Sunday, February 25, 2007

an alternative to the alternative to the alternative to the...


For any line there are two sides. Right and left, up and down, right and wrong, white and black, us and them.

For any point there is an infinite number of sides. An expanding
sphere of possibilities. An infinity of inclusion.

Open Letter: A Reportback from Another World

Dear friends,

This is a report back from the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi, speaking from a sphere of inclusion as "we". Not as volunteers, team leaders, staff, secretariat, international council, press, service providers, and others, but as fellow citizens. Citizens of Another World.

When we gather for the World Social Forum and its cousins and offshoots, we often make the mistake of thinking we have arrived at The Other World, forgetting that the Forums are simply a window with a glimpse into Possibility. A window that, over time, can get dirty, cloudy, cracked. Then a visitor peering through might confuse the window for the world, come away with an impression of the other world as cracked and dirty, and choose not to tumble through to the other side.

And we forget that we each come from our own unique sub-world; that we are not all coming from and going through the same doors, though some of us may join hands to open new ones.

This open letter is meant as spring cleaning. To keep our windows shiny, our door-hinges well oiled, our well-water potable, and boiled for visitors. To turn our solid waste into compost and compost into flowers and vegetables, we speak of past mistakes only in context of what we have learned from them for future projects. And as we said before, we speak as "we", with collective rights and responsibilities over both the past mistakes and the future flowers. We point no fingers and call no names, but any of us is free to speak out and claim personal responsibility for a mistake, and the right to transform it into a flower.

An unforgiving critic might describe the Nairobi 2007 World Social Forum as expensive, disorganized, hypocritical, corrupt, undemocratic, obsessed with profit, and, at the very least, ineffective. For us, however, the solar cookers, the free food at the Red Cross, the Wangare Maathais and Vandana Shivas in one sports center, the five days of conversations about nothing but how to make the world a better place, even the fact that there were protests against this WSF that was itself parented by the protests at Seattle, that there was an alternative forum at Jeevanjee Gardens while the WSF itself started as an alternative to the World Economic Forum, these are all signs of the inherent beauty of this phenomenon called WSF. Nevertheless we will not shy away from the warts and the scars in the mirror.

We have attached a list of (constructive) criticisms gathered from among and within us. We realize many of the following comments have been made before, but we hope that, in repetition and compilation from our own perspective, we bring value to the process. This letter is meant for anyone who feels Other Worldly, and the hope is that all will be able to understand and join the conversation regardless of whether they were physically there.

The comments fall into three rough categories: infrastructure, ideology, and action. Infrastructure, or system, is what we're talking about when we use words like efficient and smooth, or disorganized and haphazard. Ideology refers to the atomic units of our value-system, based on which we would build our infrastructure. We might talk about, for example, transparency, integrity, democracy, solidarity, freedom, non-capitalism, non-violence, etc. In action, we check whether we're walking our talk, practicing what we preach.

Some of the points in our list of criticisms refer to the infrastructure we created, some refer directly to the ideology behind it. Some refer to the actions and attitudes of individuals, some to the infrastructure or ideology of this specific Forum, and some to the World Social Forum in general. Some are to do with the event, a specific Forum, and some are about the ongoing process, the movement.

Based on the criticisms and our dreams of what could be, we suggest for our next gathering that we

1) Continue the process of examining and evolving our common denominator of ideologies as represented by the Charter of Principles. We suspect that if we were to produce and compare written versions of each of our individual ideologies and, more importantly, the specific contexts to which they refer, we would have enough fodder for lifetimes of debate. And yet, we all come to the Forum assuming we agree on the fundamentals. So perhaps some self-exploration, re-examination, and re-formulation is in order.
It is difficult to explain to those who aren't familiar with the Forum phenomenon what the movement is about. Even if we have the Charter of Principles at hand, and the person has time to read the whole thing, it still doesn't explain what the Forum is.
At each event, if we ask ourselves a) who we are, b) why we are here, and c) where we want to go, and frame the answers in terms of what we aspire to, not agree to, we will inch towards a more concrete answer for that person who still asks what actually Happens, what we Do over there at the Forum.

