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Tens of Thousands Gather to Imagine a Better World

The World Social Forum in Tunisia focused on the Arab Spring, personal+national debt and drones.


This article first appeared on Yes! Magazine.

The springtime weather was hot and breezy as 50,000 people converged in the Tunisian capital of Tunis last week to discuss topics like debt, the Arab Spring, and drones. These were among the seemingly infinite variety of issues debated at the thirteenth annual World Social Forum.

The forum began in Brazil in 2001, and is held in a non-Western country every other year. The forum has emerged as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where elite business and political leaders meet each year to discuss global issues from a largely corporate perspective.

In contrast, the World Social Forum is an open space for social movement participants, civil society, and individuals who are critical of imperialism and corporate-led global capitalism to network and exchange ideas on an international level.

Attendees have traditionally questioned the structural adjustment policies advocated by institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, in which countries are asked to balance their budgets by slashing spending, usually on items like the pay and pension of public employees. While the banks claim that these policies will lead to more prosperity, critics counter that they have more often led developing nations to accumulate crippling debts.

Flag-waving groups chanting “Free! Free! Palestine!” and tents filled with celebratory dancers dotted the campus of El Manar University, where the forum was held.

Getting in touch with the Arab Spring

Forum organizers chose Tunis as the host site this year in order to tap the energy of the grassroots mobilizations in the Middle East that overthrew dictatorial regimes in several counties and continue to struggle against them in others. Increasing the involvement of Arab activists has also been a goal of the forum for several years, according to a written statement released by organizers.

The Arab Spring was not “just something we read on Facebook,” Menon said.

Nearly everyone, from the local hosts to the foreign visitors, seemed to be thrilled with the selection of Tunisia as host. Arbia Oueslati, a young Tunisian woman representing ATADE, a local organization concerned with development and energy, saw the forum as a chance to counter negative perceptions of the country.

“It makes me so sad when embassies warn their citizens that it is not safe to travel here,” she said. “This will be proof that our country is safe, and also that we are a land of dialogue. People are worried about radical Islam coming to power in Tunisia, but I say it will never happen because Tunisians don’t accept extremists.”

Meena Menon, of Focus on the Global South—a group that promotes social change in Asia, Latin America and Africa—and a former member of the forum’s International Council, was excited that participants from other developing countries had the opportunity to interact with the Tunisian people. “Tunisia is the best thing that’s happened to the forum in my view,” she told a panel audience. Bringing foreign activists to Tunisia helped to show that the Arab Spring was not “just something we read on Facebook,” she said, but “something that was done by real living, breathing people—and people who aren’t even trained in mobilization.”

The forum usually results in a huge manifestation of local civil society wherever it is held, and this year was no exception. The Organizing Committee estimated that around a quarter of the over 4,500 groups registered were Tunisian. Many of these groups are working to ensure that the goals of the Arab Spring revolution here remain in focus.

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