Decolonising the World Social Forum

Decolonising the WSF: a critical discussion of the production of knowledges within and about the social forum process

This workshop was held as part of the 2013 World Social Forum in Tunis. At a moment when the future of the WSF has become the subject of intensifying debate, the aim of the workshop was to put the issue of decolonisation on the agenda and facilitate a critical discussion of knowledge production within, about and beyond the social forum process.

Held on Thursday 28th March, the third day of the WSF in Tunis, the event was very well attended, with around 100 people crammed into a room intended for around half that number, for two and a half hours of presentations and discussion.

Two key questions formed the starting point for the workshop: Who produces knowledge within and about the social forum process? And for whom? The WSF has since its inception been conceived as a space for mutual learning and exchange of experiences – in brief, for knowledge production – , and it has to a significant extent been successful in bringing together a diverse range of movements and groups and providing a space in which traditionally marginalised voices can be heard. However, the WSF also suffers from its own hierarchies and exclusions, which reflect and reproduce the colonial, capitalist and patriarchal power relations that structure the world as a whole.

The workshop sought to draw attention to these hierarchies, and to enable critical reflection on the different positions we occupy within them and the consequences this has for knowledge production. The deliberately provocative title– ‘Decolonising the WSF’ – was chosen to draw attention to the Eurocentric character of much of the knowledge that is produced about the WSF; the continued dominance within the space of the forum of white or light-skinned Euro-descendants who educated within the terms of the Northern academy; and the marginalisation of knowledges that don’t fit within the emancipatory traditions of modernity.

In order to open up some of these questions and stimulate critical collective reflection, the following speakers had been invited to make brief interventions:

  • Janet Conway (Brock University, Canada)
  • Rose Brewer (Gender Justice Working Group, US Social Forum)
  • Ashok Chowdhury (National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers & New Trade Union Initiative, India)
  • Roma (National Forum of Forest People and Forest Workers & Women’s Forest Rights Action Committee, India)
  • Christian Schröder (University of Hildesheim, Germany)
  • Madhuresh Kumar (National Alliance of Peoples’ Movements & CACIM, India)
  • Rita Freire (Ciranda, Brazil)
  • Also invited, but could not attend: Romdhane Ben Amor (WSF 2013 Organising Comittee, Tunisia)

Janet Conway opened by emphasising the distinction between ‘decolonising knowledge’ and producing anti-capitalist, popular or activist knowledges. ‘Decolonisation’, for Conway, relates to the historically specific, and on-going, global condition of coloniality. Central to this condition of coloniality is the long history of European colonialism and the dominance of the Western civilization that emanated from European modernity; a tradition that privileges whiteness and knowledges that emanate from Euro-descendant bodies.

The WSF, she insisted, is also a product of this dominant civilization: a product of the emancipatory traditions of Western modernity, such as liberalism, socialism, anarchism and feminism, but no less a product of Western modernity. Other knowledges, such as those of indigenous peoples, are only partially heard and taken up within the WSF, despite their presence and participation being widely celebrated.

When talking about decolonising knowledge within the WSF, Conway emphasised, non-indigenous participants, particularly Europeans and Euro-descendants, need to examine the specificity of their own knowledges and imaginaries, and learn to perceive what they do not hear. Finally, in relation to knowledge about the WSF, Conway highlighted the significance of print, noting how knowledges that are written down in dominant European languages are the ones that become authoritative knowledges of global justice.

Rose Brewer began by describing her own complex set of positionalities: as a New World African, connected to African peoples across the globe; and as an African-American woman from a poor working class background who has struggled to occupy a space within the academy.

Brewer spoke about the work of Grassroots Global Justice to intervene against the dominance of big NGOs and exclusion of grassroots communities in the social forum process. She explained how organisers of the US Social Forum, recognising the legacy of white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism, understood the importance of ensuring that the USSF would not be superseded by a European-centred approach and actively seeking to include poor grassroots communities.