2) Re-create the infrastructure for our event by checking it against our existing Charter of Principles. The feedback loop for the evolution of the Charter will be constant and eternal, but at crucial points we can simply accept and work with the document we have at the time. We hope the fundamentals have emerged clearly enough such that we can act on them, because our infrastructure should be something we look back on without fear of having lost our way.
We assume, for example, that we are committed to Transparency, and would therefore want to re-create our infrastructure to ensure the clearest channels of communication and information transfer. What are the email habits we need to ensure this happens in the process leading up to the event? What are the physical structures of communication that we need to set up at the event itself so that information flows freely?
We also assume commitment to Democracy and Decentralized Decision Making at all levels. Free information transfer would facilitate this, but this is another criterion against which we would need to check our infrastructure. How are we dividing the labor, the information, and the decision-making power amongst ourselves? What labels are we giving ourselves that might give one inordinate power over the other? What incentives are we giving ourselves to work together without ego and greed?
Finally, an infrastructure that supported Transparency, and therefore Decentralized Decision Making, might then create the best environment for Equitable and Sustainable common resource management. We assume commitment to this as well. In other words, if each of us could find out what the other was doing, and trusted each other to make decisions appropriate to our situations, we would be able to share resources across the community as freely and fruitfully as is possible.

If we organize our event by these principles, and others give us a similar evaluation of the event, then we have made an immeasurable step forward.

Imagine, for example, the following description:

"What I saw was that everyone involved saw themselves as a combination of volunteer, participant, and service provider. We were supported not by an "allowance" of x amount of shillings or dollars per day, but by a solidarity economy that allowed people with extra space and blankets and soap to offer it to people who brought concerts and booklets and computer skills.

Yesterday afternoon I met an old Kenyan woman passing out free githere and chapathi outside one of the sessions. She said her daughter had persuaded various stores and markets to donate leftover but healthy ingredients, and then talked the manager of a hotel into contributing the kitchen space for preparing the food and a van for transporting it. Today when I saw the old woman she had left her sister with the food. She was coming out of a session where she befriended a young Frenchman who gave people massages in his time between sessions. He said we would help cook tomorrow.

We all wore the same badge. We all washed our own dishes (after finishing all the food we served ourselves) from a communal tap and passed them on to someone else to eat from."

If even a fraction of this seems possible, then there's light at the end of the tunnel that leads to Another World. We walk the tunnel knowing full well we will never reach the light, because the light is a creation of the movement through the tunnel itself. We can walk towards perfection and never seem to get there because we have created another perfection ahead of us. So when we criticize, or self-criticize, we make sure we do it with the joy of knowing we HAVE something to improve on. And when the next generation comes along and criticizes us with the same fervor we once had, we know we have done something right.

We've included, after the list of criticisms (the nightmare), other dream descriptions like the one above, some of which are taken from what actually happened in previous forums, and some are just dreams.

This letter is just a start. Let's keep adding to the analyses, metaphors, dreams, and nightmares, and see where that takes us.

Meanwhile, we send energy to those still on the ground in Kenya organizing in the aftermath of the WSF for the Accountability Forum, the Action Plan, for the election and constitutional reform, for stopping the demolition of the Milimani (Sihnae, is it Kilimani Seto?) slum, and to those around the world returning to their Social Forums, working to make sure World Cup Footballs aren't made by children, or researching indigenous medicine, and for every other community united in body, mind, and spirit against what shouldn't be, and acting for what should.

Until the next possibility,
Citizens of Another World:
- Malavika Mohanan
- [Add your name below to sign on to this letter once youre ok with it.]


∑ Many of those of us who came from abroad, particularly overseas, arrived at the airport without knowing where to go, how to get there, and where to stay.

∑ Many of us were put up as much as 4 hours away from Kasarani, the WSF site.

∑ Many of us were robbed at or on the way from the airport.

∑ We did not create a system for sharing resources, thereby reducing cost and waste. (This was especially important, again, for those who were not local, but all could have benefited from such a system.)

∑ At the last minute, we unceremoniously excluded local volunteers who had put aside valuable time and resources to attend the trainings.

∑ We pulled in replacements at the last minute, instead of inviting back the ones who had been excluded. One of the most biting examples of this is that of a volunteer who had been signed up from the beginning but was excluded at the last minute, and then on the first day of the Forum, his roommate was called in to volunteer/work.

