Looking Ahead : Taking the Larger Picture

Prof. Boaventura de Sousa Santos, in conversation with Jai Sen, CACIM, in New Delhi, India, on May 20 2009

CACIM, posted May 30 2009

Jai Sen : Welcome to CACIM (external link), Boa ! I would like to focus first on the question of ‘Looking ahead to World Social Forum in 2011 in Dakar, Senegal’ and on which we are organising a seminar here in Delhi on June 2 (external link), with Rabia Abdelkrim Chikh of ENDA (based in Dakar), and who is also a member of the Africa Social Forum and of the International Council of the WSF. What are the kinds of perspectives and challenges you see the Dakar Forum as facing ? And : After all the controversy and debate that took place within the IC over so many meetings, what was the strategic perspective with which the International Council finally made the decision to hold WSF in 2011 in Dakar ?

As you know, we at CACIM try to play a critically engaged and supportive role to things happening within the WSF process, and – especially given the troubled history of this particular decision, and given what happened at and after Nairobi, we feel it is now appropriate and necessary to also do so with respect to the Dakar Forum - in terms of asking hard questions and looking carefully and critically at what kind of process might be there; and that should be there. We are also trying to interest people here in India in what happens there. So we’d like to ask you to please engage with our questions, and the issues that they contain, as closely and as critically as possible !

Boaventura de Sousa Santos : The idea [of organising a world meeting of the WSF process in west Africa] was there for long time. It was polemical at first. After Nairobi however, some people felt that we should pause and see the conditions we have to hold meetings in Africa, particularly in financial and organisational terms. I always felt that it was not a major problem, and that on the contrary in Nairobi, and given the conditions under which we met there, it was quite successful. There were of course problems and there was too much interference of some MNCs like the South African Telecommunication Company, and other things like that. But on the whole I think it was really a major success. Particularly for many people in the North who don’t know anything about Africa and Nairobi, they had thought that it would be a complete disaster. But it was not a complete disaster.

What one can probably say is that the role played by some conservative religious organisations, both Catholic and Protestant, who interfered in strong ways with the feminist agenda of the WSF, was very negative - and that was noted, denounced, and discussed. But in a sense, their interfering only lent more interest to the feminist proposals. There was also another problem which could have been easily solved, and it was finally solved but in a confrontational way, but could have been otherwise - the problem of bringing in to the Forum people from the Nairobi region, particularly from the large suburban community where most of the people live and where most of the people we work with are. But they could not afford the fee and so they finally had to storm the gates to enter the WSF. There was some kind of negotiation on the first day which was not successful, and then people really made their own way into the Forum. I think that this was very important. There was also a symbolic element to this entry - there were lots of people there with them, from all over the world - from South Africa, myself, and many other movements - probably you too - and all of us contributed to that. But they were the ones who did the real confrontation.

So I think it was very important for the WSF movement to come back to Africa, for various reasons. The first is that Africa is the continent most affected by neoliberalism. Some people say “Neoliberalism has come to an end”. But we don’t know what that really means - if it has really come to an end, then what is after that ? In any case - whatever it is, it’s not very hopeful, but it is clear that it is not going to be the same type of free trade orgy that used to be the case in the past. And I think we owe it to Africa to give a sign that after the neoliberal moment in global capitalism, Africa should have the first word in terms of the WSF. That’s the way I see the meeting taking place in Senegal, a country which also has a past of interesting anti-colonial struggles, and of cultural struggles through important personalities. So I am very hopeful about the WSF 2011 in Dakar. And I think it will be a very, very successful one. But of course we can still discuss the conditions and the work which has to be done to make it a success.

Jai : Let’s take a look ahead to Dakar, by taking a look back at Nairobi. For instance, the analysis that came out after the Nairobi Forum, of the relationship between the Organising Committee and the International Office of the WSF; of the way the Nairobi Organising Committee worked in relation to the question of the exclusion of large sections of population that took place there;, the question of Kenya being a country where there were already a large number of evangelical churches working there – and therefore that there would naturally be these fundamentalist elements present at the Forum… Has there been any similar analysis done for the Dakar Forum ? I am not talking about precisely the same factors. If this has come up, then we anyway haven’t heard about this - this has not been publicised. In short, is there some kind of local and regional perspective, let alone a global one ?

