Will WSF make an impact?

By Zubeida Mustafa
Source: Dawn

FOR Karachi, the World Social Forum was a big event. This is a city that has in recent years earned a bad name for itself for its lawlessness, crime and violence, where foreigners fear to tread because of dreaded bomb blasts. When it played host for five days to 20,000 people — 2,500 foreign delegates — (organisers’ claims) without any untoward incident, this could be termed as a major achievement.

The WSF has certainly restored for the time being the good image of the city. The delegates who came from outside found it a friendly and hospitable place, the water, sanitation and boarding/lodging problems notwithstanding. Karachi’s cosmopolitan and open-minded ambience makes it a great place to be in.

But this aspect aside, did the WSF achieve its goals? The answer to this question depends on what its goals are perceived to be. When the first WSF was held in Porto Alegre (Brazil) in 2001 it adopted as its logo the slogan “Another world is possible”. The organisation of the WSF, its goals and its working have found many critics. But the underlying idea of striving for an alternative to the neoliberal policies of the market-driven capitalism of the post-Cold War world has never been disputed. The extreme left has attacked it for not going far enough. The extreme right has tried to coopt it to dilute its goals.

Since the WSF has not claimed to be working to devise coherent strategies or formulating a specific programme of action, there can be no formal yardstick to measure its success or failure. Given its abhorrence of hierarchical structures and its penchant for networking on a horizontal plane, the WSF tends to be informal in its approach. Its goal is to provide an open space for the underprivileged of the world to come and raise their voices. In that respect the WSF succeeded in its mission. A common complaint was that it was somewhat chaotic. By its very nature, a process of this kind cannot be regimented and squeeze people into tight, rigidly-organised programmes.

But in the chaos traditionally there in the WSF, a semblance of order normally emerges to enable the moot to play its due role of allowing social movements to interact with one another and create awareness among the people and mobilise them. Regrettably, this proved to be the weakest spot of WSF 2006 (Karachi). The organizations which attended — those working for landless peasants, bonded labour, fisherfolks’ rights, the Baloch, the Sindhis’ and the Kashmiris’ rights — were delighted with this opportunity to meet and strengthen their movements. But their message didn’t spread far and wide as it could have. This is a pity because so much human energy was available, waiting to be harnessed. There were so many issues waiting to be raised to create public opinion in favour of a struggle.

Was it that enough time and effort were not put into the planning and organisational aspects? Were the numerous NGOs working for a common cause not associated from the start when the WSF was being planned? Many of them claim that they were not even consulted and so they decided to keep out of it.

As a result, not all the 500-plus sessions that were announced could be held. The organisers claim that 75 per cent were held but the disappointed prospective audience from Karachi dispute that claim. There were many people who went to attend a seminar and found that it had been cancelled. Bad management. The grounds of the Sports Complex were always brimming with life. The stalls — food and handicraft exhibits for sale — were never short of customers. The protesters and demonstrators made their noisy presence felt in a big way with their slogan chanting, banners and flag waving. The cultural celebrations which add life and colour to such gatherings became a central attraction.

But those present were not mobilised to attend the sessions which were in any case poorly organised. The programme was made available late and then too it was constantly being changed. The failure to observe schedules drove away many people. Unsurprisingly, the mobilisation that was expected to take place as was needed for an event of this proportion was absent.

Pakistani NGOs have never been famous for mobilising the masses for any cause. The process of creating awareness and bringing people together for social change has not been easy in this country. The basic tool used by activists, namely interpersonal meetings, has had limited application in a society where community participation and social capital have not been its strength. The agencies which facilitate these contacts, such as trade bodies, students unions, human rights groups, have been destroyed over the years by oppressive governments that feared their power. Another tool used by social activists, namely, lobbying to influence policymakers has been more widely used. But in the absence of mobilisation and the backing of a large number of people, the lobbyists have at times not had the political clout that is needed to persuade those in office to change policies.

Pakistan lacks the most important factors that facilitate the dissemination of social messages at the grassroots level, namely, literacy and education, increased mobility of groups, freedom of expression, a measure of economic independence and a close link between social activism and the political process.

The Pakistan Social Forum, which organised the Karachi event, was formed in March 2003 when 50 civil society organisations, labour federations and trade unionists, rights-based people’s movements, teachers, journalists associations, political and social activists had a two-day consultation in Lahore. Their idea was to disseminate in Pakistan the ideals of the WSF — a forum of progressive, social democrats, socialists and other anti-imperialist, pro-peace and democratic forces from all over the world.

This consultation rightly perceived the WSF as a long-term process of engaging forces of anti-war and anti-neo-liberalism under one banner. “Realizing the need to diffuse the process in Pakistan the group committed itself to a continued struggle and efforts to take it further to all corners of the country. The group also pledged to continue its struggle to unite all progressive, rights-based and democratic forces in Pakistan against the common threats to the world and marginalised groups,” the press statement released on the occasion had said.

The experience of the WSF session in Karachi highlights the organisational challenges the PSF faces. The most vital issue that will determine the future course of social change in Pakistan is the capacity of organisations working for change to mobilise at the grassroots level. Owing to the factors listed above and the lack of political will in the mainstream parties it is becoming increasingly difficult for NGOs and political parties to bring people together for a common cause. Small wonder then that it is not possible to draw a decent crowd for a protest demonstration against the American war on Iraq — something for which it would be impossible to find even one supporter in this country.

The only groups which can pull massive crowds are the religious parties that now excel in the art of organisation, mobilisation and charging a crowd with their fiery rhetoric. They also have the advantage of having a captive audience since they follow up their public ideological stance with tangible service on the ground — whether one agrees with their political and social character or not.

It is not that there is no pool of human resources to mobilise in Pakistan. The WSF meeting in Karachi and the response to the earthquake in the north in October 2005 amply prove that the people would participate in a public process if they are provided direction and leadership. On both occasions young people from all walks of life and of all classes turned up, be it the WSF venue or the earthquake relief centres to participate in the activity announced.

While at the WSF many of them returned disappointed because no one enlisted their focused participation in the activity at the Sports Complex; in the case of earthquake relief operations their services were not optimised as they should have been. The need to mobilise and channelise the energy of the youth is the need of the hour.