∑ There were many of us who volunteered purely for the allowance, seeing the activity as a low-paying job rather than as participation in global consciousness. At the same time, there were many of us who poured our hearts and souls into the work without thinking of the shillings per minute; there were even those who joined onto the work without being official volunteers.

∑ Some of us, as "volunteers" for translation, were shocked at the high pay and resources (including air transport) that we were given, while we watched other volunteers struggle.

∑ The Charter of Principles has good intentions, and it was nice that it was handed out in booklet form. It is the kind of resource that needs to be distributed to everyone along with the program. Yet, when a volunteer asked about what the Charter of Principles (the document we were supposed to have signed onto as volunteers) was, we told them we didn't have time for it, it wasn't important.

∑ Although well-intentioned, the Charter of Principles is too long and wordy; it repeats many of the points, and doesn't cover others. So it needs re-writing.

∑ Whether we had been to trainings or not, we were woefully lacking in information which, even if we somehow got wind of, was sure to change by the time we were passing it on to the next inquirer. (Note: The lack-of-information problem will be a recurring theme in this list. The repetition is merely an indication of the systemic nature of the problem.)

∑ The registration process had far too many different stations. Transfer of information, documents, and people was like the Brownian motion of particles in water.

∑ Many of us mistakenly assumed half our work was over when we registered online, and were dismayed to find we wasted our internet time. Even those of us who went so far as to pay online had to chase after the elusive status of being a Registered Participant.

∑ Many of us were not aware that we had to bring photocopies of
passports for registration, in large enough numbers to indicate that the problem lay with the channels of communication and not with the individuals.

∑ We had no registration forms, and were unable to mobilize funds for photocopies, so we had to come up with the idea of writing them out by hand. For 40,000 participants? Ouch. At one point there was a table for general information with two volunteers and no questions, right next to a table for registration information with one volunteer handwriting forms while simultaneously answering questions from 9 people. When we from the information desk finally checked people at the CelTel booth and at the final registration table, they agreed to let us simply scrap the forms and have each station take the information there and then.

∑ Our maps and schedules were often confusing, difficult to read, missing crucial information, or providing incorrect information. A sub-section of us, however, realizing early enough where things were going, did manage to contract a local (Kenyan) company to produce a document that contained more accurate and accessible information and a map in color.

∑ The first part of registration for this non-capitalist event was payment. At a CelTel booth.

∑ The other option for payment was at one specific branch of a bank that was conveniently either closed, or at the exact opposite side of town from where we were. Some of us, for example, found the bank closed and, not realizing we could only pay at one bank, went to the bank next door. The second bank accepted a payment into an account that did not exist and sent us on our way. We lined up yet again, found we could not register, wandered for hours searching for someone who could help us rectify the situation, ended up paying again, and are probably still waiting for a refund that will never come.

∑ At KICC some of us had set up a very official looking transport table which offered, in exchange for a hefty payment, transport from "the main road" ("Which main road?" "Oh, just walk to any main road, the bus will be there") to Kasarani. There was a large enough number of people who waited for transport that never came to indicate that the problem lay, again, not with the individuals. Those of us who waited for a bus that never came are probably still waiting for a refund that will never come.

∑ We offered no information about requesting refunds. The common opinion was that if even someone needing a refund did find out how to apply for one, they would probably never get it.

∑ We have not yet put up our financial accounts such that each of us can audit the process.

∑ We brought out most of the materials that were supposed to go out to masses of people, such as bags, T-shirts, and most importantly, badges and programs, in small batches at random times. (Most of the bags actually came out on the last day of the forum. There are now small piles of bags lying around in corners of rooms all over the city, while many of us didn't get even one.) Some of us believe there were also supposed to be pens and other small resources, and we are all well aware that rumors spread like Bird Flu, but if there were such materials, they were not to be found.

∑ We have not yet put up our financial accounts such that each of us can audit the process. (Yes, we realize we have made this point before, but repetition is merely an indication of its significance.)

∑ The Youth Camp was expensive and empty. These cannot be unrelated. This comes in sharp contrast to the vibrant and creative spirit of the 2005 Porto Alegre youth camp in the center of the WSF site.

