Página inicial > documentos > Ciranda.net > Fórum Social Mundial 2007 - Nairóbi, 20 a 25 de Janeiro > Four ways of looking at WSF

Four ways of looking at WSF

quarta-feira 22 de março de 2006, por ,

The World Social Forum is now on its way to place its annual gathering in very different national and regional settings from its origins 2001 in a Brazilian political culture in the Southern state Rio Grande do Sul. A first successful attempt was made 2004 when WSF was held in Mumbai in India. A second attempt is made this year through what is called a polycentric WSF with three parts. Two have already been held simultaneously in January in Bamako in Mali and in Caracas in Venezuela. A third polycentric WSF will be held 24 - 28th of March in Karachi in Pakistan. Originally planned to be held at the same time as the other polycentric forums it was postponed due to the earthquake in Pakistan. 2007 WSF will be held in Nairobi in Kenya. By then we will know whether WSF has been able to move fruitfully from Brazil to other very different places on all continents that are underprivileged in the present world system.

The challenge ahead is to be able to turn two new kinds of locations to the WSF into something changing and yet developing a hopefully coherent social forum process. In some aspects Karachi represents a location were strong religious mobilisations takes place under an authoritarian dictatorial regime put under heavy pressure from Western powers and a poor and oppressed population. Nairobi represents in some aspects the most advanced NGO location that has one of its roots in the emergence of a global civil society system linked to the UN and the market for development management. People’s movement’s summit protests in the early 1970s were part of a development that gave the result to establish the first UN headquarters in the South. United Nations Environmental Programme was established by a decision at the UN Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm 1972. UNEP and Nairobi became a global centre for broader environmental and social development concerns administrated by a growing NGO sector as a result of sometimes violent clashes at Summits 1968 - 1972 when anti-imperialist and people’s movements protests against official World Bank, finance ministerial and UN summits. While the NGO development sector has prospered the Sub Sahara region has declined socially and ecologically having greater problems than any other region in the world with some important exceptions. Kenya partly being such a good example. Here urban and environmental movements have been able to gain some democratic influence. Deforestion, so much prevalent in the rest of the region, has been to some extent reverted by popular mass mobilisation. To develop the WSF process through placing it in these two very different locations is a great task.

Legitimacy from action

A key factor when assessing WSF is how ideas are put into action. People with diverging opinions on what groups, movements or organisations in society are important in the social forum process mostly agree upon that most important are actions that results in social, ecological, political and other changes in the direction which WSF is based upon. Thus it is necessary to include also other actors in analysing the situation than those that dominate WSF if they contribute to actions resulting in these changes.

A legitimising role for the social forum process is given to the world-wide demonstrations protesting Western ally’s war against Iraq 2003. Repeatively these demonstrations are accounted for as a proof of the capability of social forums to stimulate action.

It is also necessary today to ask oneself what similar political actions are going on and how are social forums related to these actions. A critical assessment of this relationship is seldom present in the current discussion on WSF. If such actions are going on like the present mass boycott among the rural masses and urban poor in Muslim countries against Danish products they are seen more as a threat by focusing on the more marginal smaller scale but violent protests against islamofobic Denmark. Both secular international leftists and NGOs seemingly have common interest with the Danish government in putting the present most massive international action against Western imperialism aside as irrelevant violent fundamentalism.

Organising popular protests or building political alternatives of international importance is not easy. Most struggles maintain their impact at local or national level or their impact is felt within a very narrow field like banning land mines. Identifying struggles of global importance beyond its geographical, thematic or other limitations is thus important. Examples can be the Zapatista uprisings in Chiapas, world-wide WTO protests heralded by small farmers, international trade union strikes and campaigns against transnational companies or feminist rebellion and building of alternatives to authoritarian society.

The way WSF is able to give space to such struggles and is a place where new such coherent initiatives are taken is crucial in assessing the importance of the forum.

Four ways of looking at WSF

One can find a way of looking at who is going to carry out action in at least four different tendencies in the debate on the future of WSF. Three puts an emphasis on the action outcome. The fourth on the internal integrity of the WSF process.

1. Civil society making proposals to political actors.

The first, which might be the WSF main stream thinking sees a need in formulating alternative proposals and invite political actors in discussing how to implement them. In the words of Oded Grajev: "After the first years of WSF where we were very concerned about establishing and consolidating the process, there is a great and lawful need to produce and strengthen proposals and join other political actors considered strategic to transform dreams, ideas and visions into reality." Many of the founders of WSF go in this direction formulating appeals and trying to get a closer cooperation with political parties and like-minded governments making the proposals a reality. A more specific definition of the actors that takes part in WSF is not made, instead the vague term civil society is used without specifying any differences among e.g. peoples movements built on lay participation and their own strength or professional NGOs built on external funding and vague or absent democratic rules.

