Social issues on the world stage

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Every year some of the world's most powerful people go to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in the Swiss ski resort of Davos - the annual meeting for business leaders and political figures to talk, think and get fresh ideas.

Grabbing fewer headlines is the World Social Forum, which was this year held in the Senegalese capital of Dakar.

Business figures do attend - but it is made up mainly of members of social movements, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and "other civil society organisations opposed to neo-liberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism".

Here, some of the delegates give the BBC their thoughts.

Jerry Greenfield, co-founder of Ben & Jerry's (ice cream firm, now owned by global giant Unilever)

We came to Dakar because we believe that the global community of the World Social Forum - activists of all stripes, working on issues ranging from migration to climate justice to women's rights to food - represents the true voice of the future.

Jerry Greenfield

Though the business credentials of Ben [Cohen co-founder] and myself might get us into the crowd of CEOs and world leaders that gather in the elite ski resort of Davos, we feel much more at home with the grassroots social movements that remind us of the community spirit in which we started our company 33 years ago.

The fair trade movement - known here at the forum more frequently as the movement for the "solidarity economy" - is one that we are particularly interested in.

Ben & Jerry's ice cream has been using fair trade ingredients since 2005, but we made a commitment last year - the first of any food company anywhere near our size - to move to 100% fair trade products globally by the end of 2013.

This means that every person who takes a bite of our ice cream will know that they make their purchase in solidarity with the 27,000 farmers working in co-operatives around the world to produce their ice cream at a fair wage and under humane working conditions.

The solidarity economy, however, goes far beyond wages and workplaces - it is a whole new way of looking at the relationships between human beings on other sides of the planet.

Solidarity means going beyond the free trade dogma of Davos and building a world where every business, government and organisation takes on the commitment to building a fair and just world for future generations.

Mamdouh Habashi, Civil engineer and Vice-President of the World Forum for Alternatives

Only a handful of Egyptians were present at this year's World Social Forum: most stayed at home to be part of the political movement on the streets.

Leaving these demonstrations, I boarded a plane from Cairo to Dakar to share my experiences from the streets of my home city, and to talk with leaders of social movements from around Africa and the world to discuss what will come next.

Mamdouh Habashi

As a youth, I studied at Cairo University and then in Germany, and, after returning to Egypt, I started a construction company which works in Egypt and abroad. As a businessman and a social activist, I know well the economic realities of Egypt and how they affect society as a whole.

The Egyptian revolution has two main forces. One is the middle class and students, whose main concerns are democracy and freedom.

Even Naguib Sawiris, Egypt's richest businessman, supported their demands.

The other key social force is made up of workers and the poor.

In the past five years, there has barely been a day without a strike, a sit-in, or a demonstration somewhere in the country. According to World Bank, about 40% of Egyptians live on less than $2 (£1.60) per day.

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Egypt has demonstrated this week that the World Social Forum's motto -'another world is possible' - is today more true than ever ”

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Food prices have sky-rocketed, first in 2008 and again in recent months, while wages have lagged far behind. There has been a wave of strikes across the country for better pay and working conditions, in all sectors from airlines and textiles to Suez Canal workers and and public servants.

In the rural areas, land concentration has driven many small farmers off their farms, leading to great hardship and poverty, forcing people to the cities and exacerbating unemployment.

While no single factor can explain what erupted in Egypt, the unprecedented coming together of those calling for democratic change and those demanding better social and economic conditions has turned out to be historic.

I met fellow activists from dozens of countries experiencing similar turmoil, frustrated with their own unresponsive governments and failing economies.

The global economic crisis is a sign not only of a shift in the business climate, but also of the increasing inadequacy of neo-liberal economic policies, driven by the US and EU, which lead globally to high unemployment and more polarisation between rich and poor.

Egypt has demonstrated this week that the World Social Forum's motto - "another world is possible" - is today more true than ever.

Choosing our leaders, however, is only the first step on the road toward constructing a more just and equitable world.

This next struggle is global: it cannot be won in one country alone.

