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Activists at the World Social Forum in Tunis say the challenge is to rally against the concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few
In Tunis, civil society groups are gathered at the World Social Forum. Their causes are diverse: inequality, climate change, women’s rights, the protection of civil society space. African organisations challenging mining corporations to pay their taxes connect with European groups demanding Amazon and Starbucks pay theirs; Latin American indigenous activists discuss the struggle for dignity with Dalit movements from South Asia.
The Forum is huge, an estimated 80,000 people; and it is loud, with meetings in university classrooms, tents and on the streets, marches and songs, debates and performances. But though many different causes and contexts have brought them into activism, the groups are all finding progress held back by today’s biggest structural obstacle to justice: the huge concentration of power in the hands of the one percent.
Efforts to tackle poverty are being undermined by the power of elites to avoid taxes; efforts to agree international action to stop runaway climate change are being undermined by the power of the fossil fuel corporations to obstruct controls. And when people try to defend their rights, they face an increasingly repressive response: the current imbalance of power means that governments, who should be overseeing corporations and protecting citizens, are instead protecting corporations and overseeing citizens.
The Tunisian revolution’s origins were in the extreme inequality of wealth and power: the economic exclusion of the millions of ordinary Tunisians while the elite massed wealth and siphoned off billions of dollars overseas. Now Tunisians have freedom, but many still go without basic services while powerful corporations can still get close to 100% tax breaks, “respectable” overseas banks hold on to stolen Tunisian money, and the cronies of the old regime live in unashamed splendour in Europe and beyond.
Mustapha Tlili, a history professor and member of the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights, tells me “we Tunisians always knew there was a lot of money stolen but we never knew just how much”. Chernib Mansour, a Tunisian trade unionist, describes the impact of austerity as “like Ebola. The gaps, the shortages in education, health, access to drinking water, are rooted in austerity, so now we are demanding for those at the top to be made pay their fair share.”
International delegates at the forum speak of the same imbalance of power. Anti-Apartheid leader Jay Naidoo describes today’s extreme inequality as “Apartheid 2.0. All major decisions are being made in the interest of the one percent. The only way to change that is to alter the balance of forces. We need to build power from below. We need to unite, and to organise.”
Global NGOs ActionAid, Greenpeace and Oxfam, together with the civil society alliance Civicus and the feminist network The Association for Women’s Rights in Development, come together to declare: “The economic, ecological and human rights crises we face are intertwined and reinforcing. The influence of the 1% has increased, is increasing, and ought to be diminished.” They pledge to “help strengthen the power of the people to challenge the people with power.”
Though there is recognition of the scale of the challenge in taking on the one percent, there is also hope. Luckystar Miyandazi from the East African Tax and Governance Network says “people are getting concerned, getting organised, and getting campaigning. There is power in people.” Hubert Schillinger of the Friedrich Ebert foundation declares “The elite see just how many people are demanding change. That is why they are starting to offer concessions. The one percent are in trouble, and it’s up to us trouble makers to keep it that way.”
On a journey to the Forum the taxi driver, Ali, tells me how important it is that people have come to Tunis. “We worried that after last week’s attacks people would cancel, but is so important that you came, that we defeat this violence, that we build a new Tunisia.” He tells me about the everyday hardships of ordinary Tunisians. I ask him what is needed in Tunisia: “Jobs for all the young people, education for all the children.
It is not too much of a dream, it is not impossible.” As we walk around the forum, NGO worker Rym Khadhraoui, who grew up in France but felt she “had to return to Tunisia after the revolution” describes the changes that have swept Tunisia as both inspiring and unfinished: “we still have two Tunisias, we have to build one”.
In the same spirit, international campaigners at the Forum have drawn on a sheet a map of the world, on which activists from across the world are writing about their own national campaigns challenging the powerful: “Same Planet,” reads the map, “Same Struggle”.
Alongside the stories of repression of civil society are the stories of real victories by civil society, and a confidence that has come from the huge popular wave of support to tackle the power of the one percent: “We are many, they are few.” At the march at the start of the Forum, the Tunisians sing an old poem that has become the national song: “If, one day, a people desires to live, then fate will answer their call. And their night will then begin to fade, and their chains break and fall.”
Such is the spirit of civil society today, not only at the Forum but beyond the Forum. As the joint statement of the civil society leaders declares: “A more inclusive society, at the service of human beings, is both essential and achievable. But only if we work together to insist on it. Another world is possible. We will work together to help make it happen.”