Between this unspecific civil society and the political actors there is an equally vague intermediary function. In practice this vague function is mainly populated by individual intellectuals gaining their position through self-selecting mechanisms and competence in gaining strong relations to donors, political actors or markets for intellectual work. The vague civil society and the vague intermediatory function are then complemented by a political actor formally outside the WSF process. Here there is some more clarity by the term political actor sometimes made more specific by saying political parties and like-minded governments. Thus the historical subject changing society tends to be placed outside the acknowledged participants at WSF. Civil society is given more the role of pressure group helped by those formulating proposals but not seen as actors putting the proposals into practice.

2. Peoples movements develop and carry out proposals.

Another way of looking at who is going to carry out action on proposals made at WSF is to focus upon people’s movements. It has recently strongly been stated by Ruth Reitan: "the most effective proposals have and are and will be coming from the grassroots up through the massive transnational networks that are alive and well—on agriculture and food sovereignty and the WTO from the Via Campesina; also on the WTO and other trade agreements from Our World Is Not for Sale; to address both patriarchy and poverty wrought by neoliberalism/ capitalism from World March of Women (and others); on how best to organize and fight against the war and militarism from the Global Anti-War Assembly; on radical youth ecological anarchism from the Peoples’ Global Action; on fighting the debt and SAPs from Jubilee South; on environmental justice from Friends of the Earth International and the like; on tax justice from ATTAC." Here WSF is placed parallel to other places were networks of movements meet to discuss action - " —a process which IS occurring, from what I can see, at the WSF, but not only there, but also in such spaces as the Via Campesina’s international meetings and forums, at OWINFS planning meetings ..."

This organic model of grass root networking is put in contrast to synthesising appeals made by intellectuals seen as not leading to any action. "These manifestos are marching orders for no one; to write as if they are is to entertain vanguardist fantasies that are going to only crumble in disillusionment and accusations of false consciousnesses." What is instead needed is to "Follow the movements, support them, research them, give them voice, but don’t propose or suppose to do their thinking for them." Here the actor is more specified and intellectual formulation of proposals not separated from the historical subject that is supposed to act upon the proposals. Here the weakness lies in at least two directions. On the one hand the political effectiveness of the people’s movement can be questioned. They lack the means to implement the proposals. On the other hand there is a tendency at focusing upon visible established transnational movement networks and less on possibilities of new actors suddenly entering the scene or actors using more revolutionary or violent means in their struggle.

3. Marginal or revolutionary groups take space and carry out change.

A third perspective is to focus upon marginalised groups at the place were the forum is held and at the national and global level. This perspective can be seen as a complement to the people’s movement’s perspective with some more emphasis on marginal actors or mainly on revolutionary movements and parties.

Raphael from Lima states in the current discussion: "It seems to me that the Fora in the future should seek to intervene more directly in the experiences and realities they visit, by opening up spaces inside or directly related to concrete problems and struggles (which according to most accounts did happen for example in Mumbai)." Feminist and indigenous autonomous movements are especially seen as marginalised in the present way WSF is held with the Caracas meeting as an example.

The discussion has been going on since the start of WSF. Groups emphasising autonomous or horizontal ways of working have developed different ways of "contaminating" or doing alternative events to social forums. Radical small farmers, indigenous and other popular movements have maintained their own ways of coordinating international action through networks like Peoples Global Action or have joined hands with revolutionary parties and organised alternative forums to WSF like Mumbai Resistance 2004.

4. Maintaining WSF integrity and civil society as the key actor.

A fourth tendency is to focus upon the integrity of WSF seeing the outcome in terms of action as something done by the civil society, as less important or ignoring this issue.

The weakness and strength of this tendency lies in its limitations mainly or only to the form of the WSF. It has to be an open forum building its strength on civil society and guarding its principles on who should be allowed and not to participate, maintaining independence from outside actors like the state or political parties and less specific or ignoring market dependency. Internal democracy and transparency are regarded as of high importance, especially for those able to be present at WSF.

The less emphasis on action makes it hard to assess what the action outcome of their proposals might be. There is a tendency to focus upon a nebulous individual participant and an equally nebulous civil society in practice often professional NGOs but certainly with importance also to other participating persons or collective actors. While being vague on action outcome this perspective often brings a lot more critical assessments to the constructive discussion on specific WSF events.

