World Social Forum spotlights inequalities

NAIROBI, Kenya (IPS) — The 7th World Social Forum wound to a close here after five days of dialogue, art, poetry, dance, drama and protests led by participants from around the globe who believe “another world is possible.”

Some 50,000 delegates from about 100 countries braved the sweltering heat to discuss what they called illegitimate debt, HIV/AIDS, shelter, joblessness, poverty and unfair trade with rich nations, among other concerns. Unusual for Nairobi, described as the “Green City in the Sun,” temperatures stayed in the upper 70s or above.

Wiping beads of sweat from their faces, many participated in a 10-mile marathon for “basic rights” that snaked through the city’s teeming slums on Jan. 25, the closing day. There are 199 slums in Nairobi, most densely populated and severely lacking in basic services. The marathon route was designed to spotlight the global housing problem.

Starting at Korogocho, a slum in eastern Nairobi, the marathon’s finish line was in Uhuru Park, where a massive rally was held. The forum had opened there Jan. 20.

“The fact that the first full WSF has taken place here in Kenya on Africa’s soil is a big celebration,” said Wahu Kaara, a member of the Africa Social Forum council. “It is an acknowledgment that the world is in solidarity with Africa.”

Speaker after speaker addressed the sea of people who had gathered. Some chose to make parting remarks, others took stock of the discussions over the previous few days.

“The issues that emerged were very important — water, human rights, the question of illegitimate debt, housing and many more. I am sure we have planted the seeds of hope,” Wangari Maathai, the 2004 Nobel Peace laureate, said.

“But the challenge remains what we shall do when we go back home.”

The Nairobi WSF was the first hosted solely by an African country. Initially convened in 2001 in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre by local civic organizations, the annual forum traveled to Mumbai, India, in 2004, and was held in several venues in 2006: the Malian capital of Bamako; Caracas, Venezuela; and the Pakistani financial hub of Karachi.

The WSF was founded in opposition to the World Economic Forum, a gathering of top business and political leaders held at the same time in the Swiss resort town of Davos.

Corporate globalization has taken a heavy toll on countries like Kenya. Debt repayments to foreign banks make up 22 percent of the Kenyan government’s total budget, and there is not enough money to improve living standards for the poor, Kenyans said. More than half the population lives on less than a dollar a day.

For some delegates at the forum from the developed world, it was their first opportunity to get close to rural poverty in the developing world.

“It is a good experience to see how slums in Africa look like,” said marathoner Alvaro Angeleri, a runner from Italy. “But I am saddened that the conditions are so inhuman. A better world must be possible for slum dwellers. Governments must put in efforts to create this world for their citizens.”

Other issues discussed during the forum included the promotion of “food sovereignty,” racial equality, the protection of natural resources, and labor and women’s rights. The forum also adopted a call for worldwide demonstrations in March against the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

All rights reserved, IPS 2007