“Extended” communication for an Extended “Open Space”. The WSF communication Strategy Towards the World Social Forum 2011

The organising committee of the World Social Forum 2011 has convened four days of activities to develop, with its regional and global partners, strategic and practical plans towards the next edition of the WSF. The activities started on the 25th of July with a day-long seminar on the communication strategies for the event to be held from the 6th to the 11th February 2011 in Dakar, Senegal. The meeting was facilitated by the Panos Institute West Africa. It was attended by members of the communication commissions of the Africa Social Forum of the Senegal Social Forum and of the International Council of the World Social Forum and it was articulated in two consecutive sessions. In the morning African media activists discussed the general framework presented by the facilitators whereas the afternoon session saw an extended exchange with the international partners. The following lines refer to the second part of the meeting.

The almost four hours of joint and group conversations produced both a wealth of practical outcomes and strategic considerations on the communication needs of the WSF over the next months. There was wide convergence between Senegalese, African and international partners on crucial issues. Communication is a key pillar of the global WSF process and particularly now in the months before the Dakar event; its success largely depends on its proactive and extended practices, such success is predicated on the collaboration between activists and organisations in sophisticated and creative articulations from the local to the global level. Such activities, it was highlighted, would have to aim both at mobilising participants towards the event in Dakar but also to allow those who will not be able to convene in the University Campus a stone throw from the Atlantic Ocean to participate from all corners of the planet. This last consideration resonated with great urgency in the meeting room. After years of gigantic events, for some commentators even too big to be easily navigated (how often participants reported the famous “kid in the candy-store” syndrome among the hundreds of workshops, seminars, conferences and cultural activities of all kinds?) the WSF is ready to move out of itself and embrace the planet as a whole. The reasons for the urgency are twofold: WSF activists wish to fulfil the ambitious mandate of making it a truly “global” initiative that attempts to generate processes of increasing inclusion among participants from different regions of the world and, even more urgent in the near future, the desire to escape the self-defeating strategy of increasing participants and activities to show relevance and continued interest in its vision and organisational formula by the world progressive activists.

To achieve this goal a concerted set of actions will be undertaken as discussed in the working groups into which the plenary assembly was divided after a set of introductory presentations. The presentations focused on the framework visions of the African Communication Strategy for the WSF 2011, on the website, on the registration process and tools developed to undertake it and on the nature of the work facilitated by the Communication Commission of the International Council.

Diana Senghor introduced the vision of the communication towards Dakar 2011 as developed by the local organising committee. The presentation was premised on the realisation that the current global crisis is a crisis of civilisation and that Africa is currently the heart of the WSF process and can relaunch its vision towards a world beyond not only the present crisis but also beyond its deepest causes. This visionary call and the realisation of the crucial challenges faced by the WSF and the global left (as discussed in previous meetings of the International Council) informed the following discussions in the four working groups. The groups discussed the WSF “extended” process, the role of alternative and mainstream media, the media centre and the several communication tools to be deployed to disseminate the content produced by the WSF process (from the website and the registration tools to the today ever present social networking tools). Whereas a working group was not dedicated to translation and interpretation, they were considered transversal issues that directly affected each activity to be undertaken in the communication process and contributed to the ability of the WSF to fully extend its reach beyond the sphere of those familiar with the few European languages usually used as communication pass-par-tout in the WSF process.

The work of the four groups was reported at the end of the sessions and set the grounds for the activities to follow, as it was stated, “from tomorrow on”. The first group to report was “Dakar Extended”. The process that goes under the “WSF Extended” label started in 2008 and originally aimed at giving access to the WSF event to those who could not physically be in Belem in the Brazilian Amazon. Its significance is twofold in the present context: it gives the possibility to those who can’t travel to Senegal to virtually attend its events, and at the same time it allows the WSF “open space” to extend its boundaries to embrace potentially the whole planet. An experiment that, in this form and potentially in its reach, would have no precedents in the history of the world civil societies. The extension of the “open space” would take place in several, networked ways: through simple video conferences between locations in the Dakar venue and twinned spaces around the world; through the continuous audio and video streaming of the forum activities, and through the organisations of WSF-like events in other parts of the world by organisations involved in the forum who would organise intertwined and interconnected activities, to mention just few possibilities.

