The Polycentric World Social Forum was planned to be held simultaneously in Karachi, Pakistan, Caracas, Venezuela and Bamako, Mali, but Karachi had to be postponed following the disastrous October earthquake in northern Pakistan, while the other two went ahead.
I’ve just returned home from this momentous gathering and my experience at the WSF Karachi is now melding together into a big blur, from which I can extract some overall impressions. The big blurry picture is of course, interspersed with a clearer myriad of details, many of which warm the heart and inspire. With a theme slogan of “Another World is Possible,” energetic, exuberant, flamboyant, and celebratory are the predominant adjectives which come to mind to describe the event. It was a very joyous meeting. There was an overall impression of gender balance, and although there’s no doubt that the event attracted the most progressive women in Pakistani society, there was also wide representation from rural and tribal women. Women spoke out freely and worked together with men. Men participated in women’s forums, women and men marched together, and there was gender balance in the facilitation of meetings.
About 20,000 people a day visited the Forum which was primarily centred at the KMC Sport Complex, located somewhere in that flat megalopolis of 15,000,000 people. There’s no height of land around Karachi, nor are there any tall buildings from where anyone can get a true sense of the enormity of the city. Each day, there were more than 120 activities to choose from, which were held in 50 giant ‘shamyana’s’ (open-air Pakistani tents). Activities included cultural expositions, rallies, seminars, music, testimonies, workshops, theatre, conference/panels, film screenings, exhibitions, dialogue tables, assemblies and celebrations. There was also an excellent food and crafts fair which continued for the duration, which featured items from all over Pakistan. There were perhaps less than 100 white-skins there ( I met one American) and accordingly, most of the discussion was conducted in Urdu, which was, quite generously, often translated into English. Nevertheless, I enjoyed listening to the Urdu, Sindhi, Seraiki, Punjabi, Hindi, Balochi and Pashto speeches simply for the beauty of the language and the animated passion of the speakers. And with many familiar thematic keywords, one could get a fair gist of what was being said.
The language of dissent has widely permeated into the farthest regions of the world, and farmers, tribals, fisherfolk, and others at the low eschalons of the class cline have been well-familiarized with concepts like globalization, gender-equity, environmental degradation, militarism, GWB and the USA global hegemony project, Peak Oil, GMO’s, and the evils of the WTO and the IMF. Similarly, the Pakistani street is, I would say much more aware of global geo-politics than are their CANWEST-Global-benumbed counterparts in Canada. There were many accomplished public speakers, but there were also just as many who faced the mike for the first time. It was wonderful to see tribal women get up on stage, and with hearts-in-mouth, make their case. Inevitably, after their initial stage-fright, they were able to relax and speak their piece.
The idea for the World Social Forum was born out of the enormous, unprecedented grassroots demonstrations which materialized at the Seattle WTO meetings in November 1999. It was founded in 2001 by community organizers, youth groups and academics as an alternative to the establishment World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The Seattle demo’s were enormously motivating and successful, but they were spontaneously organized if organized at all, leaderless, free-structured, free-flowing, individualistic, non-committal and non-dependent on funding, all of which of course, are anathema to the NGO, or any other structured human organization. There is some kind of catalytic critical mass convergence that arises from time to time, which brings people together to demand change. We need to learn to recognize, predict and make those catalysts happen. Nobody has ever defined what exactly worked at Seattle, but I believe it set a prescient example that the clear majority of humanity can become focussed and channel its energies and imagination into action which can change the status quo. It reiterated that humanity can spontaneously mobilize to powerful, non-violent action, beyond any of the extant, status-quo social organizational structures. But action is simply not enough without a new vision for the world.
Objections have been voiced that many of those seeking a change in the world do not know what they are looking for. Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo who attended the first forum, wrote, “After a year and a half of protests against the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Social Forum was billed as an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.” President Chavez of Venezuela where the WSF was held in January also expressed the same fear when he appealed for a serious political discussion and the need for direction. I didn’t hear a whole lot of visionary discussion at the Karachi Forum. There were countless NGO’s presenting their efforts, railing against the powers that be, but other than a sense of solidarity, no discussion arose by which the global activist community might grow their movement. I didn’t see any “Big Picture” emerging.