Ahead of the Karachi polycentric WSF Madhuresh from India Institute for Critical Action - Centre in Movement, CACIM, puts some questions regarding the coming event. First what are the likely implications of the lack of or lukewarm response from big Pakistani civil society organizations. Secondly what are the risks that the event will be instrumentalised by secular Urdu ethnic Mutahida Quami Movement which is a political party supporting the WSF and the local government. Thirdly how will fundamentalist organisations view or maybe use the forum in a country where wide spread protests against the Danish cartoons of the prophet and violent bomb blasts has taken place. Fourthly how relate to the problems of women’s movements in Pakistan that allegedly have not been represented enough in the WSF and thus stay away from the organising committee but hold their events anyway at the forum. Fifth how to deal with the visa problems for many Indian participants that so far are refused in a mass scale the possibility to come to the event. Sixth how can future WSF strategies be developed in relation to holding further events in non-democratic/dictatorial countries?

Assessing WSF action outcome

One way of looking at the four perspectives is to state that they all contribute with current contributions to the debate. This shows the vitality of the WSF process. Maybe even that it is this diverging opinion that keeps the WSF alive.

But that is a rather trivial notion. The amount of energy put into the social forum process calls for a more critical assessment. One way of doing this is to maintain the emphasis on how WSF contribute to globally important collective action and how the different perspectives might put some light to how WSF develops, especially in relation towards the Karachi and Nairobi events.

While the antiwar protests in 2003 is assessed as something were social forums contributed a lot to the political coherence and world-wide simultaneous quality of the protests it is harder to see similar effects the following years. Rather than maintaining coherence and momentum the war protests, at least in the North have fragmented. A split have occurred among those supporting resistance to occupation and those critical towards both the occupation and the violent resistance.

In other fields campaigns and struggles have been carried out but with less significant coherence and simultaneous mobilisation as in the case of war against Iraq. Antiprivatisation issues at local, national and international level have some momentum and the on-going struggle against EU and FTAA neoliberal policies, WTO, IMF and the World Bank have their ups and downs. Some reports state that there was a slack in world-wide protests during a shorter period after 2003 but that protests have gained more momentum again last year.

But to what extent have social forums contributed to the coherence of the ongoing and new struggles? If ongoing struggles have been helped it is harder to see how WSF have helped new coherent transnational struggles in the way it did with the protests against the war against Iraq. There has been significant electoral victories for parties linked to the WSF process both in Brazil and India after the forums have been held there. But popular mobilisation beyond parliamentary action has a more unclear record in spite of that it is this kind of transnational campaigns that is seen to be a key to maintaining popular direct participation in global politics by many supporters of WSF.

Mumbai WSF in India 2004 can be seen as a point of stalemate between the different strands in the global justice movement and in the social forum process. The Brazilian conjuncture of well developed NGOs and popular movement cooperation and a workers party still not in power started to develop into a less vibrant situation with the risk of split between administrating power and opposing governmental neoliberal policies. India became a proof in many ways of the vitality of the process. Not only international oppression but also domestic oppression was set on the agenda by the Dalits and others. But also the opposing tendencies within the global justice movement became evident as more or less three different events evolved in Mumbai. On the one hand WSF dominated by NGOs and closely related reformist left wing parties as well as popular movements, the smaller Mumbai resistance with radical popular movements and revolutionary parties and finally even smaller parallel events were political parties and popular movements had dialogues outside the WSF context.

Out of the Mumbai Resistance came further coherent opposition to the occupation of Iraq and the war against terrorism as well as a stronger criticism against the NGO domination of WSF and its financial dependency on funding from neoliberal countries, especially the US and Ford Foundation. Out of the dialogues between political parties and movements organised by Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam and others stimulated projects like the Network Institute on Global Democracy addressing the issue of global political parties and the relationship between parties and civil society. WSF could go on strengthened by the stronger openness and criticism that the Indian political culture had contributed to process.

In terms of coherent mass action Mumbai 2004 represented a possibility to be inspired by the Gandhian movement strategies with its focus on mass participation in civil disobedience. This has been since 1998 at the core of the Peoples Global Action and in many of the Summit protests. Arundhati Roy who also spoke at Mumbai Resistance proposed in her inaugural speech at WSF a massive boycott of key American corporations as a protest against the occupation of Iraq. This and other similar proposals for mass direct action gained no significant support.

Instead at the next WSF in Porto Alegre the campaign to eliminate poverty and support the UN millennium goals gained wide adherence as an action worthy social forum participants’ campaign efforts. The participation in this campaign has been considerable. At the same time the political coherence and possibilities to democratically influence who represents the campaign and controls its content and way of working has been controversial and even accused of helping to legitimise both a neoliberal agenda and elitist Northern dominated forms of politics. The latest attempt at making a joint world-wide coherent campaign supported widely from different actors at the WSF resulted in severe fragmentation, splits between South and North and confusion.

Four perspectives on the WSF action record

How can than the four different perspectives explain and put forward solutions to the possibilities of gaining coherent collective action out of the WSF process?

