NEWS IN FOCUS: Activism takes root in Asia at the World Social Forum

Francois Le Goff

The change of venue from South America to Mumbai opened up last month's World Social Forum to a new Asian audience keen to voice their concerns on globalisation issues. Francois Le Goff investigates.

As head of programmes at aid agency One World Action, Andy Rutherford has been to his fair share of international meetings. But the fourth World Social Forum in Mumbai last month stands out, and not just because of the vibrant melee of cultures, colours and languages that the gathering of 100,000 people made in India.

Unlike other international meetings, such as last year's Earth Summit, which is heavily subscribed by Western governments as well as huge international NGOs, the World Social Forum is run by the Southern hemisphere, for the Southern hemisphere. It exists to give voice to local groups living in the most remote areas, struggling for their basic rights. It enables them to network with people from other parts of the world and to see the benefits of working together.

"People, especially those from the Southern hemisphere, do not often have the time, energy or capacity to link up," says Rutherford. "They would like to but have limited resources, that make it almost impossible."

Indeed, one thing Rutherford found extraordinary about the event was that many delegates were not even aware of the worldwide anti-globalisation movement born out of Seattle's World Trade Organisation meeting in 1999.

Typical of the delegates was Maya Ching, a 23-year-old teacher, from one of the indigenous tribes of the Chittagong Hill Tracts in Bangladesh.

She lives too far away from the big urban centres to have access to global campaigning networks. Like all the women in her group, travelling to the World Social Forum was the first time Ching had left her country and used a passport. "People made enormous efforts to get there," says Rutherford.

They came from 130 countries and represented groups as diverse as Dalits (also known as untouchables, the lowest Hindu caste), indigenous forest-dwellers and South Asian professional bodies. But though they may not have been familiar with the organised anti-globalisation movement, delegates were acutely aware of the social and economic inequalities that are by-products of globalisation.

Massing under the forum banner 'Another world is possible', they gathered to discuss topics ranging from the military occupation of Iraq to organic farming.

Large international NGOs did have a presence. Familiar names such as Oxfam, ActionAid, Save the Children and One World Action were among those that attended the forum to bring campaigns that are by now familiar in the developed world, to a receptive new audience.

Oxfam International promoted its Make Trade Fair campaign, with executive director Jeremy Hobbs presenting a trade forum entitled 'Agriculture after Cancun'. Mary Robinson, Oxfam's honorary president, held a press conference on the arms trade, calling on governments to support the creation of an arms trade treaty - and even deployed an elephant to get its point across.

But this world gathering was not only about creating campaigning opportunities for high-profile NGOs. "This was not an elite affair, it was not jet-set advocacy," insists Rutherford.

Staged in India, away from its usual home in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre, this year's forum was widely predicted to be a culture shock for established European groups as they encountered the new breed of social movement emerging from Asia.

But NGOs are renowned for being quick to respond to change, and many of them have already made moves to get closer to the communities they exist to serve.

They are transferring their decision-making powers from the Northern hemisphere down south, and co-ordinating global campaigns through partnerships with local groups on the ground. Global campaigns are no longer led from the north but developed by a range of NGOs and advocacy groups with equal decision-making power.

In January, only a few days before the World Social Forum began, UK-based Action Aid announced its decision to become an international organisation and move its headquarters from London to South Africa. These organisational changes have given new relevance to Action Aid's participation in the World Social Forum this year.

According to Adriano Campolina de Soares, one of Action Aid's 11 representatives in Mumbai, the changes will enable the charity to tackle poverty more effectively because its strategies and policies will be developed within the communities it helps. Moving the forum out of South America was welcomed by the charity as a chance to raise issues such as HIV/Aids in Africa, which have been under-represented at past forums.

Responsibility through diversity

Some commentators raised concerns that the great diversity of organisations present at the forum would impede it from achieving anything. Rutherford disagrees. "I think the fact that people were being exposed to different ideas and approaches in an event such as this almost imposes a responsibility on people to genuinely explore how to move things forward," he says.

One World Action can point immediately to two examples where its attendance at the forum helped to make 'another world possible'. On day three of the six-day meeting, it and its partner organisation in Bangladesh, The Citizens' Initiative, hosted a joint seminar with Penal Reform International about women's access to justice.

This brought together women from rural Bangladesh - including Maya Ching - factory workers from South Asia and representatives from Amnesty International, as well as people from Ethiopia and Uganda, to share their experiences.

The 100 seminar participants agreed to launch a regional campaign to improve women's access to justice in South Asia within the next few months, which One World Action will help to facilitate.

And, in a few months' time, the agency will organise a meeting between its partners in Central America and the Philippines, to explore how different organisations in different cultures engage with local government on issues such as women's rights and gender.

"You could say, 'well you could have done that anyway'," says Rutherford.

"But I think that is a very negative argument. You have to accept that these things happen because there is a focus and a venue that enables people to think, 'what can we achieve here?'"

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