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The Road from Protest to Professionalism: World Social Forum Looks for a Business Plan

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It started as a protest movement, but now anti-globalization activists are struggling to redefine themselves. The new message from the World Social Forum in Nairobi is that business plans are needed to help make the world a better place.

Filippo Addarii is an Italian who lives in London; he works with Nigerians who live in Stockholm, he has Dutch friends who work in Hong Kong, he encounters Germans whose work has taken them to Jakarta and Bangladeshis who live in his native city of Bologna. He meets Danes from Cairo and telephones with Brazilians he met in Mumbai. There are thousands of addresses in his Blackberry -- and scores of them are globalization skeptics. They, though, are facing something of an existential crisis.

The people in his workshop have disappeared. He looks for them in vain at Gate 2 at the national stadium in Kenya, where a demonstration for the land rights of South Asian river dwellers happens to be coinciding with a rally to protest the mismanagement of the Zimbabwean economy. As people emerge from surrounding tents and stream down the steps from the upper levels of the stadium, a humming sound fills the air -- the sound of the day's 300 seminars and conferences, all part of a six-day, 1,200-event mega-conference that began on Jan. 20. Welcome to the 2007 World Social Forum in Nairobi.

Beads of sweat stream down Filippo Addarii's face as he desperately searches for a patch of urgently needed shade. On the first day of the forum he underestimated the intensity of the Kenyan sun and burned his forearms, face and neck. His skin is already beginning to peel, and he grimaces whenever a colleague walks by and squeezes his arm.

Addarii has facetiously written the name "God" and "Heaven" as his address on the delegate ID card dangling from his neck. Aside from that, everything about the man is decidedly professional. Addarii, who is only 32 and already a director at the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations (ACEVO), a powerful British Third Sector network, says that professionalism is currently the social movement's greatest challenge.

When Addarii discusses the might of civil society -- and what is referred to in England as the third sector, the non-governmental and non-commercial sector -- he sounds almost like a business consultant. His speeches are devoid of any trace of the language of do-gooders and citizens' initiatives, the kinds of people who stand behind makeshift tables in the cities of the world, handing out Xeroxed flyers against world hunger.

Social justice groups must finally learn to take themselves seriously, says Addarii. They must realize how important their role is in a world in which the rich countries are increasingly withdrawing their financial support for public services, while the public sector in poor countries is often a persistent failure.

According to Addarii, civil society needs managers who know their job and their enterprises must be based on sound personnel policies. Human rights activists too need business plans, and environmental activists ought to be thinking about mergers and economic issues, even if the purpose of these efforts is not to turn a profit but to achieve something that is far more priceless -- doing the right thing.

Indeed, it would hardly be surprising were someone like Addarii wearing a resigned smile on his face when surveying the social forum in general and the Nairobi event in particular. From the very beginning, whatever could have gone wrong went wrong here. By noon on the first day all the programs -- 176 pages of small print -- had been taken before even half the delegates had been registered. And no new programs were printed by the time the conference ended last Thursday.

Many seminars were moved to other locations without any advance notice, power outages intermittently shut down the P.A. system, and the shuttle busses to downtown Nairobi became increasingly rare as the week wore on. For days there was no Internet access at the media center, and on one day the person who had the keys to the center's locked doors couldn't be found for hours.

At the end of the forum, armed thieves showed up at the site and robbed delegates at gunpoint, street kids descended on the caterers' tents and stuffed their pockets with food, and there was strife within the organizing committee because its Kenyan members refused to take anyone's advice.

The Kenyans had previously made the mistake of refusing all offers of organizational assistance from Porto Alegre, Brazil, where the last World Social Forum took place in the city's downtown area, and where organizers had been careful not to isolate the delegates from the local population. In Kenya, on the other hand, the delegates found themselves isolated at the sterile athletic campus in Kasarani, at least 10 kilometers from downtown Nairobi. Few of the area's residents were even aware that the forum was taking place, and even fewer were familiar with its purpose.

At the conference site, activists found themselves handing out flyers to other activists instead of the public. As if acting in some satire film, demonstrators staged their rallies essentially for one another's benefit on the concrete road surrounding the stadium.

In the turmoil of the stadium, Filippo Addarii finally finds a familiar face, Dele Ajayi-Smith, the head of a Nigerian foundation committed to developing social awareness in Africa -- a jovial, loud man who wears a traditional robe and jumps at every opportunity to be photographed. Ajayi-Smith wants to bring more democracy to Nigeria, and in doing so he risks his own skin. He believes that Africans must save themselves because others will not do it for them. He cheerfully pinches Addarii's arm, saying: "What a funny chaos we have here, Filippo."

Of the 150,000 delegates who had been expected to attend, 46,000 have actually registered. And of that number, only about 25,000 show up on a daily basis: Indians, Chileans and French; Tanzanians, Kenyans and Cameroonians, Spaniards, Brazilians and Canadians. All are forced to waste time looking for rooms and seminars on the balconies of the national stadium, walking long distances among the stadium's 24 gates as they try to find their sections. From the uppermost tier, one is offered a panoramic view of the surrounding landscape, bordered in the distance by the slums of Nairobi -- inside the vibrant green football pitch is framed by a track.

