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World Social Forum: Small Ways
To Solve Big Problems

By Joyce Mulama

23 January, 2006
Inter Press Service

NAIROBI, Jan 21 (IPS) - "We were told to come for this celebration because it is a celebration to end poverty," Edward Njeru, driver of a tuktuk (a three-wheel vehicle used as a taxi in urban areas), said about the World Social Forum (WSF) that opened here Saturday.

He told IPS, "I hope this poverty really ends." Njeru, who takes home between 14 to 43 dollars per month, barely enough to meet his needs, was with about 30 of his colleagues who paraded their colourful tuktuks in Uhuru Park, where the WSF opening ceremony took place.

Besides the tuktuks, bicycle taxi drivers displayed their "boda bodas", which have become a popular means of transport in many parts of the country.

The parades of tuktuks and boda bodas reflected the theme for the seventh annual WSF, "Peoples' struggles, peoples' alternatives", whereby people address poverty in their own small ways.

The Jan. 20-25 meeting has attracted thousands upon thousands of delegates from across the world, who have gathered to denounce social injustices that have continued to afflict developing countries, particularly Africa.

A sea of people engulfed the Nairobi park. The scorching sun mattered less.

Wearing t-shirts and scarves of all colours, they waved placards, flags and banners bearing, anti-poverty messages, among others, as they danced to African and Caribbean tunes. Sweat flowed from their faces.

The Uhuru park event followed a march from Kibera slum, about seven kilometres southwest of Nairobi. The slum is Kenya's and East Africa's largest, with a population of over 700,000 people. Here, the delegates came face to face with poverty: mud huts, no sewerage system, choking stench from the streams of open sewers, no roads, no services of any kind.

At the park, speaker after speaker accused rich countries of instituting policies that are unfriendly to developing nations, and which have sustained poverty in these nations.

"We know the world we want, one in which there is no domination by the West, but respect; one in which there are no debts culminating from this domination," Chico Whitaker, a member of the WSF International Council said.

According to global anti-debt organisations, African countries spend about 15 billion dollars per year repaying debts, in a continent where more than half of the population lives on less than a dollar a day. The continent also has been dogged with the highest rates of HIV/AIDS and illiteracy.

Analysts argue that this situation could be reversed if governments spent more money on health care, education and other public service sectors, rather than on debt repayment.

The issue of HIV/AIDS dominated the addresses at Uhuru Park, as speakers reiterated that it remained the greatest challenge African countries, and offered suggestions for countering the challenge.

"The key thing to do in managing this problem is prevention because prevention is better than cure. We must remember voluntary counselling and testing," Kenneth Kaunda, former Zambian president, told the gathering.

He added, "checking one's status and talking openly about it will reduce stigma. I am not telling you what I have not done," said the Kaunda, who went for testing in 2002, and openly talked about HIV/AIDS following the death of his son who succumbed to the disease.

As the world grapples with the HIV/AIDS challenge, several initiatives seeking to address the problem have emerged in different parts of the world.

In Brazil, poems have been used on condoms to inform people of the dangers of HIV/AIDS. The "poetic condom" project was the brainchild of Ramos Filho, a poet and law professor from Itajai district in Santa Catarina, Brazil. He was prompted by the high rate of HIV/AIDS in the region.

"The high cases were an alert that something needed to be done urgently. I started distributing condoms with poetic messages to the whole of Brazil with the objective of giving information to people," Filho told IPS at the park, where he was distributing the condoms.

His project, he said, had led to increased awareness and behavioural change among people. Filho's initiative fits well into the WSF slogan, "another world is possible", as well as this year's theme: peoples' struggles, peoples' alternatives.

Indeed, the WSF 2007 organising committee hopes that more such initiatives will emerge from the forum. "We expect that people will interrogate the current world as it is and make alternatives for creating a better world," Oduor Ong'wen, a member of the committee, told IPS.

More than 150,000 people from around the world are expected to attend the WSF, in which other key issues including housing, environment, trade, unemployment, corruption, governance and human rights will be discussed.

The WSF is an annual gathering of social activists seeking to chart out ways of countering the dominance of the rich western nations. Usually, this meet of tens of thousands of activists takes place in January, as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum, an annual meeting of powerful business and political élites held in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos.

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