Boa : No, this analysis has not been done, as far as I know. But from my point of view, what is most hopeful about Dakar is that it has been, for a long time, the city where the headquarter of a federation of research centres of Africa is located, CODESRIA (external link). It is the best place in Africa for them. These research centres are not like the ones that you have in the global North. Most of these researchers are actually activists - they have been at some time members of parties, at other times members of social movements, and they are all engaged. All of them are political scientists, sociologists, and anthropologists - in the struggle. And they chose Dakar to be the best place. And in fact CODESRIA is also a very, very successful research federation. I was at their general assembly meeting in Yaoundé in Cameroon, and I was really impressed by the quality of discussion there. The discussions were not ivory tower type of discussions – among intellectuals with no connection with social movement. The best example is that the new President of CODESRIA, he is from Zimbabwe, and he has been researching on land issues for a long time now, but he is also someone who has actually struggled for land issues in Zimbabwe. He has been very present in the struggles and in running some risks there. So, I think these are hopeful possibilities for the Forum at Dakar.

Jai : On the other hand though, there was also a long extensive and at times bitter discussion within the IC – over the past four meetings – about holding the WSF in Dakar… The decision kept getting postponed and postponed. Why was that ? It kept coursing through the IC – but then how was it so easily resolved in Rabat ?

Boa : Well, there were some people who were probably just not very enthusiastic about having a WSF in Africa again, and there were some who would like it to go back to Asia - given the strategic importance of Asia in this year or over the next decade, so to say. But most of the difficulty came from the fact that there is no one Africa. There are many Africas, and we immediately noticed at least three. There is the North African one, which is all that from Egypt to Morocco and so on, Arab and Muslim. Then we have central, sub-Saharan Africa, where there is basically the same level of development. It varies from country to country and they do not have same cultural make-up. This is much more the case of sub-Saharan Africa, where they have different histories, trajectories, and peoples. Islam is very much present, but it’s a more Africanised Islam, not a political Islam.

Jai : And Senegal would be a part of this ?

Boa : Yes, yes. Even though Africa now has two different kinds of Islam. One that is Africanised and that co-exists with other religions and traditions in Africa, and the one that is more fundamentalist. This is easily visible even from the difference in designs of mosques. In the first case, the mosques are very humble ones, whereas in the second they are outstanding buildings, and sometime very outside the context in the landscape. So I think that we have these realities. And then in socio-economic terms, we have the strong presence of the US in the North of Africa, particularly in and through Egypt, and then we have the very contentious northeast of Africa; and then you have South Africa. South Africa was resisted until they withdrew from being a candidate for organising the Forum. I don’t think you will ever have support [within the IC] for holding Forum there - the reason being that many countries suspect and resent some kind of sub-imperialistic relationship between South Africa and particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

So I think the tensions were there, and when Morocco was mentioned [as the location for the recent IC meeting], there was a lot of discussion because of the internal colonial situation there with Sahrawi people and the relationship with the state - because it is an authoritarian state, in some ways – and this could have created a problem concerning the autonomy of the Forum.

I think that this is a very interesting demonstration of the deliberation process in the WSF process. They take time, people think things over, and they go to a meeting that is confrontational - and then there is the very next meeting which is a consensual one ! Some work was done in the meantime though, that led to consensus, and I am very glad because I was one who has been very much in favour of having more social forums in Africa because that’s where we have more people who can’t travel. You know, there are many people in Asia and particularly in India, but the ratio between those who can travel and those who can’t travel is much higher in Africa. And the people who can travel are the ones associated with the European or North American NGOs, and these NGOs only give travel grants to those who are their affiliates and not to those who are independent.

Jai : Let me take a step back. You mentioned that Africa is at the forefront of bearing the brunt of neoliberalism and imperialism and that there is therefore every reason to hold the Forum there. In fact, because the Forum in Nairobi was clouded by these local factors, this edge got taken off. There was some important work done there of building some new campaigns but nevertheless this larger perspective perhaps got lost. And so perhaps Dakar will be another opportunity within four years to do this.

But there are also other things that are happening in the world around us. On the one hand, there is the financial crisis which has continued to play out and which is widely being portrayed as a crisis of capitalism itself; and secondly, there is the much larger ecological, climate crisis which is taking place. Curiously, neither of these two issues seems to have featured in any of the discussions in the contextualisation of the forum, on the how the Forum sees itself in relation to these…

On the other hand, and for me which is extremely important, is the fact that you have this very important Minga process that is taking shape from Latin America. It is not just that – as I see it, it is a rising articulation of expectations by indigenous people from Brazil, from Australia and New Zealand, from India, and throughout much of the world – in Latin America and North America also - and the Zapatistas are anyway there. So that’s a kind of beautiful colour that is always there in the sky. But these are independent of the Forum and the Forum doesn’t seem to speak to this other kind of world movement that is emerging. So, how do you see the Dakar Forum – or for that matter, the Global Day of Action next year (in 2010) as relating to these other currents ? What is the imperative for the WSF to relate to this larger situation within which it itself is taking shape ?