Seeing the WSF in these terms implies rethinking the meaning and the activities of the mobilisation process towards Dakar 2011. If in previous WSF events mobilisation was an effort to bring people physically to the venue of the event, a new decentralised mobilisation needs to be developed that aims at facilitating access to both dimensions of the WSF 2011, the physical (both in Dakar and everywhere else in the world were WSF activists would facilitate parallel activities) and the virtual, on the Internet. A special role in this process would have to be played by local to global networks of community radios like Amarc, involved in the WSF process since its inception and with a number of partners in Africa.

The group on alternative and mainstream media discussed how to generate virtuous cycles of interconnection between local and national, regional and international media. While the alternative media might take advantage of established networks who have long participated in the WSF process like Ciranda and the Panos institute and its partners. Towards generating synergies and partnership across regions the members of this working group reflected on the possibility to organise a forum of media activists to discuss in detail both production and dissemination of media contents on the WSF process towards Dakar 2011. As far as the mainstream media are concerned the discussion revolved around the need to stimulate a capillary interaction at the national level between local activists and the reporters of the major national, regional and global media networks. Such concerted action is crucial to engage global public spheres that have been generally resistant to a consistent engagement with the WSF process and events. To facilitate this approach, it was suggested that the selection of few core thematic areas to report onwould greatly facilitate the taks of the media activists involved, among those the core thematic foci of the forum: the crisis of civilisation, the African diaspora, the WSF open space vision and the new universality proposed by the African organisers as the main framework vision of the next world event.

The third group reported on the reflections on the setting up and running of the media centre. The conversations addressed the need to learn from the past experiences, the importance of the site of the media centre and the activities to be developed during the forum. It was noted, among other things, that in Mumbai the media centre was always at the centre of the action due to its central position in the geography of the venue whereas it was much harder to generate interaction between media activists and the whole forum in Belem where the media centre, although an excellent structure in itself, was rather decentralised with respect to the venues of the forum. Some suggestions were made on the possible locations of the media centre in Dakar that will be finalised soon after further surveys of the university campus will take place starting from the next days. Among the possibilities was suggested the school of communication of the university. The media centre would comprise ideally of several spaces were alternative and mainstream media could work, interview rooms and perhaps larger rooms for events to be organised in the framework of Dakar extended.

Finally, the working group on the tools presented an extensive list of almost immediately actionable suggestions to improve the look and functionality of the website and its interaction with social networking tools. On issues of further complexity like the registration tool further collaboration among the members of the group and media activists in Africa, the United States and Brazil will be developed in the next weeks in order not only to address the immediate needs of the Dakar event but to create a tool that can be used in the future events and that, at the same time, gathers the databases of the previous editions of the WSF events in one global database the importance of which was stressed and resonated with previous discussions in the WSF.

After the meeting several participants shared with me their feelings about what seemed to be one of the overall fragrances of the long day of work, that of a general enthusiasm for the process and its innovative drives, particularly that towards breaking the boundaries of the open space beyond the limited geographic area of the event venue towards, virtually, the extension of the planet itself and, secondly, the potential resonance of the Dakar event with the local and national political and social environments. Something else was remarkable about the meeting, the congruence of efforts and the almost total absence of substantial divergences about overall aims and about the practical actions to be taken towards those goals. Although this is not to suggest that complexity of views and differences of approaches were not manifested in the meeting and do not contribute to animate the thousands streams of the debate on the communication in the WSF, their colours, however, seemed to fade under the strong brushes of the practical and pragmatic organisational needs of a process that is in so many ways a great challenge both for the local organisers and for the WSF as a whole.

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