More on Food at the World Social Forum

The good folk on the Retort mailing list sent around this BBC article on street children at the World Social Forum. I responded by rejigging a previous blog posting. Since the reply was a little funnier than the original, and has a few more details on how food was a central feature of life at the World Social Forum, I thought I’d post it here. Apologies for the repetition.

red flag with fist wearing dollar signs

In response to the recently circulated BBC article, a gloss:

The fight over food points to a number of contradictions at the Social
Forum. The World Social Forum had its own cellphone communications provider (CelTel), its own cola (Mecca Cola), and the hotel catering tent invaded by street children was owned by Kenya’s Internal Security Minister, John Michuki (aka The Crusher). The Forum, once dedicated to sticking it to The Man, was one in which The Man turned up to do the catering.

Michuki is the man who, last year, endeared himself to the Fourth Estate by raiding the offices of Kenya’s “Standard”, an organ whose staff are brave enough to withstand the threats, intimidation and violence associated with investigative reporting into governmental affairs. Michuki’s response to the uproar after he ordered the raids: “If you rattle a snake, you must be prepared to be bitten by it.”

Nor was the invasion of Michuki’s concession stand the only act of food-related defiance. At a World Social Forum where the majority couldn’t afford to participate,* those who could make it through the door couldn’t
afford to eat.

The caterers had been led to believe that the Forum “was another UN conference”, where $7 per plate dinners would be shrugged off, and quickly expensed. In a city which hosts the United Nations Environment Programme and the UN’s Human Settlement Programme, caterers are used to conferences with expansive and philanthropic titles, at which participants are in the top global income bracket.

As a result, most WSF participants, especially those from the Global South, found themselves priced out of the food market, and going hungry. Members of a Pakistani delegation took direct action. They bought their own flour, water, pans and vegetables, and set up a curry stall, selling food at 1/10th of the price of the other concessions. The flag outside the stall: “Bush Roti”.

A further detail slightly out of whack in the BBC’s report: it’s not clear that the street children spontaneously organised themselves to take over the stall.

There are a couple of reasons to think that the street children didn’t act alone, not least being that if it had been an endogenous effort, the police would have felt much freer in kicking seven shades of shit out of them, as the police did outside the stadium, bulldozing a shack settlement on the third day of the conference, allegedly because nearby WSF hotel guests had complained about the noise.

Also, while narratives of ‘sponteneity’ are heartwarming and inspiring, they’re rarely true. Behind the most spontaneous-seeming events, some person or group has usually gone to some trouble to organise, orchestrate and plot. Indeed, I heard at least two different groups claiming credit for the direct action against the Windsor Hotel stand. The narrative rights to the direct action seem to be contested, and one imagines that there’ll be some profit in whichever group can successfully tell their donors that, yep, they did that.

Seeing all this happen, one member of the Via Campesina peasant delegation helpfully remixed the WSF’s slogans: “Our Forum is Not For Sale”, “Another Forum is Possible”.

*The organizers insist that the entry fee was reduced over a month ago to less than $1, but few people outside the Forum gates seemed to have been told.

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