The first perspective tends to overlook the effects WSF have on campaigns built on mass participation. Instead it put focus upon the quality of proposals and how political actors implement these proposals. With its central position in the WSF international committee and support among key donors as well as practical competence not only in managing but also adopting the WSF to new conditions this perspective seemingly has no need of legitimising itself through results in terms of coherent transnational campaigns with mass participation.

To the second perspective coherent transnational struggles with mass participation are very important. But as the main location of inventing this kind of struggle is placed partly outside the WSF process in networking between different people’s movements the claim that WSF begins to fail in this regard is not seen as important. On the contrary it can be seen from this perspective as the result of marginalising people’s movements and putting vanguardistic intellectuals and political parties more central in the WSF process while continuing to use the presence of people’s movements as a main legitimising argument for a process that is less and less influenced by these movements.

In practise this can be seen in the rise and decline of coherent people’s movement coordination at WSF meetings. The tool for this coordination was at first Call of social movements and than Social Movements International Network to maintain a continuous discussion and coordination of campaigns and initiatives. The central role of the Call of social movements have now partly been replaced by the consensus appeal made by intellectuals at Porto Alegre 2005 and the Bamako appeal made by selected intellectuals and organisations at the Bamako polycentric WSF 2006. The Social Movements International Network that was set up in 2003 to support the process of coordinating calls of social movements at WSF has declined. The homepage with hundreds of contributions from people’s movements has no new contributions since 2004 and the latest reports on WSF are from early 2005. Instead the organised reflections on the WSF process are made among groups dominated by intellectuals like Network Institute on Global Democracy, CACIM or NGO projects as Choike based in Uruguay.

To the third perspective the development of WSF verifies a critique against domination of NGOs and political parties administrating although reluctantly neoliberal strategies. Instead of having illusions of the results of millennium goals campaigns or the WSF process this perspective puts an emphasis on radical struggles. In Western Europe against racism, terrorist laws and refugee policies trying to build alliances between churches, anarchists, immigrants and other actors often outside the social forum process in many countries. In other parts of the world trying to build alliances between Islamic forces and the left against war and economic imperialism or class alliances between small farmers and workers against neoliberal politics in Latin America, to some extent also supporting guerrilla warfare going beyond the perspective of WSF.

To the fourth perspective the lack of collective action result is less important. Instead an almost constant interest in defending the integrity of WSF against external state interests is prevalent. Recently the Caracas polycentric WSF caused severe anxiousness in terms of influence from the Chavez government and stronger political party domination.

Karachi questions

Concerning the questions made regarding the Karachi event from this perspective some remarks can be made regarding the historical experience of actions coming out from answers to the questions put. One is asking what the lack of interest from big NGOs in the host country might implicate.

One can look at a similar occasion in Spain at the 5O year anniversary of the Bretton Woods Institutions 2004. Than the big NGOs participated but lukewarmingly in the network organising protest demonstrations and seminars. A week ahead of the actions in Madrid the big NGOs had chosen to publicly announce their dissociation of the organisers of the join protests stating the participation of the political party Herri Batasuna in the network as the cause of their splitting action.

Herri Batasuna was the political wing of the Basque resistance movement with another military wing struggling with the Spanish state in a conflict that at that time had caused the death of 800 persons. The result in mass media was partly putting at terrorist stamp on the protests. The result on world politics was very good. International NGOs and people’s movements had no other realistic choice than continue to cooperate with the only existing well organised coordinated protests against Bretton Woods in Madrid. With the big domestic NGOs outside the forming of coherent political will at a Summit finally the voices of the South could make a breakthrough together with the Spanish trade unions, environmental movement and other people’s movements in the network organising the protests. Instead of a joint statement calling for more place for civil society influence on the official process and some reforms that had been the dominant ethos of the NGO alternative statements at Summits in the beginning of the 1990s now entered a new language also in the mainstream protest at a Summit. The Alternative Madrid declaration called for cancelling all debts and made no concessions to legitimise the present neoliberal world order as had been the case at the Rio sustainability and other UN conferences. With the radical demands in this people’s movement and NGO declaration from Madrid the reformist agenda of Northern NGOs started to crumble and they had to give in more and more to demands from radical people’s movements all over the world and NGOs ín the South. This resulted by the end of the 1990s in such achievements as a clear no to the MAI investments agreement and a no to including further areas into WTO based on very broad coalitions of people’s movements and NGOs. Thus the lukewarm interest from big domestic NGOs can be seen as either irrelevant or even a perquisite to establish demands of common interest to a majority of people in the world against the interest of NGOs and states to divide and rule to maximise resources to the own professional or governmental project. In terms of quantity and long term administrative capacity big NGOs are of course important, in terms of quality and interest in challenging existing power structures they might be a hindrance.

