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Self-Help and Making Do or Radical Transformation for Africa?

quinta-feira 22 de março de 2007, por ,

Foto: Nadir

Our days and nights in Nairobi, Kenya and visiting rural communities in Western Kenya were a joyful return for me to a country I had once lived a slice of 25 years ago, as a young school teacher high in the Aberdare mountains among barefoot Kikuyu students who became star runners on a newly formed cross-country team. One evening as the World Social Forum was wrapping up down at Uhuru Park I met a young Kenyan man who told me his big hope in life was to make it as a world class runner and that he was training daily to reach that goal. I was struck at how similar that young man was to so many inner city youth in the U.S. or in the Dominican Republic, hoping to find their way out of poverty through basketball or baseball. What it is like to have one’s options so limited! That in fact might be the best definition of impoverishment: limited options.

The VII World Social Forum had come to Africa with a purpose, to spread the possibility and strength of existing and potential social movement economic justice struggles. Such convergences since 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil and Mumbai, India, as well as many polycentric and regional forums, had begun to spread a sense of hope and coherence to progressive social organizations, networks, alliances and grassroots movements worldwide. Social forums had helped connect movements to such a degree that simultaneous protests to the impending invasion of Iraq by the U.S. military drew millions across the planet in unprecedented globalized protest, the famous March 15th protests! Social forums had also attracted multitudes of NGOs (Non-governmental organizations, most not-for-profit), some committed to accompanying and supporting grassroots social movements and others simply doing what they do best: raise funds, analyze economic, political and social problems in think-tank style, produce materials, organize lectures and panels, lobby officials, and speak out sometimes on behalf of or alongside but often instead of the grassroots actors who could not afford to make it to the latest gathering or whose mode of communication is decidedly less academic and more militant.

In this sense the Nairobi World Social Forum was no different than others that had come before: there was a tension between grassroots social movements (underfunded, marginalized, often stigmatized, militant and with little to lose) and the bulk of NGOs present. The Nairobi version of this tension reached a high pitch from the start. The $7 USD equivalent fee for individual registration to the WSF was beyond the financial reach of many of the urban slum dwelling organizations around Nairobi. Instead of making allowances ahead of time for those who could not pay to participate, WSF organizers had had to outsource many of the organizational functions to private businesses, such as the on-line registration process and website. They had evidently not made a successful effort to be radically inclusive and they had in addition charged hefty fees for the use of venues to hold workshops, panels or other events. (After all, there was no governmental support for the Nairobi WSF.)

Since the forum was being held at some distance from the city, at the Moi Sports Arena complex, centered around the Kasarani Stadium, modestly priced food was not available. Instead private food purveyors set up under tarps and tents, with the most affluent and upscale of these having their choice of the prime spots. The big restaurant- pub combination at the front gate of the stadium was actually owned by the Minister of the Interior, a man who had reportedly tortured Mau Mau rebels during the struggle for independence, and overseer of a police force known to shoot young people with impunity on the streets of Nairobi. Suffice it to say that on the last day of sessions at the Kasarani this establishment was overrun and ’liberated’ or ’nationalized’ by a group known as the Lion People’s Parliament, who literally carried the food away to be shared among the famished participants of this WSF.

Two young unemployed women we met at the opening peace march from Kibera, Alice and Josephine, admitted to me at the closing ceremony that the most difficult thing about participating in the WSF was being constantly hungry. We gladly shared food and money with them to eat a solid meal. And I have no doubt that many of the WSF participants would have gladly contributed to a fund to feed those unable to buy food. Future WSF organizers should consider how to provide food free of charge to participants unable to buy food.

Another unintended consequence of the lack of radical inclusion was that the non-paying social movement people had to literally force the gates each morning, often with the solidarity of progressive organizations on the inside already or coming in with their credentials. Thus since legitimate but impoverished participants had not been credentialed and had to force their way in each day, security became a problem, and many petty thieves were able to get in to the facilities. Robberies were widespread and many people lost documents, money, tickets and other valuables, including one of our delegates from El Salvador who lost her passport, and the nearest Salvadoran consulate was in another continent. A long story how we managed to solve her problem...

