Africa hosts its first major anti-globalisation forum
"Say 'No' to Neo-liberalism!", "Debt is Killing Us, Kill the Debt!" read the banners unfurling as Mali's capital city got ready to host Africa's first full- fledged international anti-globalisation forum Thursday.
Organisers have expressed the hope that 30,000 activists from around the world would show up for the African chapter of the 6th World Social Forum (WSF), a gathering of non-government organisations (NGOs), fair trade advocates and critics of the world trade system.
Running from January 19 to 23, the Forum is to transform Bamako "into the world capital for the renewal of developing countries," the national organising committee said earlier in a statement.
Created as a counterweight to the high-profile World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, a yearly meeting of the world's most influential political and business leaders, the WSF focuses on issues of equality, international debt, global trade, militarization and other forces affecting developing nations.
"We want to show-with numbers and concrete examples-that another kind of world is possible," said Diadie Yacouba Danioko, Mali's former culture minister and president of the national organising committee.
In the past, anti-globalisation events have been a magnet for sometimes violent protests, though the WSF has always unfolded without major incident.
A precursor gathering in 1999 of 40,000 activists in Seattle, Washington provoked the failure of a key World Trade Organization (WTO) meeting taking place at the same time, and resulted in a state of emergency and more than 400 arrests.
In 2001, six months after the inaugural WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil, one protester was killed and 500 were injured in Genoa, Italy when 300,000 people demonstrated during a Group of Eight (G8) meeting of world leaders.
In 2006, the Forum is expected to unfold for the first time on three separate continents to create an "pancentric" event, the organisers said. Originally the aim had been to do this in on three continents simultaneously, but that plan was dropped.
The Venezuelan capital of Caracas will host the WSF for the Americas from January 24 to 29, coinciding with the Davos forum. An Asia WSF planned for Karachi, Pakistan has been postponed until March due to the devastating earthquake last October.
The mood in Bamako, where hotels filled up three days ahead of the Forum opening, has been both festive and defiant. "The advent of another world for our people, our peasants is possible," and can happen through "a true revolution," communications coordinator Nouhoun Keita asserted, shaking his fist.
The Forum, which describes itself as "political, cultural, popular and global all at once," is likely to unfold at eight different sites around the city, with major events taking place at the Modiba Keita Omnisports Stadium, the National Museum, the Amadou Hampate Ba Cultural Palace, and the capital's international conference center.
The aim of the gathering is a "vigorous exchange of ideas and experience to stimulate thinking" about fair trade, the promotion of human rights and democracy, and the creation a new world economic order. One of the central preoccupations of the Forum will be Africa's crushing international debt.
"We will release a study on Malian debt that shows how we are being forced into indebtedness as a means of keeping us down," said Aminata Barry Toure, president of the African Alternatives for Debt and Development. Mali's debt increased from 83 million euros (100 million dollars) in 1968 to 2.6 billion euros (3.12 billion dollars) in 2003, a sum it would take Mali four generations to reimburse, the study concluded.
The WSF, which has also inspired an annual European Social Forum, attracted a record 150,000 last year in Porto Alegre, after the 2004 event was held in Mumbai, India.
A future forum is planned for Nairobi in 2007.
Meanwhile, anti-globalisation protestors are gathering this week for the first World Social Forum in Africa, the world's poorest continent which they say is the worst victim of a process aimed at reducing inequalities.
Thousands of anti-globalisation activists, debt relief campaigners and African advocates for the rural poor were to meet in the west African country of Mali from Wednesday to discuss alternative development models.
Africa, which is home to 10 per cent of the world's population, accounts for less than 1.5 per cent of global trade, and has been completely bypassed by globalisation, analysts say.
"It has been an unmitigated disaster for Africa," said Pheki Moyo, a researcher at the Pretoria-based Africa Institute.
"In terms of the balance of forces, globalisation has not yielded anything to Africa," he told AFP.
"In the 1950s, Africa's share in world trade was around seven per cent. In 2002, it was around two percent and stands now at 1.5 per cent."
"In the same token, foreign direct investment in the 1980s was around 30 per cent and in 2002-2003 it dropped to seven per cent. We are dragging behind other poor and developing areas, especially Asia," said Moyo.
Reg Rumney, an independent economist at Businessmap, said Africa's acute poverty and lack of industrialisation made the continent totally unfit for competition in a free trade regime.
"The very poor level of skills and education meant that African countries totally missed out on the global trend of outsourcing," he said.
"Trade on the continent, especially in sub-Saharan Africa is still pretty much commodity driven and that has to change.
Manufacturing is still a rarity and much of the trade would see local commodities being sold back home at huge prices after being processed overseas."
On the flip side of the coin however Africa was the first continent to be integrated into the world economy in terms of access of capital markets with a higher proportion of Africa's wealth being held overseas than any other continent.
Estimates of the ratio of capital outflows in relation to the continent's gross national product range from 24 per cent to a staggering 143 per cent.
To add to Africa's woes is the widely-held view that the continent is an unsafe investment destination and at best a high- risk, high-reward place to sink one's money.
Endemic corruption, political instability in many pockets and bad governance are other major impediments to foreign investment, which largely tend to focus on specific commodities.
Analyst Peter Draper said the continent would also have to shore up its creaky infrastructure drastically if it wants a larger share of the global pie.
"The needs are huge. Huge capital is needed to upgrade roads, railways and communication links and to make travel within Africa cheaper," he said.
"Why would someone in his right mind invest in the Democratic Republic of Congo in anything apart from diamonds and some minerals?
"The country has much smaller markets and less buying potential than any country in Asia," he said.
The Economic Commission of Africa, the United Nations' regional arm here, warned in December that despite a record 5.2 per cent growth in 2005, the continent suffered from record unemployment and poverty.
Organisers have been hoping that 30,000 activists from around the world would show up for the African chapter of the sixth World Social Forum (WSF), a gathering of non-government organisations, fair trade advocates and critics of the world trade system.