On the question of ‘knowledge for whom’, Brewer explained the principle of intersectionality coming out of the anti-capitalist black feminist tradition – the idea that class oppression, racism and sexism are deeply interconnected – and the challenge that this kind of knowledge production poses to dichotomous, ‘either/or’ forms of thinking. This intersectional perspective, she argued, could help decentre traditional ways of articulating social change. This is not, however, simply about replacing or critiquing Eurocentric knowledge, but about recognising what we are dealing with and that the knowledges of indigenous and African descent peoples can be very powerful.

Ashok Chowdhury took as a starting point the two main words in the title of the workshop: “decolonising” and “WSF”. Highlighting the long history of British colonialism and its effect on systems of knowledge in his country, Chowdhury insisted that we cannot talk about decolonisation only in the context of the WSF. Decolonisation of knowledge, he continued, is also an essential part of the struggles of poor people in India – indigenous people, Dalits, women – against national elites and the Indian state.

The WSF, Chowdhury explained, had been very important in the Indian national context. The Mumbai forum in 2004 provided a unique opportunity for these people, who remain isolated in different parts of the country, to come together for the first time. In this way the WSF strengthened their struggles against big Indian corporations, against capitalism and the dominant paradigm of development, civilization and knowledge.

Chowdhury was less convinced about the relevance of the decisions and declarations coming out of the ‘official’ WSF at international level. These are much less important, he insisted, than the practices and processes of knowledge production that the movements that operate within the forum engage in. Each WSF enables new forms of expression and new forms of knowledge that can contribute to the development of a new knowledge system.

His colleague Roma also spoke of the importance of the WSF for movements such as those of Indian poor and indigenous people. Sharing her experience of participating in the Mumbai WSF with more than 4,000 forest people and agricultural workers from all over India, Roma explained how these people understood the WSF as an occasion for people from all over the world to come together to discuss poverty, bad governance, and patriarchy – the main struggles that they face in their daily lives.

The WSF started a debate among these movements, and gave them strength: when the poor women from Roma’s region returned home, they had laid a plan to possession of land controlled by the colonial forest department, and succeeded in taking over 8,000 hectares. These movements have initiated a major dialogue around land rights and are pressuring on the state to respect the Forest Rights Act.

Indigenous peoples in India and elsewhere, Roma continued, are raising the fundamental issues of livelihoods and how to secure the future. They talk not only of financial crisis but of a crisis of the whole world. The WSF has provided a space for these discussions to take place, but it is a space that has to be grabbed and struggled for.

© Lukas Wank

Christian Schröder focused in his presentation on the preparations for the Tunis forum, which he had been following for two months prior to the event as part of his PhD research. His main argument was that the WSF needs reform at the local level, where the event gets organised.

Schröder gave examples of Tunisian social movements that had wanted to take ownership of the WSF and organise their own initiatives but had been blocked by the local steering committee. This was because the government, international NGOs and foundations were mostly interested in the Tunis WSF being a perfectly organised event. There were some positive examples of grassroots groups contributing creative solutions, such as the NOMAD group that organised the translation equipment, but many more groups could have been involved.

It is therefore necessary, Schröder argued, to analyse more closely the forum organizing process, so that knowledge of what a World Social Forum is does not have to be that of a logistically perfect “open space”, in which social movements are marginalized. The event should rather be the result of a collective learning process about what the WSF should look like. The six months or longer process rather than the four days of the event should be the focus of attention.

Following on from these five presentations, Marwen Tlili, a Tunisian activist who had been involved in the local organising process, intervened in the discussion by stating that for Tunisians, the slogan ‘another world is possible’ was about to become ‘another lie is possible’. The revolution had offered Tunisian democracy and progress, but for many this has been a lie, as there has been no economic development and police repression has continued.

The impact of colonial thinking on Tunisians, and the Tunisian left, Tlili explained, has been to impose a certain model of civil society and the idea that Tunisia has to reach the same level of ‘progress’ as Europe – neglecting the country’s rich Arab and Islamic traditions. He highlighted how, in contrast to previous forums where Christian organisations have had a strong presence, Islamic organisations had been excluded because they do not fit into a narrow definition of civil society as secular and rational.

