatist agenda.
WSF is enormously
useful to reaffirm their resolve to fight against the tyranny of free
trade engendered by powerful multinationals. It is also valuable in
drawing the world's attention to the process of politicization that
is gaining strength globally.
Finally, it is a
great show of people power, a resonating denunciation of imperialism
and of the anti-democratic forces embedded in corporate globalization.
At the same time,
as about 90,000 of us trooped off in Mumbai for a whirlwind of discussions
and debates it seemed pertinent to ponder the extent to which the highly
decentralized anti-globalization movement, can continue to sustain meaningful
interaction among the people.
with the influx of a great number of NGOs, many of which only marginally
share the core objective of the initial movement, is visible.
This year, for instance,
an alternative to WSF, called Mumbai Resist held its own meeting across
the highway from the WSF. It was organized by some who felt that in
trying to accommodate increasing number of perspectives, the WSF line
on international politics was too ambiguous to be of much practical
There is nothing
that the corporate media loves more than to offer a distorted version
of this image, depicting the WSF as a hodgepodge of hippies and confused
young people who have not thought through the issues they come to discuss.
Or as Tony Blair
likes to call it: 'The travelling circus of anarchists'. While such
a view is of course nothing but a distortion of the truth, it is important
for the movement to subject itself to a process of self-examination,
so that it maintains its strong growth while retaining its core philosophy.
In this regard,
there was an interesting development this year. While a large number
of participants from the developed countries were political activists
who had funded their travel themselves, most of the delegates from developing
countries like Pakistan were members of NGOs (often with international
affiliations) which had funded their travel.
While one must realize
that it is much more expensive for the activists from developing countries
to finance international travel, still the substitution of the activists
with NGO workers will have a significant impact on mobilization at the
mass level in developing countries.
For one, it will
have an effect on the level of politicization of the movement. Movements
derive their strength from the politicization of their members.
each participant to understand the links between seemingly disconnected
events or groups and his/her own position within the larger phenomenon
and movement. A common understanding serves as glue within the movement,
allowing automatic coordination of remote actions.
In this respect
each participant comes to embody the movement and becomes a leader in
his/her own small circle of influence. In addition, this understanding
allows prediction, and prediction allows proactivity. The higher the
level of politicization, of a holistic understanding of fundamental
structures that need to be confronted, the stronger grows the movement.
Over the past forty
or so years, mainstream intellectual discourse has tried to systematically
marginalize the importance of politics and politicization of the masses.
A physical manifestation of this agenda has been the growing proliferation
of the NGOs.
Funding for the
NGOs is often conditional on their apolitical stances. This process
has been amply documented by various researchers in the countries across
Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Perhaps the most
well known and eloquent exposition has been Ferguson's. In his book,
The Anti-Politics Machine, he has exposed the de-politicizing impact
of 'development' aid to Lesotho in Africa.
As soon as the activists
become dependent on aid they are forced to break the link with politics.
In the NGO world politics becomes a taboo word, and all energies are
focused on framing problems as essentially and entirely 'social.'
The artificial divide
between the social and the political is ultimately the key reason why
the impact of many NGOs in terms of achieving their stated aims has
been marginal, not just in Pakistan but around the world.
are further categorized as if these problems could be solved in isolation,
without fundamental structural changes. Not only are they forced to
carve out increasingly narrow identities for their subjects (e.g., oppressed
or unskilled women or child labourers), once the donors decide to move
on to environment or governance or civil society, it becomes almost
impossible for the whole chain of NGOs dependent directly or indirectly
on aid to not follow suit.
David Hulme of the
University of Manchester in a recent book has written about the change
in many Southern NGOs (SNGOs) over the last decade. He writes,"
Talk with field managers nowadays and you are much less likely to hear
of ideas of mobilizing the poor.
North American management
gurus such as Stephen Covey and Peters and Waterman are more likely
sources of inspiration, despite the fact that their writings are more
about making profits and organizational survival. But that, perhaps,
is what NGOS are about nowadays!"
He goes on to talk
about the documented cases of Central American SNGOs especially Bolivia
and Chile where NGOs have essentially been used to mitigate the effects
of structural adjustment plans and instead of mobilization are now predominantly
service providers or implementers of welfare projects.
The energies of
activists who could have lobbied in political parties or been involved
in mass mobilization against structural adjustment plans themselves,
against the privatisation of health care, education and other public
services, were effectively diverted in providing relief to a smaller
sub-section of the society. Ultimately, NGOs seem to be evolving to
be, to quote Hulme 'too close to the powerful, too far from the powerless'.
When this fragmentation,
this artificial division between the political and the social is resisted,
active coercion follows. The example of Honduran NGO IDEPH whose foreign
donors refused to support union leaders training and networking workshops
that strengthened a joint front is unfortunately not an aberration but
rather the norm.
all of the NGO heads or managers that one speaks to in Pakistan believe
that although this cooption certainly works in the case of other NGOs
somehow their own NGO has escaped these constraints.
There is no doubt
that many who work in NGOs are motivated by a desire to do something
useful for society. That their work is easily subverted and its impact
negated by the very structure of the industry they work in is a reality
they must be ready to face. And yes, I did use the word, industry. In
fact, NGOs are among the key industries in developing countries.
When David Lewis
commented that during the 1980s, "Only two institutions consistently
flourished in the Central American crisis: the military and the NGOs"
he could have just been talking about Pakistan or many third world regions.
As the public sector
contracts, industrialization stagnates, and employment opportunities
shrink in the developing world, the NGO sector has emerged as a key
employer. The majority of those who depend on aid money for their livelihood
are unlikely to organize against US hegemony, World Bank dominance of
Pakistani policy making or for fundamental political changes.
The situation is,
of course, not uniformly bleak across the world. Many activism-oriented
NGOs have managed to uphold a consistently political outlook. As a general
trend, however, that has been the case in countries where the tradition
of progressive politics has been relatively strong.
movement can only continue its remarkable progress if the socially progressive
participants are politicized. If it becomes a giant NGO forum, sponsored
by rich donors, it can easily lose its effectiveness. At the same time,
the focus of WSF mobilization should increasingly be in the developing
Perhaps the same
energy and resources spent on the world event now need to be diverted
towards strengthening the social forum in African and Asian regions
in particular through a support for local activists.