∑ For the International Council meeting on the two days after the Forum the population was mainly white with no youths except the ones that crashed the party as they were waiting for their volunteer allowance. The meal was served at 550 shillings.

∑ We who were part of the organizing, respectively, of the East African Social Forum, the Kenyan Social Forum, and the Nairobi World Social Forum, seem to be distanced from each other, with no continuity of information and organizing.

∑ Some of us, frustrated with what we saw as centralization and monopolization of the Nairobi World Social Forum process, organized a Poor People's Forum at Jeevanjee Gardens as a simultaneous alternative that was free and accessible. In a press conference some of us claimed WSF credit for the Poor People's Forum instead of acknowledging that it was an alternative event in protest of the WSF.

∑ The alternative forum was also a counter to what we saw as a lack of WSF outreach to local individuals and organizations.

∑ We set the cost of registration shockingly higher than any previous WSF, higher than the average socially-conscious participant from any country could afford. There was a protest outside the gates of the WSF in solidarity with the people, particularly Kenyans, who could not afford the high price of registration.

∑ The division of registration prices along strictly geographical lines, without taking into account other factors, was unfair to many participants.

∑ The cost of food at the WSF site was also shockingly high. We gave the expensive stalls official recognition with no outreach to the local vendors who would provide food cheaply. The standardization of the high price was deliberate according to a statement we sent out to vendors. (check on this one, Anne-Claire, you mentioned something about this? we need to know the detailed facts)

∑ There was a similar problem of standardized high cost for accommodation, even home-stays, which could have been arranged through a solidarity economy.

∑ We were also uncomfortable that we arranged the accommodation through a sub-contract of sorts.

∑ In spite of the sub-contract and the high cost, there were many incidents of participants not getting accommodation, or home-stays not getting the guests they had arranged (and invested heavily in materials) for.

∑ There was a protest at the Windsor Hotel stall, representative of the high-priced food.

∑ The protest, which turned into food-grabbing, was reported in the media as carried out by "slumdwellers", though it was led by a group of Maasais and attended by a variety of peoples, from South Africans to....? (Frank, details on this one?)

∑ We gave ourselves 21 themes and 2 hours to discuss our actions on them.

∑ The themes were overlapping and yet not all-encompassing. (Of course we recognize the balance between convergence and diversity is always difficult.)

∑ We gave ourselves far too many sessions in which to talk and not enough actions to demonstrate what we talked about.

∑ Many of the sessions could have collaborated and shared time/energy/space instead of presenting separately.

∑ Some of the previous forums have had a space for spiritual exploration, alternative healing therapies, and spiritual activism. Some of the previous forums have also had a clear space designated for organic coordination of last minute events. Why did we backpedal and lose some of these good ideas?

∑ Many of us seemed preoccupied with what NGO we came from and whether we had a name card.

∑ Many of us claimed to speak for the poor and oppressed. Many of us stayed in expensive hotels and ate expensive food and drank expensive coffee.

∑ Many of us were against privatization of water. We bought shocking amounts of bottled water (some at shocking prices) and left the bottles half-full strewn around the Forum grounds.

∑ A slum was demolished twice by local authorities during the WSF.

∑ The local authorities locked up street children in Nairobi in an effort to clean up the city in the weeks of preparation for the WSF.

∑ Ten mobile vendors were arrested on the Forum grounds.

∑ There was, in general, more of the uniforms of security than the feeling of security.


"Immediately after we decided the 2007 WSF would be in Nairobi, we started holding periodic meetings with Kenyan groups, from large city-based NGOs to rural women's self-help groups, to ease into an infrastructure that was born from and supported our ideology and made the best of local resources. For us, the Forum didn't happen in a blur of 5 days. We were living the Forum day in and day out. It was a process, not an event....

...Every local Forum community around the world began similar meetings. One of the goals was to collect and compile potential workshops for a regional version of the program of events to contribute to the forum. This was supposed to help individuals, in particular, tap into the local resource network, but it ended up being useful even for the organizations that were supposed to have already formed that network. When there were sessions with overlapping content or themes the presenters came together to collaborate, so we were also cutting down on the number of events. As the programs began to take shape we connected each local node with the relevant group or individual in the Kenya forum community. There was, in particular, one Kenyan company that was taking in all the programs for print and distribution at the final event. The company was professional about time and quality, but the employees that were taking on the project wanted to expand their social consciousness, so they were lenient about the cost, and were infecting others in their corporate environment with the same spirit."

