Forum for Sale?

What a difference a day makes. Yesterday, I posted a newswire report about thousands marching for social justice at the World Social Forum. As ever, there’s more to protest than meets the eye, and now that I’m here in Nairobi, I’m getting a slightly better sense (no doubt one to be revised and qualified tomorrow).

I’ve come here because I’m part of the Land Research Action Network, and staying the Via Campesina peasant delegation, a little ways outside town. One of the features that distinguishes Via Campesina from the world of non-governmental organisations is that it is a body comprised of peoples’ movements. It was formed because peasants/campesinos, farmers and the rural poor were sick of being misrepresented by both their governments, and by NGOs that purported to be working on behalf of the rural poor, but ended up making compromises in their name which they would never have sanctioned. Suffice it to say that the member organisations of Via Campesina take their democracy, and their capacity to represent themselves seriously.

There’s a powerful quote that has been doing the rounds recently, from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

“At all stages of their liberation, the oppressed must themselves as people engaged in the vocation of becoming more fully human. Reflection and action become essential. True reflection leads to action but that action will only be a genuine praxis if there is critical reflection on its consequences. To achieve this praxis it is necessary to trust in the oppressed and their ability to reason. Whoever lacks this trust will fail to bring about, or will abandon, dialogue, reflection and communication, and will fall into using slogans, communiques, monologues and instructions.”

And, it seems, trust is lacking here in Nairobi. At least, something is. Driving from the airport to the Mother’s Union buildings where we’re staying here, we saw large adverts for the World Social Forum – “Celtel, Official Communications Provider to the World Social Forum”, “Our World is Not for Sale” and “Another World Is Possible”. From the reactions of some here at the Via Campesina encampment, one wag remixed these to form “The World Social Forum is Not For Sale”. Someone else pointed out that it was probably too late – “the Forum has been sold to NGOs, and they sold it to the private sector”.

These are unexpectedly harsh words from groups that had initially been staunch supporters of a space in which the global justice movement might do some of its work. But members of the global peasant movement aren’t the only ones dissatisfied. Last night at 9 o’clock, a text message was circulating. It called for attendance at a protest today at 9am. The reason for the protest? That the vast majority of Kenyans couldn’t afford to come to the forum. For them, the entry fee is KSh500 (about US$8). It’s a week’s salary. And the overwhelming majority of people have other more pressing demands on their income.

Yet, as yesterday’s demonstration shows, the poor are not only the constituency most affected by today’s economic system (and in whose name most of these kinds of meetings take place), but they’re the first to get militant about it. The protest I reported on yesterday wasn’t, it seems, part of the WSF at all (though I need still to confirm this). It appears that its constituents were members of a slum who couldn’t afford to get into the workshops, but who were angry about the conditions in which they are continued to forced to live.

And what has this to do with the global food system, or food politics? Well, it’s an object lesson in the goings on behind the scenes of much food politics today. The power to represent is one that matter deeply in the food system. Labels like “Fair trade” and “organic” rely on a certain faith we have that what we’re being given is truly what’s on the label. The power to control that representation matters, to the lives of people who are most affected, at both ends of the food system – the poorest growers, and the poorest consumers. And, it seems, the World Social Forum, the venue dedicated to their advancement, has failed both groups. There’s talk of an ‘alternative’ forum happening in town. More on that if it happens.