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World Social Forum

Near flop

by Mohamed Gueye

Opinion

Lula da Silva is embraced by a supporter in Dakar

Lula da Silva is embraced by a supporter in Dakar

Among the many pictures of the World Social Forum in Dakar, one will certainly last: the round table of Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president, and Senegal’s head of state Abdoulaye Wade. The two were polite, but disagreed very much. Both praised their ideology: socialism in the case of Lula and liberalism in the case of Wade. By Mohamed Gueye

It was the Forum’s second day. Brazil’s former leader was comforting a crowded audience that considered the liberal economic order a failure. Lula stressed the change in his country that set in eight years ago when he took office. In his view, Brazil shows that “another world is pos­sible”: hunger and illiteracy are issues of its past, poverty has gone down and there are good educational opportunities. Brazil’s shining example allowed Lula and his comrades to poke fun at the arrogance of those “who lecture us on how to run our countries, but who failed to manage their own economies well”. Lula’s message was that Africans can achieve what Brazilians did since their continent has the same potential as his country, being no less endowed by nature.

At the end of the discussion, President Wade opposed Lula head on. He insisted that state-run economies had failed all over the world, so the free-market approach had won: “This kind of policy is successful all over the world, and that a few banks in America and Europe collapsed does not make a difference.” Wade ended on a provocative note: “I’ve been watching the activities of your movement for ten years. What, except for noise and protest, have you really achieved apart from Lula’s example? Nothing. I’m sorry, your approach simply doesn’t work.” The audience booed, and Wade left.

A similarly impressive image was ­people dancing for joy at the end of the World Social Forum on 11 February when the news broke that Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s president, had left office. It felt like fresh rain falling on the desert in the evening. In the eyes of many activists, who had come from all over the world to Dakar for one week, the victory of the Egyptian people was a triumph for all oppressed people. Moroccans hugged South Americans, and people from the Democratic Republic of the Congo wept for joy. Everyone celebrated the dictator’s downfall as if they had personally contributed to making it happen.

Such scenes overshadowed the real and serious issues that were discussed. In view of Africa’s day-to-day experience, land grabs were a hot topic. Building on examples from Senegal, Cameroon and Madagascar, participants spelled out that this recent trend really affects all countries, and that it should be resisted, so that there will never be masses of landless farmers in Africa as there are in Latin America.

In the Republic of Senegal, it is predominantly the Saudis who claim irrigated lands along the Senegal river in the country’s north, near the border to Mauretania. They want to grow cereals and ship the food home. Most of Senegal’s domestically grown rice is from that area. Senegal’s government, which is negotiating land deals with the Saudis, does not tier emphasising self-reliance in food production at the same time.

Another pertinent topic was tax evasion. Eva Joly, a French member of the European Parliament, told the assembled globalisation sceptics that every second Euro spent on development aid flows back to Europe thanks to corrupt African leaders who invest the money they syphon off abroad. Disappointingly, she did not propose any lasting solution beyond demanding more transparency.

Nonetheless, moments like these kept the weak flame of the World Social Forum burning. In its history, the meeting in Dakar certainly was not a shining light. Rarely was a Forum mismanaged to such an extent. The organisers failed to come up with a coherent programme, and the event itself was quite disorderly. It was not a good idea to choose the Cheick Anta Diop University as the venue. Students were everywhere and insisted on their predominance. Hawkers added to the confusion. Thanks to Lula, Wade and Mubarak, the event was only a near flop, not a total one.