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Navigating Chaos and Ideology: Insights from Kathmandu’s World Social Forum

The World Social Forum in Kathmandu: a chaotic mix of anti-globalization, human rights activism, and local ingenuity. Despite its messiness, it offered a unique space for underdogs to be heard, emphasizing solidarity with Palestine but notably absent on Ukraine.



by Simone Galimberti

Chaotic but, in its own way, profoundly ideological but also very pragmatic, frustrating and inspiring at the same time and certainly with a lot of flags, mostly Palestinian and none of the blue and yellow representing Ukraine.

It is hard to define the World Social Forum that is wrapping up today in Kathmandu after five long and intense days of discussions.

On the one hand, you could test and feel the classic anti-globalization and anti-capitalism moaning, with the World Bank, the Asia Development Bank and the International Monetary Fund being the preferred targets.

At the same the chants against liberalism, one of the core pillars of the whole movement behind the World Social Forum, while certainly loud and visible, were also limited to a shrinking group of the founding generation who initiated it in the early 200s.

These are now mainly activists in their seventies, indomitable fighters of the existing system but also at risk of repeating themselves through echo chambers.

In many ways, they were eclipsed and overshadowed by thousands of practitioners from Nepal and other emerging nations, people from the NGO world, and professionals who fight the battle from the inside of the system.

To be very frank, I was not sure what I would come across at the World Social Forum.

Like many others, I was not even aware of it till early last week.

While at the beginning I was a bit weary, especially of its deeply anti-system veneer, and I had promised myself to attend just a few of the hundreds of programs happening, at the end, I was totally bought into it, and I fully, wholly embraced the experience.

My first impression actually confirmed my bias over the event. On 15 February, I attended a small sharing of academicians, mostly retirees, many of whom are from Hong Kong.

I found them all very well-meaning people, intellectuals trying, with grit and spirit of determination, to come up with new ideas but, at the same time, especially the Western attendees were totally against the establishment.

While I felt that the participants from Hong Kong and mainland China were trying to navigate a very complex legislative and political system from the margins but not out of its boundaries, the others were dogmatically reaffirming their rejection of the existing system, especially from a Western perspective.

It was about fighting the World Bank and the ethnic nationalist governments in Europe. Also, they did not mince words against President Putin, but their criticisms, probably in tacit solidarity with their far East Asian colleagues, stopped there.

I got home without many takeaways even though I was welcomed graciously by the organizers, something I appreciated.

Then, the following days were chaotic and messy, but I was told that all this is a typical and intrinsic aspect of all editions of the World Social Forum.

Interestingly, according to them, it was just working fine.

Though at the beginning I was sceptical and reluctant to agree, at the end of the whole experience, I actually changed my mind, and they were right!

One of the key features of the event is its hyper-decentralized structure, with a myriad of organizations and civic groups registering to conduct an event that can be anything from big panel group discussions with hundreds of people to a small workshop in a cold classroom.

If these organizations were accepted, and I believe that almost everyone was, then it was up to them to manage the whole show by themselves.

Most of these gatherings were in some of the oldest public colleges of Kathmandu, next to what is supposed to be the Exhibition Area, which, frankly speaking, is extremely far from meeting any type of international standards in terms of logistics and infrastructure alike.

So, most of the sessions were held in bare classrooms of old, not exactly crumbling but almost buildings where thousands of Nepali students who cannot afford the more expensive private institutions learn.

These are also the same places that many political leaders, now in power, studied decades and decades ago. So, in a way, these are historical venues for the history of the country where many revolutions got kicked off and where communist ideology, that remains very strong in Nepal, fostered.

Indeed, it was not a coincidence that in one of these colleges, a big political party program (all red flags with hammers and sickles) was going on.

The other events were held in big tents around the Exhibition building, around a nice garden, one of the few actually in the centre of the city.

Forget about the punctuality, everything was delayed. I was invited to speak in one program on Dalits, and the program started more than one hour later than scheduled.

In one way, it was an utter mess, but somehow, it worked out pretty well, probably thanks to the ingenuity and way of doing of Nepalis who know how to navigate things that do not work exactly well.

In the end, you knew that, at minimum, a program you wanted to attend would start with thirty minutes of delay and, consequentially, you ended up adjusting your schedules, taking it easy a bit and not too overly stressed from the rushing from venue place to another.

It was challenging because, as I mentioned earlier, the anti-globalization sessions, while numerous, were matched by an equal if not higher number of programs led by dedicated activists, including many human rights defenders.

These were the sessions I enjoyed the most because I had the chance to hear from people really on the ground, people who struggle and risk their lives to uphold the rights of local communities.

Interestingly I met a good number of human rights activists from Malaysia, including Jerald Joseph, the former Commissioner of Suhakam, the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia and current Chair of the Forum-Asia, one of the most prominent human rights organizations in the region.

I watched him talking passionately against discrimination, especially rallying behind the cause of Dalits and other citizens of the world who are discriminated against by their societies.

Mr. Joseph was gracious and very approachable, and this was one key feature of the whole World Social Summit

People were nice; they were keen to talk and introduce each other in a genuine and real way rather than faking the whole thing like it happens in most of the “big tickets” conferences, including those supposedly focused on doing some good.

Perhaps what most distinguishes the Forum from other, more mainstream conferences is its atmosphere, the fact that everyone is welcomed and has a chance to be heard.

In essence, this is the platform for the underdogs; some of those, while deserving respect, are on the fringes of everything, but others, the vast majority, are attending to share, learn and build some good things.

Some of the confusion and messiness (here I want to be clear that I do not want to downplay what the local organizers managed to put together because, despite the shortcomings, it was outstanding), was also the massive presence of local volunteers that were helping people navigate the almost endless list of programs across the different venues.

Lastly, there were everywhere signs of solidarity in Palestine, even though there was not a single banner or slogan against Israel.

I interpret this as a positive sign of prudence and moderation on the side of the local organizers.

It will have been easy to end up in too overly politicized and controversial slogans and discussions against Israel, even if this country is losing if it does not have yet done its moral ground with what’s going on in Gaza.

This was an aspect of moderation that perhaps I would not have expected, though I was somehow surprised at not seeing even one single display of solidarity towards Ukraine.

To be fair and balanced, I did not see anything related to what’s going on around Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the civil strife in Sudan and Ethiopia, and, of course, the atrocities being committed by the military junta in Myanmar.

Maybe the war in Ukraine got too normalized, and it was something never embraced from outside the West, while in the case of other conflicts, maybe ignorance or indifference prevailed.

Perhaps we should acknowledge, at the Forum, the existence of some biases in favour of one very deserving cause, something that can turn out to become a blind spot that sets aside and hides other very worrisome and concerning events happening around the world.

Yet for me, participating in the Forum was a new and positive experience because it remains a place where you still dare to dream that “another world is possible”.

It was not a mere coincidence that this was the official theme of the 2024 edition!

The author writes about human rights, development and regional integration in the Asia Pacific.

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