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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Poverty without Borders

Andrea Lunt

NEW YORK, Feb 3 2011 (IPS) - It’s the land of freedom, of bright lights and burgers, where daring entrepreneurs arrive from across the planet in search of fame and fortune. The United States of America – the world’s melting pot – has been a symbol of hope for centuries, but behind this vision of wealth and wonder is a tale often untold.

Activists at the opening march of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit on Jun. 22, 2010. Credit: Courtesy of USSF photo stream

Activists at the opening march of the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit on Jun. 22, 2010. Credit: Courtesy of USSF photo stream

Food security, lack of water rights and unemployment might sound like the type of problems belonging to a developing nation, but they are also well documented issues here in the “land of the free”.

As grassroots organisations gear up for this year’s World Social Forum (WSF), kicking off in Senegal next week, U.S. – based NGOs are urging political leaders to remember social struggles taking place across the globe, whether it’s in a suburb of Detroit or community in Dakar.

“In some ways there is this misconception around the world that because we live in the States, we don’t deal with poverty, but it is real, especially in Michigan,” said Oya Amakisi, a social activist travelling to the WSF this year.

“Our lives are very precarious right now. A huge percentage of people don’t talk about it, but there are folks in three- piece suits living in cars,” she told IPS.

Amakisi was one of the organisers of last year’s regional U.S. Social Forum (USSF), which brought together up to 20,000 participants from around the world for a five-day conference in Detroit.

She is also affiliated with the Detroit to Dakar (D2D) initiative which was launched to highlight the parallels between social struggles in North America and in developing countries in Africa.

Amakisi said she hoped the upcoming WSF would be a place where activists can converge to share experiences and put forward solutions, not just discuss problems.

“We want to really learn how to create long-term effective change and transformation. Another world is possible… this is not our only option; struggling every day is not our only option, trying to figure out if we can keep a roof over our heads and feed our children should not be our only option.”

“How can we get the basics – food, water shelter, respect, safety, education. The only thing we want is to be treated like human beings and have our voices heard in terms of how our lives are handled.”

Also attending this year’s WSF is fellow D2D collaborator William Copeland, from the East Michigan Environmental Action Council (EMEAC).

As a youth coordinator, Copeland sees daily the struggles facing many families in Detroit, which was one of the cities hardest hit by the global financial crisis.

Like many communities in Africa, he said Detroit citizens were forced to defend such things as land rights, food security and fair access to water.

“In Detroit, it’s considered to be a food desert, where fresh food is fairly difficult to get within the city limits,” Copeland said.

“It is four to five times easier to have a liquor store or fast food restaurant than it is to have any sort of fresh nutritious foods… right now people are growing food in abandoned lots and backyards,” he told IPS. “There are also lots of struggles over water, over ownership of water and accessibility to water.”

Following on from last year’s USSF, Detroit community groups have launched new programmes aimed at addressing the social problems facing the city.

These include the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which harnesses media and communications to help unemployed people develop entrepreneurial skills, and the Detroit Food Justice Task Force, aimed at reconstructing the city’s food chain to support more local farmers and provide easier access to healthy food.

While these programmes have empowered the citizens of Detroit, Nunu Kidane, from the California-based Priority Africa Network, said the D2D delegation to WSF would be seeking to learn other models of community development from fellow activists around the world.

“Alliances need to be built and solidarity needs to be built if we’re going to have an alternative solution to the problem of poverty in different parts of the world,” she said.

“People always have this idea that Africa is a place of need and we should send money, we should send help. But we are trying to make the parallel that in the U.S. there are also pockets of poverty that put other countries to shame, and in Africa there are different areas where people are very rich,” she added.

“The critical factor is that we’re all united in the current model – an economic system that seems to be benefiting those who have and contributing to those who are exploiting the resources of the world, at the expense of those who don’t.”

The WSF, described by many activists here as the global counter to the right-wing Tea Party movement, was launched in Brazil in 2001 as a non-political, non-partisan space for democratic debate of ideas.

However, while the Tea Party has garnered extraordinary press coverage through mass protests, the WSF has progressed from many social movements of old, choosing to focus on peaceful gatherings and constructive debate.

Kidane said although the forum had faced criticisms as a talk-fest, it was still one of the most important platforms for community leaders to have their voices heard.

“I would say within the general context of what’s happened in the past 10 years it’s been phenomenal in the type of new connections that have been made,” she said. “Despite all the problems, it has an enormous contribution to make.”

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