Boa : I think that there is a room for both, an intensification and a broadening of the World Social Forum - and I see it coming. When we look at things in retrospect, possibly we can always analyse it as a glass half empty or half full. But when we imagine indigenous people for example five years back, the indigenous movement was a very small group coming from 3-4 countries – and now they are a continental organisation, and where they have even brought in the Sahrawi Parliament as an active member ! The First Nation peoples of Canada and from North America are already involved in the process.

I think where the processes are still at an early stage of engagement is in India, where much more work has to be done with the Adivasis, with the struggles they are in - with making known their struggles and that people there are suffering other kinds of discrimination, such as the race kind of segregation that the Dalits experience. Even though we know that this is a specific kind of discrimination, of caste, but it’s more than that – it involves 160 million people. I think we have to do much more about this.

The WSF is a process as much as an event, and it is a part of the broader movement that we have called global justice movement, and there are many other processes that are not associated with the WSF process and probably they should. It depends on the pulling effect, the centripetal effect that the Forum has. How attractive the Forum becomes….

In case of the Zapatistas, for a while there was the question of armed struggles - because of the Charter of Principles and the idea there that armed struggle should not be adopted as a form of struggle for the movements that associate with the Forum - but after the Sixth Declaration of the Zapatistas, this problem has gone and therefore the conditions are now there for Zapatistas to join in. And in my view, they should join. The problem is not whether they will be invited but whether they will accept that. Because they have been very careful about engaging with other movements that may dilute their specificity. They are a very small group of indigenous people, and they have specific types and forms of organisations which in my view would be tremendous if you would make this known to the rest of the continent and their forms of the organisation of the municipalities or caracols. All this would contribute to a ferment of institutional innovation and autonomy, which will be useful for the rest of the continent. But they are small.

And the other point is that they have reached a level of struggle that you can’t really compare with. Chiapas is a little corner of Mexico. They [the Zapatistas] in fact failed to created larger alliances inside Mexico. They have more allies outside than inside Mexico. Meantime, particularly the Bolivian process – there, the indigenous movement is in government, and this changes completely the terms of struggle. Chiapas comes with a strong cultural and political baggage that doesn’t fit well with the current struggles that are taking place down south. In my view however, this will be a perfect case for alliance building, for intercultural translation, and for discussion among not among only types of strategies but different phases of strategies, and so on and so forth. It would also probably bring a more universal attention to the indigenous issue. So I think that it’s a process. I am myself will be in favour of this, and there are others who are in favour, that sooner or later the Zapatistas will come.

Jai : You have actually been very closely associated with the Minga process that is being coordinated by CAOI. We in our small way also think that this is an extremely significant initiative because it’s continental, and also planetary. It has an organic, larger vision of life and nature - not only of social relations; and all this is coming from the indigenous people. During the 70s we had the deep ecological perspective being put forward, but it never had the power of living life this way, and this is such an important thing. As you have said, it is this process of agglutination that has taken place that has allowed it to take shape over the past 5-7 years.

''I was on the other hand struck - forgive me if I am sounding a little bit cynical and sceptical - by how little time or shrift was given to this vision at the WSF IC meeting in Belem. It became just one more meeting, one more demonstration that was listed on PowerPoint?. There is an action in Prague, there is one in Puno… We are doing a bunch of things. Yes, time was running out at that Council meeting, they were at the end of their programme, and there was a need to programmatise things - but it seems to me that there was a major political-intellectual challenge that had come before the Council, that was not recognised. I don’t know if you agree with me at all. I feel that this conversation needs to be opened up - between this entirely independent autonomous initiative and the other constituents of WSF… How can this happen ? Secondly, how do you feel that WSF might actually relate to the Minga process ? Should it be - and which might well be an appropriate position - to just stand back and say this is independent and this is not our job, it is not appropriate for us to interfere and our job is only to communicate and let people know whatever happens ? But that’s clearly not how things work. There have been specific processes into which the WSF has intervened – and so there are also preferential treatments. How do you therefore think the WSF process should intervene in or relate to this initiative ?''

Boa : To your first question, quite frankly that will be a larger debate but I do not attribute that much importance to the IC. I think that it will always be a weak structure at this point. It falls behind the energies of the movements. If you were there, in the first meetings you could see how poor they were in terms of the diversity of their interests and of their discussion. It was a time when they could not predict the coming strength of the indigenous people. They saw it as a phenomenon localised in one country and in that case just Ecuador and nothing else. What was important was Lula coming to power, Chavez coming to power. Now people are almost ashamed of talking about Chavez, there’s an embarrassment, because many people who have been with him are leaving him, which the leftists are resenting.

