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 Home > Event-related > Archives > FSA Quito 2004

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ASF report: Steph

(Date: 15 April 2005)

Note: edited version.

Initial aims

Beginning of April 2004: International council for the World Social Forum, in Passegnano sul Trasimeno, Italy. Phumi asks us to participate in the Social Forum of the Americas (us = LJ, SM, SP, Andrea G having already left by then). Problem: we are already overloaded with work, the WSF looks like its going to be a major undertaking and with no local coordinations in Latin America it’s difficult to envisage an event like this calmly.

We have very little information on the ASF, as with any other social forum. And there is the additional, and major, challenge of working with indigenous languages, with Quechua being announced as the official language: which corresponds to one of Babels’ aims, namely, promoting linguistic and cultural diversity. And just three months to do all this! We (Laurent J, Silvia P, Stephanie M) decide to discuss the question within the network first to see who would be prepared to commit to this venture before giving a final answer.

About one month later, following the report on the international council meeting and on the request that Babels participate in Quito, we decide to take up the challenge all the same. We had three objectives: to contribute to the development of autonomous local coordinations in Latin America; to “train” local coordinators; and to carry out a trial run before the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre in January 2005. In other words, a contradiction in terms from the outset: between the little time available for communicating information and experience and encouraging the independence of new coordinators, on the one hand, and the imperatives of covering the forum, on the other.

The situation at the start was that the ASF entrusted Babels to manage the budget allocated to us, within the framework of a “cooperative agreement”, a standard form of political agreement between associations within the framework of a social forum.

Preparing for the forum: description and chronology

Laurent J gave us all the information he had, and the names of the interpreters who might be interested in the role of coordinator. Amongst the names of the people to be contacted, we found Hemant, who we instinctively relied on for anything regarding the “technical” side of things.

In an online meeting between Sylvia, Leda and Stephanie, we identified the major tasks, also using Isabel’s document. At this stage there were no Latin American colleagues present. They thus joined the work groups that we had defined earlier in such a way that everyone would be able to learn something, and guided, once again, by our concern to ensure the passing on of information.

End of May. The appeal for interpreters has finally been written up and translated into all the required languages. We ask the organisers to send it out to all ASF participants and to put it on the web site: this would allow us to reach all the activist networks and to find interpreters in Latin America rather than elsewhere. Unfortunately, the appeal was not disseminated according to the requested channels and the text published on the website did not correspond to what we had suggested.

Then, we researched the information on the 2003 ESF regarding the budget and the needs outlined at the time, and sent a two-part document to Phumi: a political statement plus a list of needs. We tried to obtain information on the languages used in the debates, on the number of debates to be interpreted, and on the maximum number of these taking place at the same time with a list of the translated languages. This information allows us to determine how many people we need to recruit per language and how many will be needed for the entire duration of the forum. It enables us to balance out geographical origin, levels, etc… Unfortunately, this information only reached us very late in the game.

June. Working via e-mail with people we hadn’t met was very difficult. Differences were exacerbated and working methods not understood. Silvia and Giulia quit after a misunderstanding over the selection process and the use of Quechua. Isa found a summer job and announced that she couldn’t be present at the forum. We now have no one to ensure the planning of the interpreting booths i.e. the daily schedules for each interpreter during the entire forum. So we decide that Bettina, Monica and Isabel will go to Quito to try and get the missing information, and to sort out the remaining material problems; Isa was supposed to show Bettina and Monica how to do the planning.

At the same time, we tried get the terms of the political agreement entrusting Babels with the management of their budget from the Association for the Development of Babels, in order to answer Phumi’s pressing requests concerning the “cooperative agreement”. Unfortunately, it took us a very long time to obtain, understand, and adapt this information and present it to the organisers of the ASF.

All of this weighed heavily on the Quito meeting: following the meeting, the situation changed: we understood that the ASF wanted to manage the budget on its own, given Babels’ failure to provide adequate information on the “cooperative agreement”. This, at the time, seemed to be a politically unfeasible solution, but interesting from a practical point of view. Big mistake: it turned out to be the source of huge misunderstandings in the long run, and very damaging for everyone.

Bettina confirms that she has too much work to do for the World Social Forum 2005 to be able to take on the ASF and also leaves the coordination.

July. Beginning of July, Bettina, Robert, Leda and Stephanie attend an international Babels meeting in Brussels. We express our doubts to the Babels members present and discuss the situation in great depth. We were desperate about not having been able to obtain the necessary information to work properly and possibly wasting the forum’s money, and so were prepared to give up. We (the 4 coordinators present) decided nonetheless to participate in the forum, but to make our feelings known to the ASF organisers: we thus decided to cover the forum no matter what, but knowing that we would be responsible for sending people to work under conditions that were not what they are used to and that turned out not to be what we expected either; and to warn the interpreters, so that they wouldn’t be surprised by the working conditions they were going to find.

However, these decisions held on condition that they were also accepted by the team members not present (Isabel, Monica), which was not the case. So, in the end, nothing was said to the organisers of the ASF before arriving in Quito for the Forum itself. But an email with information for interpreters, on the other hand, did get sent off. Unfortunately, this message wasn’t handled very well, and provoked a rapid reaction, with professional interpreters in Brazil mobilising against Babels. It is extremely difficult to explain in writing what a social forum is, and the context within which we have to work.

The rest of July was spent recruiting the last of the interpreters – right up until the opening day of the forum in Quito.