Concerning the risk to become instrumentalised by the political party Mutahida Quami Movement or holding WSF in non-democratic/dictatorial countries these are general problems. Parties have always been there as crucial factors to enable such a big event as WSF to become a practical reality. They have to be dealt with according to local circumstances and WSF statutes. Claiming that MQM pose a different problem from earlier parties behind the scene requires a lot more outspoken criticism than that which is given by CACIM. The idea to only emphasise non-democratic countries as a problem is of course wrong. The problems might be somewhat different but the whole range of problems are there also in democratic countries sometimes even including visa problems. Anyone trying to organise WSF in the US will find out.

Democratic countries building their position in the world on economic oppression of global poor people have maybe more sophisticated means of influencing an event like WSF but surely they can be as effective as in any dictatorial regime. The way World Youth Festivals was used by people’s movements and political parties from all over the world during the last half of the past century shows that it is fully possible to undermine even very strong dictatorial regimes as well as challenging the world order dominated by democratic countries by gathering tens of thousands of activists to demand peace and end to economic oppression whether the festival takes place in democratic or dictatorial countries. These festivals actually became the starting point for strong dissident cultures in Poland, Soviet Union and DDR while at the same time having a key role in building global anti-imperialist alliances helping the same kind of rebellion against authoritarian cultures and neo-colonial politics in the West.

There is a problem with some of the criticism emanating from CACIM spokespersons in relationship to comments both on Caracas and Karachi WSF. It is mainly state or political party influence that is posed as a problem while the equally problematic influence from the market is downplayed. The excellent CACIM work to make the WSF process more transparent and guarding its independency thus risks to get a bias that dwarfs the intellectual and political quality of this intervention.

The problems of Pakistani women’s movements in relation to WSF seems to be dealt with in a clever way. There are now a whole range of methods for movements having problems with form or content of different aspects of the WSF process. One can either give up and totally adapt to the dominant ethos, one can influence which in many cases successfully has been done making WSF or for that matter regional social forums more of a tool to the participating organisations than a partly closed preparatory process. One can choose to stay away from parts of the process and focus upon arranging own contributions to the WSF programme or "contaminate" the process by deliberately challenging interventions or organise parallel events or even totally separate processes that do not take place at the same location. The challenge if one is interested in collective action against neoliberalism and imperialism is to find out ways to develop the quality and impact of all important initiatives whether they are inside, intermediary or outside social forums.

The visa problems for many Indian participants that so far are refused in a mass scale is an important issue for the integrity of the WSF process. Apart from putting as much political pressure on the Pakistani government as possible to open the borders the plans for organising a parallel event in Amritsar on the Indian side of the border is a strategically important way challenge the political harassment against WSF. What is important than is that the results of Amritsar event will be strongly included in the reports from Karachi WSF. Maybe even that interaction can take place between the two parts of the unwillingly separated forum.

How fundamentalist organisations view or maybe use the forum is one way of putting the last of the CACIM questions. Another one is to ask why the whole structure of the meeting is made to exclude religious organisations from a constructive role in society and politics. The themes of the Karachi event include "State and religion, pluralism, and fundamentalism" and the "overarching Transversal themes" include "Religious sectarianism, Identity Politics, Fundamentalism". Religious organisations are firmly put into a context of only posing a problem and not also as a possible ally in the struggle against oppression. At a social forum in another city where MQM also has a stronghold, in Hyderabad in India at Asia Social Forum 2003 there were workshops on religion and democracy and the local population were strongly interested in issues were religious communalism was criticised from religious perspectives. Actually it was one of the few occasions when local people had an interest in the event. But it seems like this kind of constructive perspective on religion is excluded. So it comes as no surprise that Pakistani religious organisations are not going to participate according to a report from IPS. It puts the WSF process into question. The days before the Karachi WSF the international committee meets to prepare next years WSF at the conference and training centre of the All Africa Conference of Churches in Nairobi. Is it only Christian organisations that are allowed to be central in the WSF process while religions without European origin are excluded?

The CACIM question on religious organisations also focus upon the affect on the forum of "the recent bomb blasts in Pakistan as well as the wide spread protests there against the cartoons of the Prophet". Asia Social Forum in Hyderabad was also held in a region with violent struggles and the revolutionary demonstration against the forum had more participants than the demonstrations made by forum organisers. But it did not affect the forum process very much more than it contributed to make WSF criticism more coherent as expressed through Mumbai Resistance 2004. Rather than asking about the effect the wide spread protests against Denmark have on the forum it would be more appropriate asking how WSF can be used to support the oppressed Muslim minority in Denmark in need of international solidarity. Many people in Pakistan take part in the protests against Denmark and WSF should if it sees its role as an open forum were international solidarity is supported be a good place to discuss how to organises support to the oppressed Muslim minority in Denmark. At least to us in Nordic countries struggling against xenophobian policies and growing imperialistic attitudes to the South also in small European states it is important to develop joint strategies with those that prefer economic and political means rather than violent in their protests against Denmark. The mass participation in the economic boycott against Denmark shows that main efforts are of this nature but the carriers of this boycott seems to be excluded from WSF due to the way religion is treated. Thus WSF can make itself irrelevant to current needs to build solidarity links between the South and the North.

