The European Social Forum recently met in London to discuss issues facing modern society. Naomi de Berker was there and sees it as a positive step, whereas Gabrielle Koronka argues that it wasn’t worth the effort.
A real issue
The European Social Forum (ESF) is a gathering of non-governmental organisations, trade unions, environmentalists, peace campaigners and left-wing groups of all flavours and persuasions. This year, more than 20,000 delegates from over 70 countries met at Alexandra Palace for a series of workshops, plenaries, seminars and cultural performances. The three-day event ended with a massive anti-war demonstration.
People came from all over to swap ideas, learn from one another, and come up with strategies to change our world. The main issues were the war in Iraq, privatisation, environmental change, racism, women’s rights, debt relief, poverty, corporate responsibility, the G8 summit (to be held in Edinburgh in 2005), and the policies of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.
Yet the majority of the newspapers only covered the storming of the stage at Ken Livingstone’s speech by a few radical leftist groups not affiliated with ESF and the disruption of a talk discussing ending the occupation of Iraq, where Sobhi Al-Mashadani, the general secretary of the Iraq Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), was scheduled to speak. They also focused on the mix-up at the opening ceremony in Southwark Cathedral, where over 1,500 rain-soaked delegates had to wait outside due to lack of space. Even the Guardian, media partners of the ESF, made much of the confusion at Conway House, where 6,000 delegates queued in the rain to register in a building that could only hold 900.
But these were all minor hiccups. The majority of the sessions went on without interruption, with a variety of views being expressed. One example of this was the meeting where different activists debated what to do in protest at the G8 Summit to be held in Edinburgh in July 2005. Globalise Resistance wants to seriously disrupt the summit and protest against its very existence. Save the Children merely want to influence the politicians. Yet both extremes allowed the other to talk and plan to work together, gaining solidarity in their differences. The Southwark Cathedral was the largest venue that ESF could book and they had not expected such demand and the majority of delegates had no problem picking up their wristbands.
People have to plan action, forge links and work together - that’s what the forum was about
I found the forum a fascinating learning curve. I chatted to people from all over the world and listened to speeches in seven different languages translated by the 500- strong BABELs team - all volunteer translators. It was a truly European experience. It made me feel part of something bigger than myself and part of a larger Europe in a way I never have before. Surely that can’t be a bad thing?
Critics say that the forum is all ideas and no action but people have to plan action, forge links and work together - that’s what the forum was about. It wasn’t about changing the world that minute, but how we’re going to change it in the future. It’s there for people like me, who don’t know all that’s going on in the world of the IMF bank and corporate politics, so that we can learn what’s going on in our name, with our democratic sanction; we can take up our personal responsibility to make a difference. It’s also there so that hard-core activists can link up, delve deeper into issues and learn from one another. Sure, talk isn’t action but we need to talk in order to take action.
Although many critics argue that ESF is a bourgeois white affair, this was not the case. Yes, the majority of the people there were white but then Europe has a largely white population. People of all colours and creeds were welcomed and there was a large anti-racist contingent of organisations present. Their seminars were some of the best attended and their stall had a constant buzz of people.
It was an expensive trip - I won’t deny that. Tickets cost between £20 and £30, and I spent £10 a day on horrible food - standard English fare; food that offended the sensibilities of the many vegetarians, vegans and religious groups there. Yet how much does the G8 summit cost? The European Cup Final? The money spent on football and large power manipulation tactics is far less justified. Meetings cost money, and we in the affluent North can afford it. Food is also not the be-all and end-all. Most people I knew there took picnics and it was great sharing food from all over the world.
The majority of those at the conference were young and dynamic with not much money in their pockets. The popularity of the sleeping quarters at the Millennium Dome, where 5,000 people stayed for a mere £10 for the three days, testifies to the fact that a lot of those at the conference didn’t have much money. Those organisations that didn’t have the financial standing to pay the fees, ranging from £50 to £1,000, were exempted and given grants so that they could participate.
