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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Let the Debates Begin

Joyce Mulama

BAMAKO, Jan 19 2006 (IPS) - The Malian capital of Bamako opened its doors to the World Social Forum (WSF) Thursday with a passionate call for justice in all walks of life. The historic event – which marks the first instance in which a global forum is being held in Africa – has attracted some 10,000 representatives from civil society organisations and social movements around the world.

“This is the key global forum to address inequalities between rich and poor nations,” Diarra Fanta, representing African peasant farmers, told a huge crowd at Modibo Keita stadium where the WSF officially got underway.

Delegates – several of whom had walked some distance to be present – waved placards and flags, and held up banners demanding justice across the board. From the informal sector to international trade, those at the forum are insisting that nations conduct their affairs differently.

“The informal sector has proved to be a very important one in Africa; it accounts for 90 percent of the workers,” said Uzziel Twagilimana, African coordinator of Social Alert, an umbrella body of organisations advancing the rights of workers in the informal sector.

Despite this, undocumented employees lack social protections such as health insurance and sick leave; in addition, they are often paid very low wages. “These are just some of the injustices, and we hope a way forward will be charted at the forum,” Twagilimana noted.

On the matter of trade, activists condemned the disparity between First and Third World states, where farmers are suffering as a result of the subsidies paid to their wealthier counterparts.

“We want farm subsidies eliminated and instead a bonus given to farmers and better prices for their goods. This will ensure a level playing field between developing and developed nations,” said Fredrick Masinde, of Cooperation for Fair Trade in Africa.

The cotton subsidies received by American farmers have proved a particular bone of contention for producers in Mali, and a number of other West African states.

“We invest a lot to produce cotton, but when we sell we don’t get much because the prices are going down – because of dumping by rich countries. And if you don’t have a fair price, your people get poorer and poorer and poorer,” said Fanta.

Besides trade, issues that are expected to come under discussion at the forum include debt cancellation for poor countries. This issue that has been championed by bodies such as the Global Call for Action against Poverty: a worldwide alliance of development organisations.

Anti-debt campaigners maintain that poor countries spend substantial portions of their budgets on debt repayments at the expense of domestic needs. There are concerns that the extent of the repayments is making it difficult for developing nations to meet the Millennium Development Goals – a set of targets agreed on by global leaders in a bid to improve living standards around the world by 2015.

The WSF was first held in 2001 in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre as a parallel event to the World Economic Forum: a high-profile gathering of political leaders and senior business officials, amongst others. The social forum, sometimes referred to as “the carnival of the oppressed” questions globalisation, and the political and economic realities that delegates in Davos might endorse.

WSF proceedings in Bamako end on Jan. 23. This year’s forum, dubbed a “polycentric” event, will also include meetings in the Venezuelan capital, Caracas – and the Pakistani commercial centre of Karachi.

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