The talk at the Forum

France! No country in the world does vague, pompous, obfuscating rhetoric better.

And since the language on much of the just-ended 11th World Social Forum in Dakar was French we were regaled to vociferous choruses of Y en a marre!!! Contestation!!  Restistances!!!

As a matter of fact, the long-winded speeches of France’s much-maligned (and he richly deserves that) president Nicholas Sarkozy and the massive wheezing chainsaw buzz of slogans here at the Forum have a lot in common apart from their Frenchness: they’re pretty meaningless.

Slogans also happen to be replete with extraordinarily lazy thinking. The exploitation of the poor countries by the rich, white, neo imperialists, neo liberalists, did I mention rich? Rich! Damn the lot of them. All this as China and India are rising and Brasil is getting its act together thanks to a decade of seriously smart social democratic government.

How did they pull this off, warts and all? That would be an intelligent question to ask. After all, they are the future. Africa should be part of that future. Europe is the past. So is the US of A.

Are Social Forums like these really necessary in the age of the internet and shouldn’t there be more effective ways? Ousmane Diba, a Senegalese Forum participant had a few interesting things to say about that. He managed to get his letter into at least three Senegalese newspapers and remarked that the Dakar version of the Forum had become more of a bazaar, a consumer fest. True that. There are more intelligent ways to organise alternatives, rather than meeting up with your fellow feel-good right-on folks so you can tell them that you’re ‘hanging out with the voiceless in Mali’, the same way someone in another Forum could say he’d be knocking down G&Ts in Malibu…

Unfortunately, Diba loses the plot towards the end when he writes that we need Leaders (Great ones? Big ones? Dear ones?) to forge the alternative, otherwise “the big international firms (World Bank-IMF-World Trade Organisation) will continue to march triumphantly through the pauperisation of the masses in our underdeveloped countries”. Ah! French rhetoric! Vague, pompous, uninformative chainsaw buzzing!

Anyway, just for the heck of it. The above trio are not firms, they are institutions. They are probably past their sell-by date and both the IMF and the World Bank are suffering from serious mission creep (go back to the original Bretton Woods conference that established the Bank and the Fund and you will ask yourself what the bleedin heck the IMF is doing in any “developing” country).

Equally true, Bank and Fund have been peddling unfettered free market economics in the 1980s to disastrous effect…which is why I believe that the aid establishment, of which these two are an integral part, should be subjected to international tort legislation.

‘It would focus minds wonderfully,’ as I remember one Indian expert say at a conference in the Netherlands, some 15 (!) years ago. And only 9 years back, another development expert made a similar plea in this book. Developing countries are not laboratories for someone else’s social experiments, however allegedly well-intentioned.

But! There is one thing these unwieldy, hubris-challenged and red-tape riddled organisations don’t do. They don’t “march triumphantly” on a pile of poor paupers. Great, Big, Dear Leaders do that. It’s this kind of sloppy, lazy, unhelpful cliché-mongering that a Social Forum could well do without.


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