The criticisms of the “NGO-ization” of the World Social Forum, levelled by Arundhati Roy, (who declined to attend), and repeated by Tariq Ali, (who stayed only for his own speeches and then flew away back to England) are valid. These criticism’s were circulating around the conference, and they have been heard, apparently, by whatever there is of a WSF management hierarchy. One hopes that there will be some flexibility and a maturation of the event to include these concerns as a central aspect of examination at future forums. But on the whole, for Pakistan, even as an NGO-fest, the WSF justified itself simply to get so many activists together, many for the first time to see each other’s projects, to recognize the importance of dissent, and to feel solidarity with their neighbours, of which more than 5000 Indians were said to have been present. Although there was a professional and international presence, by far the greatest majority were Pakistani and South Asian volunteer, grass-roots activists. This Forum was valuable for everyone who showed up. Demonstrations and mass rallies are very empowering and inspiring. These qualities are in short supply, in a world overwhelmed by apathy, inertia and despondence.
Nevertheless, considering a heavy leftist presence, the WSF could easily become another redundant status quo power-pyramid, ~yet another self-feeding bureaucratized, celebrity-professionalized fundraising compromise/collaborationist gab-fest. I must say that nothing appeared more ridiculous than the tired old all-expenses-paid union flacks pontificating in the crowd of Kashmiri, Sindhi, Baloch and Palestinian activists, advocating labour solidarity as a panacea for all that ails. One hopes that the WSF can rise beyond such predictable insidious entrenchment. As a person involved in the battle to protect ancient forests, I see no difference between those right-wing corporate lackeys who destroy forests, and those left-wing labour lackeys who demand the job of cutting them down. Not to mention, that in my own city of Victoria BC, -to have a union job is to live a bourgeois life of entitlement, ~an exclusive elite far removed from the incessantly increasing ranks of the desperately poor. While some might say that it’s unfair to compare Canadian abject poverty with that of Pakistan, I would contest that.
Pakistan is also directly affected by the American global hegemony project, -which is an issue that no amount of democracy can resolve. The direct link between the American trans-Afghan pipeline scheme, and its intended route to be ploughed across Balochistan to deliver central Asian oil to the Arabian Sea, and the Pakistan Junta’s military atrocities in the area is well recognized. Balochi’s have always been fiercely independent and their country takes up 43% of what’s called Pakistan. This shortest route to the oil-ports is of course, the only reason that Americans, and their Canadian lackeys have ever had the slightest interest in Afghanistan. The USA Neocon’s badly want a north-south pipeline across Balochistan, but they will not tolerate the proposed east-west “Peace Pipeline” which would deliver Iranian natural gas to India, and would require peaceful, stable good relations for all involved. And it seems that neither the American, nor Pakistani or even Indian government has recognized that no matter how much force of violence is exerted, if the Balochi’s don’t agree to a pipeline, it won’t happen. Having been recently insulted by the stingy, fortified Bush ‘visit’ after his gushing sojourn in India, Bush should recognize that the “Goodwill to Muslims” political capital he invested in the Pakistani earthquake has been amply upstaged by the 1200 Cuban doctors, -600 women and 600 men, who continue to toil in the disaster zone.
The overwhelming feeling of solidarity which pervaded the whole event, was especially important given the context in which it was held, -the extremely precarious and divisive Pakistani political situation. For Pakistanis to meet so many fellow actists was more important than the big picture discussion. Although some people might believe the pipe dream that what ails Pakistan, -multiple independence struggles, environmental and natural catastrophe, widespread poverty and illiteracy, and the leadership of an unelected, uniformed USA-Puppet general commanding a military junta can be solved within any existing democratic process they are wasting irreplaceable time. It’s abundantely clear that no politics can deal with, or is even recognizing what will happen to Pakistan’s, or any other economy in the world, once the price of fuel, doubles, triples or quadruples, as it may well do this very year There is no political system in the world that can deal with this, nor have any even begun to consider it.
Not a single status-quo extant political system, nor any of its players, which are currently arrayed along a left/right cline are offering anything which can check our path-dependent, headlong rush to global catastrophe. No Robert’s Rules meeting can produce the required course of action. A clear majority of humanity understands clearly what is wrong with this world, yet is completely stymied by the zero political options to turn around this hell-bent march to destruction. This human majority is mutually instantly recognizable, -we can spot each other out of crowds of thousands, regardless of nationality, class, colour or creed. There is a desperate need for a new political paradigm, and that’s what needs to be discussed at these kinds of Forums. The World Social Forum should be the place where this discussion happens. I don’t know of any bigger gathering of people who are trying to believe that “Another World is Possible.”
INGMAR LEE writes from Pondicherry, India, slightly downwind from the Kalpakkam Nuclear Power Plant. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org