So the question raised in the title of this essay is informed by this discussion: Self-Help and Make Do, or Radical Transformation for Africa? As a result of the many obstacles faced by Africans whether rural or urban, and as a result of liberation movements becoming governments that become over time co-opted by the dominant economic players (often foreign), social movements have been suppressed in Africa. The percentage of Africans living below the extreme poverty line of $1 per day is extremely high. Even if one is relatively well fed in a rural hamlet that has good soil and periodic rains, the amount of cash available for even short trips to attend meetings, work a computer or to own cell phones, etc... is very little. Urban organizing, due to proximity, has been more possible and, as we saw from the shantytowns of Kibera and Kimolongo?, successful in mobilizing masses of people to struggle for survival collectively. Many of them even managed to stage a parallel people’s forum in a city park. And their speakers won enthusiastic support at the Assembly of the Social Movements tent at the WSF on the last afternoon.

NGOs, foundations, etc... have stepped into the life of many communities to provide assistance, as governments have forsaken their role as providers for the well being of the people, either because of the arm-twisting of IMF structural adjustments cutting non-profitable budget lines like health, education, and agricultural credit, or through active neglect. In the rural communities we visited, NGOs and churches were evidently the only institutions providing any assistance at all. Some seed money, a few micro-loans, a pair of draft animals, breeding stock, training, scholarships to learn organic farming, etc... had been provided by our NGO, Agricultural Missions, Inc (AMI), working through rural women’s groups primarily. In those villages the women’s groups had made good use of the help and were now providing for a bounty of food for their communities, were helping families decimated by HIV AIDS deaths and illness, were housing orphans in newly built adobe school houses. So desperate are most members of such communities for betterment that any help no matter how little is viewed as a potential source of greater assistance for which they would gladly supplicate. Despite our affirmations that they had really helped themselves, they looked to us outsiders as a source of future goods, training, assistance, care. This is not an attitude conducive to the building of horizontal social movements. And we must ask ourselves whether in our absence those communities would have begun to organize horizontally, or, as is more likely, they would simply have fallen further into hopelessness, isolation and mute suffering. Where is the middle path forward?

Participation in the WSF had a powerful impact on the rural women chosen to join our delegation. To a woman, they declared that they had been surprised and inspired by the number of women leaders of the WSF, of women giving learned presentations, of women giving powerful speeches, of women in leadership roles wherever they turned. Women leaders did indeed dominate the stages of the Nairobi WSF, from Wahu Kaari to Njoki Njehu of the daughters of Mumbi. In our delegation Ugandan and Kenyan women leaders included Gertrude, Mary, Rhoda, Jane, Florence and Gladys, among others. And the potential for horizontal organizing was evident everywhere you looked at the WSF in Nairobi. Lots of networking took place there, and there is no doubt that the WSF contributed toward an expansion of possibility for progressive organized Africans.

To my mind the lessons learned in Nairobi are these: radical inclusiveness in the process of the Social Forums is not only a principled stance, but it is the only rational posture to avoid opening a larger breach between the world of NGOs and the world of grassroots social movement struggles; social movements must be given the central spaces in the social forum spaces, to emphasize that they are the engine for social change. The NGOs can try to shout from the train engineer’s post, or they can apply the breaks to the cars trailing along behind the engine, or, if they are awake to how change really takes place, they can run alongside the social movement train and push it forward, provide nourishment and information to those motoring the train, and clear the brush and rocks off the tracks to make way for the bottom up change that can truly transform things in Africa and around the world. When they get grant money, make sure for every NGO staff person they send to a Social Forum, they send at least two or three members of grassroots social movements! We have got to get those Social Movement Trains moving faster and stronger down the only tracks that can save us all. Organize door to door among the marginalized! Underwrite the planting of sequoias. They may take longer to grow, but boy once they take do they ever grow!!

Viva Afrika! Another World Is Possible! Or as the Via Campesina movement says: Globalize Struggle, Globalize Hope! Agrarian Reform Now! Food Sovereignty! Defend the Common Goods of Nature! WTO out of Agriculture! Down with the EPA’s (Economic Partnership Agreements, a European version of the FTAA, for Africa, the Caribbean and Asia). The People United Will Never Be Defeated! Think Globally, Organize Locally!
For more reflections on the WSF see Agricultural Missions, Inc (AMI) website at www.agriculturalmissions.org

Ver online : Stephen Bartlett of Agricultural Missions