As many as 150,000 delegates from more than a hundred countries are expected to attend the upcoming World Social Forum (WSF), to be held in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, from Jan. 20-25. And, expectations for the meeting appear as varied as the nationalities that will pass through Jomo Kenyatta International Airport en route to the Moi International Sports Centre.
Barbara Kalima-Phiri, a policy analyst for poverty reduction strategies, has concerns about whether the forum will prove effective.
"We at the WSF don’t have an agenda, apart from the slogans we make. The forum has got very good networks but it’s not focused," this staffer from the Southern Africa Trust, a Johannesburg-based non-governmental organisation (NGO), told IPS.
She said that at the WSF it is possible to "move from one session to another, listening to all sorts of complaints, and virtually expect no action. As things stand now, our voices are scattered."
Amongst certain Kenyans, there seems to be more optimism.
"There are a lot of expectations especially from ordinary citizens," said Thomas Deve of the Zimbabwe-based Mwalekeo wa NGO (MWENGO), which means "Vision for NGOs" in Kiswahili. MWENGO operates in East and Southern Africa.
"Kenyans are eager, for example, to find out how civil society organisations attending the conference can contribute to the democracy in their country," he told IPS.
"We have put on the agenda issues that face Africa…On the final day we want to come out with proposals for a plan of action," added Deve, who is already in Nairobi for the WSF.
WSF organisers have identified 12 topics on which the Nairobi discussions will focus: HIV/AIDS, women's issues, privatisation of common goods, the landless, peace and conflict, migration and the diaspora, memory of people and struggles, youth, debt, free trade agreements, labour and housing.
HIV/AIDS is perhaps the most pressing issue at hand, given that sub-Saharan Africa is by far the region most affected by the virus. As the 'AIDS Epidemic Update' issued last month by the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS and the World Health Organisation notes: "Two thirds (63%) of all adults and children with HIV globally live in sub-Saharan Africa, with its epicentre in southern Africa…One third (32%) of all people with HIV globally live in southern Africa and 34% of all deaths due to AIDS in 2006 occurred there."
African participants will also share with counterparts from other regions their experiences of peace and conflict. While violence has been quelled in certain parts of the continent, hotspots still exist -- notably those in Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Cote d’Ivoire and Sudan.
Nonetheless, perceptions that the WSF is nothing more than a talk shop are unlikely to fade -- and have already prompted debate about whether the time has come for the forum to adopt a political programme.
"This hotly-disputed question deserves consideration from all involved in the WSF, given that we are now in the seventh year of the phenomenon," says Patrick Bond, director of the Centre for Civil Society, based in South Africa’s port city of Durban.
Political clout requires broad-based support, however, which may present something of a problem.
"We haven’t made the World Social Forum alive or relevant to the ordinary people. If I talk to anyone in the street, for example, chances are that none of them will have an idea about the WSF meeting in Nairobi," said Kalima-Phiri.
"The World Cup (for football), which will take place in South Africa in 2010, is already on everybody’s lips: people talk about it in bars, taxis and at home. Yet we are not getting messages across to the ordinary people about the WSF conference."
Founded in opposition to the World Economic Forum, a yearly meeting in the Swiss resort town of Davos that gathers together the business and political elite, the WSF was first held in the Brazilian town of Porto Alegre in 2001. It unites groups and individuals, mainly from civil society, that -- amongst others -- oppose global domination by capital.
The WSF remained in Brazil until 2004, when it was hosted by the Indian coastal city of Mumbai -- then returned to Porto Alegre the following year.
Last year the meeting, dubbed a "polycentric forum", took place in several cities: Mali's capital, Bamako; Caracas in Venezuela; and the Pakistani financial centre, Karachi. The 2007 WSF will mark the first instance in which an African country is serving as sole host of the event.
© 2007 Inter Press Service