Karachi and the Danish islamophobic conflict.

While the mass protests through boycotts presented at WSF have failed other movements have been able very quickly to mobilise a massive boycott against one of the states that is a specially willing partner in the war and occupation of Iraq. At the same time this country is the most radical xenofobian country in Western Europe with a conservative government backed by an openly xenofobian nationalist party. The development in this Nordic country Denmark poses a radicalisation of the opinion in countries that goes to war in the Middle East. Save the Children in Denmark now reports that Danes now are questioning giving aid to earth quake victims in Pakistan as they see the Pakistani people as violent protesters against Denmark. Humanitarism turned into political revenge against the massive protests.

When the polycentric WSF will be held in Karachi it is placed in the centre of this conflict between Western imperialism and the masses of the world. Here imperialistic interests in Central Asian and Arab oil wells and military world domination clashes with oppressed people in common in a location were problems cannot be solved on the immediate level by using a fair amount of the resources that today are accumulated in proclaimed democratic but certainly also unfairly rich countries.

The Danish attack on its immigrants by the most xenofobian legislation in Western Europe is centrally placed within the context of present Western domination of the world. Denmark is a country with a strong self-image of being humanitarian. It has the second highest foreign aid rate in the world and a system of well funded NGOs. Denmark is also the country with the highest popular support in Western Europe and North America to start war against countries that do not act according to the will of Western powers like Yugoslavia and Iraq. It sent troops to Iraq and its shipping company Maersk, the biggest Danish multinational company, is the biggest profiteer on transport contracts for all foreign troops in Iraq.

When the Muslim minority protested against openly racist statements by a key politician in the xenofobian Danish People’s Party and pictures of prophet Muhammed portraying him as a terrorist the right wing government supported by the Danish people’s party escalated the conflict further. The prime minister Fogh refused to meet with a delegation of ambassadors from Muslim countries. When 27 Danish Muslim communities instead turned to the civil society in Arab countries to gain support Fogh tried to claim that they were betraying the country by rhetorically stating that due to juridical reasons he could not use the world treason although he strongly legitimised the term traitor in the debate than frequently used by others in the conflict. When the boycott against Danish products started to have strong effects Fogh claimed it was a sort of terrorist attack on Denmark by stating that the boycott was to "seize" Danish workplaces as "hostages" in a religious conflict. When the conflict escalated further and Danish embassies was set on fire Fogh condemned the protests and said what was now needed was dialogue. In this he said he had the full support from president Bush.

In the opinion polls the Danish Peoples Party have gained massive support making it bigger than the social democrats, now at 20% of the electorate, the lowest for almost a century. Meanwhile the social democrats and the Socialist people’s party have stopped having dialogue with the 27 Danish Muslim communities by many claimed to be traitors by instigating international protests. The most left-wing parliamentary party, the red green alliance organise demonstrations against a small Danish radical Islamistic party. The Muslim communities have now also been excluded from integration dialogues set up by the government were they previously were invited. Instead new Muslim organisations are established based on individual membership for moderate Muslims that are included in dialogues instead of the Muslim communities. In the middle of the conflict the third Danish Social Forum was held five folding the participation since the first time welcoming 1 600 participants. On the xenofobian issue it had no or little political impact, a result it shared with the many grass roots dialogues initiatives that are mushrooming. Maybe now a cemetery will be constructed for Muslims, before they had to bury their dead relatives on church yards and the 200 000 Muslims still have no mosque and dwell instead in basements and other provisional localities. Across the border in Sweden there has been a mosque since 1970 but in Denmark the resistance against the Muslim religion has blocked all attempts so far to create a worthy building for the great minority.

While the violent protests have declined the boycott is still in full action. It is people in common but rich enough to buy dairy products that are the main carriers of the boycott. Danish fashion companies or the influential shipping company Maersk with its strong presence in the Middle East has very few problems they have richer customs or strong relations with governments. It is more daily products that are targeted causing losses that can exceed a billion euro. Specially hit is the Danish Swedish company Arla, a loss that in the end will be paid by family farmers in Denmark and Sweden already under economic pressure.

Fogh has recently further escalated the conflict by using a Danish proverb dividing people into sheep or buck also referring to bow which means that either one behaves with self respect according to own values or bows to powerful interests. This is similar to president Bush classical statement either you are with or against us. Fogh used his proverb to attack the Danish industry stating they were to luke warm in speaking up against the threat against Western values of freedom of expression. The answer was that the industry was in constant contact with the foreign ministry who asked to not be to outspoken and one Danish multinational company threatened with leaving Denmark while others have strongly supported well funded international dialogue initiatives to try to change the image of Danish companies in Muslim countries and the world. The economic protests of the masses in the South have some impact on business while the political will of the public opinion is radicalising further to the right from a position that already from the outset was to the right.