Nor was the forum inundated with British organisations - of the 1,000 groups taking part, only 350 were British. All kinds of debates and issues were incorporated and the forum gave a voice to many non-mainstream political groups. So let the critics highlight the negatives as much as they want - those who attended the forum know it was a success and left it with millions of new ideas buzzing round their heads.
Naomi de Berker
A waste of euros
This is the third European Social Forum so far. Considering its infancy I should probably delay any attack, but the question needs to be asked: what’s the point?
What the Forum is looking for are proposals and action, what they keep getting are the same old topics discussed in a new arena, hounded outside by protest after protest. Will they actually achieve anything?
Discussion is certainly a good thing, especially when you have eminent speakers from around the world coming to relay their opinions and experiences on a group of people who may never know of the challenges faced by some countries first-hand. But a substantial criticism levied against the forum has been one of discrimination, for those who cannot afford the time or money (£20 for those unemployed, who paid in advance) are just the people who should be able to attend these ‘open’ discussions. This led Brazilian activist Anselmo Schweltzner to comment, “This forum in London is not reality. We aren’t seeing the unemployed, nor immigrants in attendance.”
There was so much talk about the Iraqi war that the coverage of greater global issues, such as the redistribution of global wealth, discrimination, oppression and poverty, appeared minor in comparison. Instead, the voices fighting from these corners were mostly heard outside the Forum, where every left-leaning, pro-green and anti-corporate group protested and marched to their own beat. You can’t call this progress; it happens all the time.
Expenditure on the event has been estimated at £400,000 of taxpayers’ money, a staggering amount for a forum. Why does there always have to be a huge spectacle, where one event tries to outdo the previous? It shouldn’t cost money to hold a forum. After all, what’s there really to celebrate? Nothing has actually been achieved. It’s as if Ken Livingstone is congratulating himself on managing to attract the event, and not thinking about what the event itself stands for. We should all remember that the phrase most associated with it is ‘alter globalisation’; that, in its own words, it exists to “struggle against the inequitable and undemocratic processes and outcomes of capitalist society; privatisation, corporate power, war, global debt and poverty, environmental destruction, racism, sexism, homophobia, the erosion of civil liberties, asylum law, prison slavery, animal exploitation” etc. This is not the Olympic Games, this is something that needs to become a driven force if it’s to succeed.
Which brings me to my next point; not many people had heard of it before it came to London, and, even more disappointingly, after it came. Its coverage in the media was scant, apart from to highlight the attempted attack by anarchists on Livingstone during his cancelled ‘Unite against Racism’ debate, and most of the people I ask about it look at me with a puzzled face and say, “I think I’ve heard of the name?”
It seems to me that the ESF is becoming more of a focal point for protest than an active discussion forum. Not only was Livingstone a target, but there were criticisms by the volunteer translators’ group, claiming that several of their Turkish and Kurdish speakers had been refused entry into Britain to work for the event. An independent activist group Indymedia complained that their servers in London had been taken down on FBI orders, asking, “How can US law be executed in the EU?” And the closing of the event was panned for its anti-war message as speakers included relatives of Gordon Gentle, a 19-year-old Glaswegian soldier killed in Iraq, and the Palestine Solidarity campaign. Even the food was criticised for being standard British bacon rolls and sausages for a largely organic and vegetarian conference.
The issues the ESF wants to tackle are important, and perhaps it has given itself the right ideals to live up to. Maybe in a few years its actions will speak louder than its words and something will be achieved. It will give enough coverage to all the problems the world now faces. It might satisfy people a little better, and maybe more people my age will have heard of it. I’d go just to see the speakers, and not for the expectation that anything may come out of it. Perhaps it promised too much; as a spokesperson said at the end of the forum: “These last three days have been a truly remarkable time. It has rejuvenated those of us in the UK and those from around the world that, together, we have the strength of argument and the passion of purpose to make Another World Possible.” Good luck to them.