In a country where the revolution is far from over, the WSF has taken up huge amounts of effort and resources in order to build a model of civil society that is perhaps not appropriate for Tunisia. Many young people wanted to get involved but were pushed into depoliticised administrative tasks. The WSF is not a conspiracy, but many people have been demobilised. This is a problem of imaginary, Tlili argued, “how can we think of organising collective action if we ourselves get colonised by a particular way of organising civil society?”

© Lukas Wank

General discussion

 After these interventions, workshop participants broke out in small groups and talked among themselves for a few minutes. This was then followed by a lively plenary discussion, during which a number of issues were raised. One man criticised the format of the workshop, pointing to the priority given to ‘expert’ speakers and arguing that “you cannot decolonise the WSF using the methods of the coloniser”. Another participant countered this, saying that she appreciated the interventions from people who have thought about the issue of decolonisation of knowledge and have something to share. Someone else suggested that workshop panels should have a balance of academic or ‘expert’ speakers and representatives of subaltern groups.

An issue raised by several contributors to the discussion was that of money and resources. Workshops are expensive to organise, only a few have the resources to travel to the WSF. A concrete suggestion was made that large NGOs who participate in the forum should be asked to donate the equivalent of their own travel costs to help subsidise the travel of those who cannot afford it. Language was identified as another key barrier to equal participation. As one woman put it, “the subaltern are not here in this discussion because we are talking in English”.

During this general discussion, two of the other invited speakers, Madhuresh Kumar and Rita Freire, also made brief interventions. Kumar spoke about one of the slogans used by Indian people’s movements: “all of us are one”. “Here in this workshop”, he said, “we are also hearing that we are different”. We have to live with the diversity of the world, the question is how to move forward? A key problem, argued Kumar, is the way that most people look at the WSF as a service provider. Instead of contributing to constructing the space of the forum, visitors to the WSF complain about the state of the facilities provided, and don’t pay attention to people working to make sure the forum operates.

The WSF has importance for the place in which it is organised, and as visitors we have a responsibility to look and listen and to make an effort to understand what we can take back to our own countries about the situation in the place where the forum is held. Real knowledge production happens when people return home and share what they have learnt at the WSF – therefore we all have to see ourselves as knowledge producers.

Rita Freire spoke about the practice of shared communication that has been developed by networks of communicators within the WSF process. “Shared communication is not a method I can teach you”, she emphasised, “it is an effort to talk directly to people involved in struggles. Not to talk about them but ask them to talk with us.” Since the start, a key principle for Ciranda has been that movements need to do their own communication.

As an example, Freire spoke about how the black people’s movement in Brazil got involved in Ciranda. Instead of asking Ciranda to produce coverage about the situation of people living in favelas, Afro-Brazilian activists organised their own coverage of the first Brazilian conference of black intellectuals. Freire also spoke about how indigenous people, through their own communication efforts, had profoundly changed how many people on the Brazilian left thought about the environment.

Freire finished by returning to the question of resources, explaining that a group of Afro-Brazilian activists connected to Ciranda had not been able to come to Tunisia due to a lack of resources. We all have a responsibility, she emphasised, to think about the criteria we use to distribute resources, as well as to share what we learn at the WSF with those who are not able to be present.

The discussion ended with a contribution from Mikael Böok from NIGD in Finland, who emphasised the importance of documenting the activities that take place at forum events, arguing that the WSF should become more like a library of activities.

This report is a small contribution to the documentation of debates around decolonisation of knowledge, within and beyond the WSF. Please participate in these debates and help share the knowledge that was produced during the workshop!

The workshop was facilitated by Hilde Stephansen from the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy at Goldsmiths, University of London. It was the result of a collaboration between Ciranda, Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy, CACIM, University of Hildesheim and NIGD

This article has originally been published on, on May 7th 2013.

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