At Gate 11 on the stadium's upper level, nuns are searching for a panel of Franciscan monks discussing intercultural dialogue. Instead, under the tent-roof, they find a group called "Revolutionary Proletariat" giving a talk entitled, "The History of Humanity Took Shape by the Class Struggles." The sisters draw back and giggle like a group of schoolgirls.

Aging 1960s radicals from Europe, some already in their sixties themselves, are looking lost at Gate 7 on the lower level, their T-shirts still sporting the images of bygone class struggles -- hammer and sickle, Ché Guevara, the star of Vietnam. They are searching for a presentation about "Capitalism in Africa" sponsored by the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation, but before reaching their destination they are scattered in myriad directions, ending up in the midst of a conference held by a campaign opposing cut flowers, a presentation by Finnish young socialists about the "Nordic model," a presentation about a peace plan for Congo's Ituri region. Some end up at events protesting against Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola or Shell, nanotechnology or genetic engineering, George W. Bush, the G-8, the European Union or the World Bank.

When viewed from a distance, the World Social Forum is nothing but a faceless sea of faces, a wild carnival of cultures. But there is a structure should one look closer -- and a panoply of different qualities.

The world's assembly of grassroots organizations, which defined itself six years ago as a "counterforce to the proposals and dictates of imperialism and neoliberalism," is a true rainbow coalition, although not all colors shine equally bright.

Some of the groups present at the forum are the truly global, professionally managed organizations like Amnesty International, the International Campaign to Ban Landmines (ICBL) and "Civicus," an organization with a wealth of members, ideas and money. Among the high-profile attendees, Amnesty's annual reports became a fixed element of public debate long ago and the ICBL was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize -- groups which have given hope to millions around the world that, as the motto proclaims, "Another World Is Possible."

Civicus, an organization with its main offices in Johannesburg and Washington and satellite offices the world over, managed to organize a discussion between civil rights groups and Russian President Vladimir Putin, an event the president did in fact attend, spending two hours listening sullenly to what Civicus members and activists had to say.

Kumi Naidoo, a South African who heads Civicus and fought against apartheid in his own country, walks around shaking hands at the Nairobi forum. Naidoo is a star in the movement and has also become a celebrity outside its boundaries. He will fly from Nairobi directly to Davos, where he was invited to attend a panel discussion that included British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

Not everyone in Nairobi has the same matter-of-fact or even welcoming attitude to the Swiss forum. "There are people here who are shocked," says Naidoo. "They ask what could have possessed me to accept such an invitation. But I won't let them spoil it for me. I mean, if we can only convince 50 of these powerful men to support our cause, and if we can nudge them in our direction, convince them to listen and read, we'll consider ourselves a success."

Of course Naidoo, a member of South Africa's Indian minority, also sees the dangers. He says that the powerful must be careful not to use the powerless as window dressing. "We must take care not to allow our issues to colonize us." Despite his reservations, an interplay could develop between Davos and Nairobi. The world's leaders meeting in Switzerland could take a closer look at the agendas of the world's improvers in Nairobi. And the world's improvers could learn how to turn ideas into palpable reality.

As a big fish in a sea of committed activists and aid workers, Naidoo clearly sees the weakness of his own movement. Six years after the group's first forum, concrete plans on how exactly a "another world" is to be built have yet to be presented. The movement must discover the path "from opposition to proposition," as Naidoo puts it, from criticism to constructiveness. "We are constantly repeating ourselves," says Naidoo. "This is not good."

This verdict is especially applicable to a second large group that has always distinguished itself within the movement, a group one might call the master minds -- theoreticians of all political stripes from social democrat to ultra-leftwing. Some are fascinating people, important scholars and Nobel laureates who live their lives in harmony with their theories. But many are also off-putting in their radicalism, yesterday's men and organizations, still struggling with communist global formulas or, like Pakistan's Labour Party, holding up posters that depict Saddam on the gallows and read: "Why Saddam? Why not Blair and Bush?"

At Gate 2 Filippo Addarii gathers together the participants in his workshop. He is about an hour behind schedule, which isn't that bad at this Nairobi conference. Addarii's workshop is about leadership and about the ACEVO program. The organization has more than 2,000 members in Great Britain, all of them senior executives, directors and chairmen of major charitable institutions, well established agencies and citizens' groups -- the kinds of organizations that have always been stronger in the Anglo-American world than on the European continent with its longstanding faith in the responsibilities of the state.

Addarii stands in the glaring sun and holds up his organization's brochure, looking like a lost tour guide. By now a Kenyan professor and a feminist from Cameroon have turned up, although a group from Nigeria is still missing and the delegate from Pakistan who was just there has suddenly disappeared again. Addarii smokes a cigarette. A group marches by, protesting discrimination against gays and lesbians, almost immediately followed by a group of yelling Kenyans demanding free food and water at the conference.

