MUMBAI, India, 05 February 2004
The World Social Forum is an annual event that brings together groups and movements of civil society to share ideas, debates and experiences in seeking to build alternatives to human and social issues and hence the slogan ‘Another World is Possible’. This year’s event in Mumbai, India is the fourth since the first one held in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil. The forum was held from the 16-21 January and it was reported that more that 100,000 delegates from more than 132 countries participated in the forum. Delegates attending the forum took on many activities that were running such as the officially organized workshops and panels and a whole range of delegates/other participants self-organized panels and workshops on almost any topic one can think of around various social-economic issues.
Delegates arriving at the entrance of the WSF 2004
I work with the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) on the Africa ICT Policy Monitor Project, I’m Kenyan and I’ve been highly involved in various global policy-making processes on communication rights issues. It was for that reason that I attended the WSF 2004. The APC has been involved and participated in previous forums running workshops and panels on communication and information society issues. During this year’s WSF, APC prepared to host a workshop to focus on ‘ICT Policy for Civil Society’ as well as speaking in a panel alongside other organizations working in communication and information issues. The panel session titled "Whose Information Society? Communication Rights and Media Alternatives" would review and discuss the outcomes of the recently held World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) and debate strategies for building the communication rights movement.
Arriving in Mumbai on the official opening day of the forum, I couldn’t help noticing the high population density of the country right from the airport on arrival. My hotel was located on the northern part of Mumbai and had to travel for about an hour or two wading through a very congested highway. Having arrived at about 4.00 pm in the evening, my initial thoughts were that it was rush-hour traffic that seemed to lengthen the journey, but I was quickly notified it was normal traffic where ‘several thousands of rickshaws’ motorbikes, taxis and buses ferry passengers to and from around the 30 million population city. Another mode of transport used is the train as I came to use the next day onward to get from my hotel to the forum venue ‘NESCO’ which was some kind of an exhibition grounds in a neighbourhood called Goregoan in the north of Mumbai City. Rickshaws were a popular method used by WSF delegates to travel between Goregoan train station and WSF venue.
The Forum and Main Activities
The opening ceremony of the WSF was one of the most spectacular events that took place where several entertainment groups took centre stage including Zulu dancers from South Africa. Later on I heard a group of Kenyan and South African delegates talk about this and express dissatisfaction about how global events highlight certain activities that serve to reinforce certain stereotypes like one of South African cultural dances. “Every time I travel overseas and say I am from South Africa, people ask if I am know how to dance the Zulu Dance?” grumbled the South African delegate.
The rest of the days were a beehive of activities with many groups going about with demonstrations events on the streets of the venue, at the same time self organized seminars and workshops were going on as well the official panels in some very huge tents which could cater for about 20-30,000 people. Many had trouble finding their way to relevant events of their interest and eventually this problem was solved as the organizers of the forum made available additional timetables of all the workshops that were taking place on each day of the forum. Though this seemed to have provided a starting point for many still the mass of people walking and occupying almost every space on the ‘small’ streets of the venue. There was also a huge presence of exhibition type stalls where many organizations were displaying materials and conducting small presentations related activities to highlight their work, which added to the confusion of delegates trying to locate seminar rooms to attend their preferred workshop.
The ICT Policy and Civil Society Workshop
The APC ICT Policy for civil society workshop was presented on the Sunday the 18th January and several civil society organizations attended the session. This was one of the smaller workshops of the forum and different because it focussed on ICTs whereas most of the major workshops had a focus on basic societal issues such as health, poverty, water and sanitation and related social economic issues. Other major workshops focused on social-political issues such as globalization, and related impacts to society. Having experienced the difficulties of getting people to attend the workshops and seminars, it was important to try and advertise with clear directions specific events and how to get to the venue well ahead of the actual event taking place and we did this by preparing posters and handouts that were given to many people in the course of the days preceding our event.
While waiting for people a few minutes prior to the start of the workshop, an APC member present, Tony Roberts of Computer Aid International, informed me of events of a similar nature taking place at the same time and which would have caused a few organizations a dilemma over which to attend. One was about Free Software and Open Source software solutions workshop, and then there was another workshop on Information and Communications Technology for Development or so-called (ICT4D). Eventually the workshop started and was well attended given the pressure from all other running parallel sessions and multiple activities at the same time.
While the initial focus of the workshop was on lobbying and advocacy by civil society organizations with references to the recently held summit on information society (WSIS), the workshop participants ended up raising and discussing various ICT policy issues of their concern and interest as that impact on their lives and possible ways to tackle these issues in the spirit of the forum ie that ‘another world is possible’.
Critical areas of concern
Participants raised a number of issues of concern among them access to information and communication technologies which is critical to their work and activities. A Sri Lankan participant, Wilfred Silva of Lankanet, talked about how internet access is restricted to urban areas in Sri Lanka and how there is very limited access in the rural areas. He also described how high-tech access technology such as ADSL were limited to business use leaving most consumers and community access centres unable to acquire such services. Other major interest areas included content development and language diversity and its impact, a case in point was where one participant from India raised the issue of how communities deal with language barriers to access the internet that is inherently in English on one hand and how on the other hand if communities solely rely on local content they would be missing out on global issues and interest and concern.
Access to public information was also an important issue and participants talked of lobbying governments to make available public information and also work towards the delivery of services via the new technologies. A participant from India talked of a case in one municipality in India where the local government had established a partnership with private sector to provide multi-purpose community centres where information and communication including government services such as licence application forms, trade licence applications, faxes, photocopying and internet services were made available to the public at affordable costs. This was cited as one of the example of ways in which the government through partnerships with local actors would utilize the opportunity presented by ICTs to ensure accessible and affordable solutions to the local communities.
Lobbying and moving forward
At the close of the workshop participants agreed to follow up on raising these issues in their communities and lobbying to the different stakeholders and interest groups in an effort to make a different on ICT Policy reform geared to improving the role of ICT for development purposes. In addition most people representing organizations were interested in joining existing civil society global networks advocating for these issues.
The materials used to lead this discussion can be downloaded from the APC capacity building programmes on ICT Policy for Civil Society.
The Communication Rights Panel: Whose Information Society? Communication Rights and Media Alternatives
At the Communication Rights and Media Alternatives panel, the session that comprised of representations from AMARC, APC, ISIS International and Agencia Latinoamericana de Información (ALAI) was equally interesting and many issues were also raised and presented at the panel. The APC presentation focused on the outcome of WSIS and then talked about communications rights issues with some illustrations of alternative ICT policy and practices including recommendations for policy change/movement building also in the spirit of the forum theme ‘another world is possible’.
In particular reference the APC Internet Rights Charter was used as the basis of the presentation, and outlines aims to ensure that rights of freedom of expression, communication, association and protest on the Internet are protected in practice, enshrined in national, regional and international legislation, and exercised through awareness raising and action. The internet charter can be found on the APC website at: http://www.apc.org/english/rights/charter.shtml
In coverall sense, WSF 2004 was a great event and it provided an opportunity for civil society actors to interact as is expected which is important for building synergy for future activities. It is our plan to continue interacting with many organizations and people we met during the summit and collaborate on various activities aimed to achieving our interests in creating a more equitable world.
Emmanuel Njenga Njuguna