On the global level the Danish xenofobian Muhammed conflict have raised problems for the alliance maintaining the present world order. A crucial factor in this alliance building has been to mobilise religious forces against secular nationalist and left wing forces. When the political and economical conditions for the poor masses in many countries is worsened due to the present world order the need to maintain an alliance against secular forces that might unite people is furthermore needed. Thus is now introduced well funded information programmes against racism, primarily against anti-Semitism but sometimes also including islamofobic tendencies, both in a way excluding the economic and political context of racism turning it more into a moral question. The Danish state funded propaganda against genocide lists Saddam Hussein’s mass murder of Curds in Iraq, includes the communist mass murders/genocides in Soviet Union and Kampuchea, Nazi genocide of Jews (but not the 15 million civil Slavic Soviet Union victims of the same German genocide), the nationalist Young Turks genocide on Armenians, Civil war in Yugoslavia with Bosnian-Serbs as main perpetrators of massmurder of Bosnjaks and a genocide in Rwanda mysteriously not carried out by any political ideological force like the others (as the political force behind the genocide was Christ democratic and thus belonging to the same ideology as members of the Danish government). In some Arab countries propaganda is made stating that the genocide of Jews did not exist.

The other method is to try to introduce an international agreement against blasphemy in the UN discussed by countries like the US. By at least on paper reintroducing authoritarian agreements in the West one hopes to dismantle the mass protests in the Global South and among the local alliances necessary to maintain Western domination. By making the cultural oppression less provocative one hopes to maintain the other forms of oppression.

Thus the Danish xenofobian Muhammed crisis poses a challenge to WSF both in terms of capacity to mobilise a massive economic boycott and wide participation in protests while also being a complex issue linking secular and religious, economic and political, racism and freedom of expression and other questions. It is ideal to discuss and propose campaigns at the Karachi WSF or the Amritsar event if those religious organisations interested in alliances with secular forces opposing xenofobian politics can participate. But as it looks now both the masses of Pakistan and religious organisation of this kind have felt excluded by the way the WSF was set up and the funding for travels from Europe to Karachi for this kind of purposes is small or non-existent. But the challenge from the mass boycott is still there and so is the emerging growing aggressive attitude to the South in some Northern countries that ought to be confronted.

Nairobi and the NGO system

The next challenge is WSF in Nairobi 2007. Here the role of NGOs poses a specially strategic issue. The most recent world-wide campaign launched with the help of WSF is the campaign to eradicate poverty last year. This campaign was dominated by Northern NGOs and lacked coherent political content. It has also been criticised for top-down management rather than democratic participation in a movement willing to establish political facts by direct actions like boycotts and not mainly build on professionals lobbying and people as consumers of campaign events. In what way thus the problems of the millennium campaign and dominating NGO ways of campaigning needs to be addressed when WSF moves to Nairobi were NGOs are crucial as a cooperation partner and people’s movements are weak?

Once again Denmark can contribute an example on the problems ahead. The face of modern Western imperialism is not only xenofobian or racist attitudes and war but also a more soft humanitarian image. The way this double face is visually managed is through presenting to the public through mass media two pictures of the masses in the third world. On the one hand the violent terrorist, on the other hand the powerless victim in need of help from generous rich and democratic people. A realistic self-image including both the oppressive economic and military global role and the role as welfare state with freedom of expression to its citizens is replaced by an unquestionably democratic and benevolent country with generous persons. The real existing contradictory qualities with this self-image are instead projected on the masses in the third world. One wonders what will happen when the image of the omnipotent terrorist and violent masses will conflate with the image of the weak victims in need of care.

In Denmark there are not only the picture of prophet Muhammed with a big bomb in his turban printed in the biggest daily and numerous images of terrorist attacks or violent demonstrators. There is also the other side of the coin with images of dark people in need of help. Here NGOs produce some of the most extreme contributions to the double image. The NGO campaign eradicate poverty in Denmark have a website were the dominant content are pictures and the political text is reduced to very short promotions and quotes from the millennium goals as if they lack controversial content and are unquestionably good.

The pictures on the website moves against the viewer. They are portraying eight close-up pictures of dark faces of babies, children and others in need each illustrating one of the millennium goals. Only the last picture includes many people, taken from an angle above and with an empty white bowl reached towards us above the heads by an appealing dark hand.