Jenina Joy Chavez, Coordinator of Focus on the Global South-Philippines

One of the reasons that Asian civil society representatives made the long journey to Dakar was to share our perspectives on the hidden costs behind Asia's so-called "success story".

Much has been said about Asia's resilience and growth in the wake of the global financial crisis.

Jenina Joy Chavez

The region was supposed to have grown by twice the world average in 2010, and is expected to lead global growth again in 2011. What goes on behind this resilience is seldom discussed.

Asia is a region of huge disparities, where unemployment may be as low as 1.4% in Thailand and Bhutan, yet reaches 9.8% in Indonesia and 14.4% in the Maldives.

Average incomes also vary widely. Singapore's per capita income is more than 30 times that of Myanmar (the official name for Burma) for example.

Even China's fast growth, while responsible for lifting 400 million people out of absolutely poverty in only 20 years, has not stemmed widening inequality.

South Asia in general has better income distribution than some industrialised countries, but it has higher and deeper levels of poverty, as well as ranks lower in terms of human development.

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Asia does not ail like Europe and the US, but it suffers the malaise nonetheless”

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Throughout the region, real wages are down, particularly in Malaysia and the Philippines, with Thailand and Japan not far behind. And despite its relative prosperity, only 45% of the region's population has access to sanitation services.

Growth figures mask many vulnerabilities that are felt in human lives. Years of crop failure in India mire people in debt and result in farmer suicides.

Land grabs in Pakistan, Cambodia and the Philippines increase insecurity and conflict while natural calamities have been intense and more frequent and countries most at risk from climate change (including the Maldives and Bangladesh) have yet to make adequate plans.

Asia does not ail like Europe and the US, but it suffers the malaise nonetheless. To a large extent China's $580bn (£360bn) stimulus programme and its integration with East Asian economies aided the region's growth.

But China has not abandoned its export-oriented dependence on servicing the US and European markets where the short- to medium-term prognosis for these markets is one of stagnation. While it remains highly dependent on these markets, Asia's vaunted resilience is shaky.

It is vital that we learn from the global crisis and use it as an opportunity for Asia to tighten regional cooperation and integration, and draw from its own resources to set the region on a path of sustainable and more equitable development.

David Evan Harris, Researcher, Institute for the Future, and Founder, Global Lives Project

It's easy for me to succumb to techno-optimism - technology is the revolution, I'm told. With one laptop per child, and a tweeter in every household, a brave new world of hyper connected internauts appears to rise from the ashes of our devastated planet.

From my fourth World Social Forum in Dakar, the world looks different. The market triumphalism of Silicon Valley is completely absent here.

David Evan Harris

While entrepreneurs may have an important role to play here in Africa, we must remember the public institutions that created and now reproduce the political and economic conditions that allow the market to thrive in the US - public education, minimum wage laws, social safety nets, functioning sewer, water and electricity systems, and at least a nominal separation of powers between church and state and different branches of government.

The youth of Egypt and Tunisia, using the latest tools of communication, have overthrown two dictators in two months. These revolutions would most likely have happened with or without these technologies, but probably not so quickly or relatively peacefully.

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India and Brazil - two of the largest democracies - show that extreme poverty is fully compatible with rapid economic growth and thriving entrepreneurship”

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Moreover, both countries are still left with crippling poverty, dramatic inequalities and hence facing the problem of building institutions of reconstructions, for which there are no clear models.

At the World Social Forum too, the problems of new kinds of institutions loomed large. We spoke not only of revolutions but also of what type of world, based on what kind of institutions to create in the wake of crumbling dictatorships? I

India and Brazil - two of the largest democracies - show that extreme poverty is fully compatible with rapid economic growth and thriving entrepreneurship.

One dangerous possible outcome of a technology-enabled revolution is that those who followed the tweets from Tahrir and expressed their solidarity on Facebook will now be distracted by another cause and lose sight of the deeper currents at play and the need to create sustainable structures to overcome them.

With a 140-character attention span, it's easy to forget that the global financial architecture that led us into crisis is unchanged. Centuries of looting the Global South cannot be erased in the space of a single tweet. Real solidarity is a lifelong commitment.

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