On the upper tiers of the stadium, which have been partitioned off into smaller rooms using white canvas and Styrofoam panels, the facets of anti-globalization are being discussed in endless variations. But the core issues at each workshop or talk are the same. The global economic system leads to unfair conditions. The poor countries benefit far too little or not at all from globalization. The major corporations are so powerful that they are able to dictate their terms at will to entire countries, especially the weaker ones. International organizations like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the European Union are not designed to serve developing nations but the interests of the north, and instead of helping their policies destroy local markets and cultures.

One doesn't have to be a radical to see some truth in these ideas. Indeed, it seems that the time may have come when the World Social Forum no longer necessarily needs radicals to disseminate its core ideas.

Only a few years ago it was a different story. When the delegates in Porto Alegre talked about climate change and water shortages, about the dangers of genetic engineering and the deficiencies of international free trade agreements, governments and business leaders steadfastly believed that these dire predictions would not come true and that the free market would take care of the rest. But now a sense of alarm has become part of the mainstream, thanks in part to the World Social Forum, but the movement itself is ailing and seems to have arrived at a dead end.

The many small, local groups that steadfastly and resolutely fight, in their countries and districts and villages and streets, for a more humanitarian world are affected the least. Together with churches they form the third group within the world social movement, and there are reasons to consider them the most important group of all three.

The speakers in Nairobi included women from Mali who have dedicated themselves to an arduous struggle against the practice of female genital mutilation. There were activists from the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh who had come to Kenya to report on the successes of their campaigns against child labor. Kenyans talked about the kindergartens and workshops they have built and continue to run in Nairobi's slums. Young people from Malawi described their efforts to control recurring floods along the Thangadzi River, where they are digging out the riverbed to make it deeper, sometimes with their bare hands.

Churches play an important role in many of these initiatives. They are a stabilizing power and important influence in civil society, especially in Africa. One of their advantages is that they do not depend on spectacular campaigns to drum up funding. They act on their own initiative and in the belief that their actions will create stability. The churches are still attending to the victims of Chernobyl and the Indian Ocean tsunami, long after the army of private aid workers has departed.

There are thousands of stories of grassroots activists and churches working hand in hand, and almost every one of them is an adventure in humanity. The World Social Forum is a stage for these stories to be told. People are being saved constantly around the globe. Hope is returning to villages and huts because there are others who make it their mission, if not to save the world, to at least light a small, proverbial light instead of constantly complaining about the darkness.

This is why neither Filippo Addarii, the Italian professional from London, nor Kumi Naidoo, the South African from Washington, ridicules the chaos of the forum. Both know that the grassroots organizations and churches are urgently needed to serve as the movement's soul, despite the fact that they often seem awkward in the spotlight of the event's publicity. "You must consider," says Naidoo, "that these people spend the entire year climbing mountains. Here they can let off steam among likeminded people."

Addarii himself is also on the verge of letting off some steam. He still hasn't assembled all the participants in his workshop, and the sun has climbed high enough into the sky that the small strip of shade at Gate 2 no longer suffices to protect his body from the heat. The press center hums behind its windows, correspondents type their reports on laptops with their left hands while chewing the fingernails of their right hands, and a thin German correspondent places her hands on her hips and says: "What a shitty conference this is!"

The event will not be repeated soon. For the first time since 2001, there will be no World Social Forum next year. Although the break is being sold as an opportunity for participants to catch their breath and "analyze the results," anyone observing the main organizers at press conferences can sense that this is a white lie.

The participating activists and organizations are exhausted from their constant struggles over the years, especially in the last year. The road to Nairobi was rocky, amid ugly disputes and infighting at some meetings of the organizing committee. It was always clear that the event would be held in Africa, but deciding on a specific location was practically a matter of war and peace. The Francophone countries battled the Anglophone countries, the West Africans the East Africans and the South the North. Nigeria was a candidate, as were South Africa, Mali and Senegal. The French and Belgians were adamant that the event should take place in Morocco, until Kenya was finally chosen as the site of the forum.

Addarii stands there in a crowd in front of the national stadium, chatting in English with Nigerians and Kenyans. As he strolls around he greets a Swiss man and exchanges pleasantries with an elderly Danish woman he met at the World Social Forum in India. "We met in Mumbai," he says, and she responds: "Oh yes, that was when you gave that speech." But she is mistaken, and Addarii smiles when she presses his burnt arm.

A short time later he will finally leave the sweltering stadium to attend a workshop at a nearby school with 20 heads of major agencies, clubs and citizens' groups. Addarii will argue for more professionalism, for networking, focusing and a more hard-hitting approach to doing the world's good work. And with the help of his organization, ACEVO, he will offer the expertise of an influential group, a fresh package of development aid, and the Africans will be skeptical but very interested.

Addarii's group finally begins moving at Gate 2 in the stadium. The muffled sounds of a choir singing "Thank you, thank you, Jesus, merci, merci Seigneur" drift from a tent filled with ecumenical clergy far away across the stadium, mingling along the way with the sounds of Ugandan drummers walking across the grounds and a noisy group of feminists from around the world emerging from the stadium's 20 gates. For a moment all the competing noises are equally loud -- and nothing can be understood.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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