This is how a campaign strongly supported at WSF looks like in Denmark in the hands of NGOs. It is the result of a long term NGO development both in Denmark but also internationally. Danish NGOs were especially successful in leaving an international solidarity culture based on local communities whether they were churches or groups of political activists behind and establishing a well funded NGO system dominated by professionals. This has given the result that Danish NGOs often takes positions very close to the government and even develop double talk to maintain a position both in international cooperation with people’s movements and NGOs and with their own government. When People’s movements and NGOs joined hands before the WTO Summit in Seattle 1999 Danish NGOs in one moment signed appeals together with other Nordic movements against expanding WTO while at the same time signing another appeal for the domestic market stating that they wanted to be involved in reforming an expanding WTO to the embarrassment of fellow NGOs in other countries. Being well-funded Danish NGOs supports global NGO programmes related to UN on questions as sustainability and supports national social forums in the third world.

In spite of this close relationship to governmental positions Danish NGOs are under strong pressure from the present right-wing government. The foreign minister have proposed to cancel all funding for information to NGOs on third world issues, in total 3 million euro. Instead all the money should go to practical aid. This would especially hit organisations that put effort into educating the public on third world issues and do political campaigning rather than limiting themselves to charity.

Probably the Danish government will end up with a more clever way of handling its support to give the image they see as beneficial than cancel all money to NGO third world information. To give no support would suddenly make movements based on voluntary political commitment relatively stronger which would not help the right if they do not choose full polarisation both at domestic and global level.

The development in Denmark is of interest internationally in its intriguing relationships between business, government, media, NGOs, movements and the public. Danish NGOs holds a strong position in international NGO cooperation. The way Danish NGOs handle the central role given to the image of rich democratic countries as aid donors to the poor is also of relevance to other countries. It might not only be relevant to international relations but also to the way NGOs related to oppressed and poor people at the domestic level.


With the Nairobi WSF realistically giving a central place to NGOs it is of importance to reflect upon the problems and possibilities for WSF being able to stimulate the making of proposals and political action. Is it the promotion of new millennium goal campaigns or starting to ask oneself the hard questions why WSF tend to make itself irrelevant to civil society mass mobilisation against white oppression. It is obvious that the present global power relations makes military opposition to Western domination of the world very difficult or impossible. Thus protests takes other ways like when a billion Muslims are culturally portrayed as terrorists in one of the occupying states in the North. One can portray these protests as of they are the result of manipulation from questionable governments and political movements as if campaigns in the North not are equally used by governments and political parties to their own purposes. One can see it as questionable that the demonstrations do not react upon the occupation of Iraq and the war on terrorism. But the fact remains, the mass protests takes place and they get their very broad support due to the character of acknowledging the threat against all Muslims, whether poor or rich, for or against the war against Iraq, which the Danish government and media represents.

A development in the future were on the one hand NGO campaigns like the eradicate poverty or formulating proposals to political parties will dominate WSF while civil society mass protests outside the control of Northern NGOs are ignored will make an empty shell out of WSF. In the long run such disinterest in what the oppressed masses actually are doing represents not only a patronizing attitude towards oppressed people but also making oneself irrelevant to solving growing polarisation in the world.

But WSF has already shown its capacity of being flexible and include new perspectives. In India 2004 WSF included more cultural expressions by oppressed groups in the middle of the forum and Dalits and others had their agenda more firmly put into the process. In Denmark the Muslims are the Danish Dalits. It should not be impossible to make the kind of oppression against immigrants or other socially underprivileged groups in society a key issue at WSF in the future also. NGOs are also flexible to a certain degree. When radical people’s movements in the end of the 1990s demanded a strategy going beyond reformism against international institutions dominated by the North the NGOs followed suit and did constructive necessary criticism legitimising radical protests. Although NGOs mostly are dominated by their professional interests they cannot come to close to governmental or business positions if they do not want to become irrelevant in their intermediary role between oppressed masses and power. WSF is built on an intriguing balance to be able to practically and politically organise the huge events and the process it carries forward. Whether this cooperation will be able to become relevant to the masses participating in international protests against oppression and to politicize the global polarisation between rich and poor is still an open question. Maybe it can be addressed already at the Amritsar event and Karachi WSF and it certainly can and have to be addressed before the Nairobi WSF to make it possible at WSF to make conscious choices between different kinds of campaigning and political actors that can challenge the present world order.

Tord Björk is a member of Friends of the Earth Sweden, Network Institute on Global Democracy and Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.


Danish eradicate poverty image campaign:

The Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research on the Muhammad crisis:

Other texts on this subject by Tord Björk:

The emerging global NGO system (in the period between 1972 - 1997):

World Social Forum and Popular Movements Confronting Globalisation (a more long term look at the emergence of the global justice movement and its class components):

Gandhian and Indian Influence in the Nordic Countries (including a piece on three different events in Mumbai 2004):

More texts in English on international people’s movements at:

Ver online : Tord Björk