I still support Chavez but I see a problem rising. What happened there was that the IC could not do an in-depth analysis of the situation there, and it is never going to do that. So I think at this stage we have to go ahead and see where the dynamics and energies are. It so happens that at this moment the indigenous people are becoming, so to say, hegemonic because they manage to combine something that you have never managed to combine before, political economy and culture.

By the way, being here in New Delhi and after three days of a meeting about Gandhi,* that’s an interesting comment to make. On the one side you have a political economy, you have a incredible political struggle taking place against the ruthless mining, depletion of natural and human resources, contamination of water resources, privatisation of water, and deforestation – that is going on in Latin America as it is in India. So it’s a political economy confrontation and that’s why 800 leaders of indigenous movement are in prison in Peru and Chile. So this is serious. But when they combine it with a more culturalist critique of western modernity that appeals both to ecologists and to human rights activists. That is to say, the conditions are now there for broader alliances, and that’s what they are becoming now. What we have to do is to move from the ecological to the feminist movement. That’s where the resistances are higher vis-à-vis indigenous movements - and there are already, we don’t have time to talk about it here, meetings taking place in Peru that are bringing together the women’s movement and indigenous movements to address and resolve the reciprocal stereotypes that exist between these two types of movements.

So I think that if this is what is happening, we have to have a cumulative process in Senegal. We are not going to say that ‘these topics are not important any more because in Dakar we have more problems – it is we who have an idea of what poverty is’; if you allow yourself to be trapped in the ideology of poverty, then you are back to alternative development, you are back in global capitalism. And then you lose the radicalness of indigenous peoples. But I don’t think we are going to do that. And I can see that within Africa, there is a building up of radical alternatives coming out of the subsistence peasant economy. 70% of the economy is an informal economy, so there are new things occurring. Traditional authorities are reacting critically but not as oppressively as they were before. So I think it will be an interesting meeting, and I think that Indian social movements should pay a lot of attention to what is happening over there. We are going to see a confrontation between what we consider to be the modern - the Global North is considered as ‘modern’ - and what is considered to be traditional. In fact, what we are talking about is different ways of being modern; alternative modernities. One of which appeals to the roots, and appealing to the roots is not appealing to the past but is appealing to radical resources that you have in your cultural history.

Jai : Let me end by asking you, what implications do you think that the organised presence within the WSF of indigenous peoples and the cultures they have - of the relations they have between themselves, of the way they relate to the outside world – will have for the WSF process ?

Boa : It will take time. It will be a qualitative process once they become more important in the process. Because is not just their presence and the way they formulate issues, but the way they deliberate and the time they need for deliberation. At this point, they have to fit in to a very western-centric kind of model of organisation - in which ‘we have two days to meet’ (and sometimes less), 3 minutes to speak, and so on. Three minutes make no sense for an indigenous leader to speak, and he may even want to speak in his language - which many people won’t know. So I think we are going to face many challenges, and they will in a sense be creative challenges. Once they become more important, their strategy - and which I support - is to get in to with a low profile so that the movements there don’t feel threatened; but there will be a time when enough leverage has been developed where they can say ‘Well, let us wait a minute, we have to discuss this thing in this way, that way’, and ‘This is something we want to put on the agenda’. And this will be all the more important if the indigenous peoples are not going to suffer any serious defeat and if they don’t commit any serious mistakes as they did for instance in Ecuador in early 2000, when they associated themselves with an indigenous Party that decimated the movement there. So everything is contingent and open-ended. But as you know I am a tragic optimist, so I feel the chances are good for good things happening there.

Jai : Thanks a lot, Boa ! I am hoping that you and we will be able to carry on this conversation over this next year or two. Our idea here was just to open up these questions looking ahead to the coming Forum in Dakar. I think we have managed to do this very well !

Boaventura de Sousa Santos is Professor of Sociology at the University of Coímbra, Portugal, and a distinguished scholar of the Institute for Legal Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison? in the US. He is the author of numerous books, including most recently The Rise of the Global Left : The World Social Forum and Beyond (Zed, 2006). He is currently editing a series of books resulting from a collective project titled Reinventing Social Emancipation : Toward New Manifestos, presently being published in Portuguese, Spanish, Italian, and English. (Volumes I, II, & III in English have been published during 2005-7 by Verso.)


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  • Boaventura de Sousa Santos came to New Delhi to attend and take part in a conference on Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, a seminal text he wrote in 1909.