"The youth among us (including and especially the most resourceful of the streetkids), under guidance from more experienced organizers, started scouting out for a cheap/accessible venue, the nicest matatu drivers, and the friendliest airport officials. We who did the groundwork from the beginning, including and especially the youth, continued making decisions and providing information on the site during the Forum, rather than being pulled in at the last minute and given strict orders with very little information...

...We began to realize that what we were doing was building a mini-city that sprang up for 5 days and then disappeared. One of us was an urban planning student who had a pen-pal that mentioned that the 2005 Porto Alegre WSF reminded her of Burning Man, a festival that happened in a desert in Nevada at what they called Black Rock City. This reminded another kid among us of an idea called Temporary Autonomous Zone which Hakim Be wrote about in the 60s. When the light bulb finally came on, we realized we could use all this wisdom, Gift Economies, Walking/Biking Culture, Temporary Structures, Building a City that Leaves No Trace, and transform a space in Nairobi into a space-time portal to the revolution."

"We finally decided this time there was no registration fee. There wasn't even a registration table, just a Welcome table that took in people's information, or checked it against the list if people had sent in their info before. The record was purely for historical and community purposes, not financial. The Welcome table also supplied folks with the program, and the full range of the most updated Forum and Nairobi information.

There was another Information table right next to it for folks that were coming back for more later on. This table also accepted information and supplied it to the Welcome table. The other thing it accepted was donations, whether as skills or resources, financial and otherwise. If, for example, people had made bags with the Forum logo on it and wanted them passed out to people, the Information/Welcome folks could take care of that. There was a place for people to put up expenditure information so that others could know who had contributed what so far.

There were various other tables, Waste Transformation, Conflict Transformation, Schedule Coordination, Human Resources, Shelter, etc., all lined up in a row, and all open throughout the forum."

"We didn't expect everyone to sleep on the floor in tin sheds and cook in tin cans on an open fire, but we were pleasantly surprised that even those of us who were used to more materially supported lifestyles came down a few notches, so we filled our tents and houses and even a few of the cheaper hostels and left the expensive hotels and restaurants and bars for the International Conference on Industrial and Technical Management Optimization.

"We were speaking out against the privatization of water. So, instead of buying several small bottles of water a day (at a hiked up price for the foreigners) from the very companies and governments we were protesting, we re-used the plastic bottles to fill boiled and cooled water from tanks that we stationed everywhere at the forum...

...At previous forums there were flyers all over the place, like a giant with dandruff had stumbled though. This time we passed out and accepted a flyer only when we really felt it was important enough to not throw away, and we left the place each night looking just like it did that morning. Actually, a little better even, because some of us planted trees when we had some time to spare."

"Some of us drank Coca-Cola, some of us didn't. Some of us smoked Marlboro cigarettes, some of us didn't. There was no blanket moral decision on any of these consumer choices, though we were conscious of them. Each of us conversed with, respected the explanations of, and did not judge the other."

"The youth camp was exploding!! It was right at the center of the Forum grounds. There were tents everywhere and we had youths from age 7 months to 71 years hanging out around campfires at night before bed. There were jugglers for justice, fire-chess with life size pieces, historical events re-enacted live, Food Not Bombs, you name it, it was there. There was also a space for organic organizing, for folks that wanted to facilitate an event at the last minute and needed help with finding space and people."

"Afterwards we put up a full list of financial accounts on the WSF website such that anyone interested could do an informal audit to satisfy their doubts. Meanwhile, any body (human or organizational) that was responsible for major decisions gave an account of their resources and experiences, the collection of which was useful not only for accounting, but also for passing on the history of the movement. If there were still problems, from financial to organizational to personal, we used discussion and mediation with a focus on finding out and learning from the truth rather than blame and punishment, the same conflict transformation process we had set up during the Forum itself.
With a clear recorded history of organizing, it was easy to pass on the task to a new group for the next WSF, though of course, some of us stayed on the team as links between old and new."


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