Hemant’s visit to Paris, 15th July (?). Hemant got confirmation of his trip very late and this impacted on the amount of equipment planned. And on its transport: shipping the equipment by sea being out of the question, he had to take it with him on the plane. But given the limited weight allowance, he was only able to take 22 sets. His colleague Michelle was supposed to follow with the remaining 8. 22 sets can only equip 11 rooms, which is less than the number of seminars needing interpreting per morning. This meant that the number of interpreters recruited for certain languages exceeded the technical capacity of the equipment in the rooms. Hemant, who arrived the… had very little time to set up all the rooms required.


1. Babels-Nomad

We had agreed to cover a maximum of 13 sessions at any one time. The equipment brought over only provided sets for 11 rooms. And, what’s more, only the equipment in 8 rooms actually worked. But we had recruited people to cover 13 debates.

We relied completely on Hemant to be in charge of the sound system. On site, we encountered several practical problems that prevented the interpreters from doing their job: shortage of microphones and audio cables, lack of coordination between all the actors involved, lack of voluntary technicians, and relays couldn’t be ensured due to the lack of equipment in working order. The conditions within which Hemant worked were not the best: limited access to the halls, poor coordination between all the actors involved in audio transmission; he had to set up and explain everything and deal with any emergencies all on his own, which was unrealistic given his lack of familiarity with both the language of the forum and the town where it was held. Three interpreters came to his aid, but this was during the forum so while he was running around trying to deal with problems. There was no plan B if the system broke down.

This situation generated immense frustration among the interpreters, who had come in a spirit of activism to carry out their duties in accordance with their professional ethic, which they were unable to do. They battled with the limitations of consecutive interpreting, which was impossible with several languages, and the limited effectiveness of whispering in large spaces.

2. Things to avoid at all costs

Preparing for an event of the magnitude of the ASF cannot be done at a distance. We need “Babels” people on site. We must never again accept to organise an event without someone reliable on site. Especially for all questions related to logistics, accommodation, food, the transport and technical coordination needed for setting up the booths, the sale of low-priced radio sets, etc. With regards to the recruitment of volunteers on site, it is vital to have “evaluators” capable of integrating new comers as interpreters or technical assistants of whatever kind. Planning and scheduling could possibly be done by a small group that includes one person living far from the forum locality (Claire).

We must not depend on a budget that we do not manage ourselves.

The coordinator who plays the role of “head-coordinator” must speak the language of the country hosting the forum.

3. Things to improve

- “Educating speakers about interpretation”: few speakers really grasp the importance of the role interpreters play in the correct transmission of their message, and even fewer are aware of their own responsibility in the process.
- Lexicons, retrieval of speeches, etc… to be worked on further. The intention was to get the of the speakers’ papers and to distribute speeches and lexicons via email before the forum, like we did for the Women’s Assembly in November in Paris (the only successful example thus far!!). A lost battle! The pre-forum work of raising the organizers’ and speakers’ awareness of the need to respect linguistic diversity is vital. How can we get hold of the subjects of all the conferences, the broad lines of the speeches and the language of each speaker sufficiently in advance? I think we need to bug them, to repeat endlessly that we are neither service providers nor magicians or mind readers (Claire).
- Portuñol wreaks havoc in Latin America, as does ersatz English elsewhere. It is extremely difficult to interpret for people speaking a language they don’t master. But we must find a way of calmly explaining Babels role without upsetting the speakers.
- Hall supervisors’ tasks need to be explained and organised better; we need to see to it that we have more mobile phones available, and enough people on hand in the Babels room to be able to deal with emergencies. (Maybe those interpreters with previous forum experience could take on the task of coordinating this). We need better coordination between hall supervisors and Nomad “technicians”, and to find a common language. (Claire)
- Increasing the number of physical meetings between co-workers is indispensable, given the numerous misunderstandings arising from emailing. Better even: organising more physical meetings between all those who are likely to be collaborating on site during the forum.
- Promotion of linguistic diversity: given the discussions on indigenous languages that have followed the forum, it is clear that there is no shared opinion on this subject. The question merits more in-depth discussion, since it is caught at the moment between two visions that are both geographic- and culture-centric.
- Emergencies: we must plan to have a sum of money in cash available to deal with emergencies: some of the interpreters found themselves in dire straits when reimbursements, which they had expected to be immediate, were too long in coming. We had not thought of this and didn’t realise what was going on until they were desperate and had had more than enough of living on potato crisps!

4. Positive results:

- We began work on promoting indigenous languages, despite the initial faux pas.
- There is excellent understanding amongst everyone now.
- The interpreters received a warm welcome at the forum.
- Birth of new local coordinations? The Brazilian coordination will probably expand, and the same goes for the Argentinean, Uruguayan, Columbian, Ecuadorians and Peruvian Babelito groups. We now need to contact those in the southern cone for Porto Alegre. (Claire).

Personal conclusion (Steph): Not bad at all for a first forum!! Managing to find some five hundred people to meet needs that we could not really assess in an environment that has not heard of Babels, seeing them arrive despite the ordeal with the tickets, hearing them insist that they want to work, etc… hats off to the team of coordinators who didn’t know each other and had had no opportunity to meet before the event, hats off to the organisers of the ASF who took a while to understand the way Babels works but who were available “no matter what”, and hats off to the interpreters, who kept their good spirits throughout!

Having said that, I feel that what we lack is a space to reflect on the lessons to be learnt from an experience of this kind. For it is in its implementation, with its pluses and its problems, and as we make our (necessary) mistakes, that the practice of collective decision-making is progressively constructed. Personally, the fatigue and irritation only hit me after the forum was over. However, certain aspects of the role of “conductor” or “UN soldier” that I had to take on during those four months have left a bitter taste and I would have liked to have been able to engage in a discussion on the contradictory mix of roles, between that of “consultant”, arising from the need to explain and pass on information and experience, on the one hand, and a role closer to the work of a “project manager” who needs to make decisions to move the project forward, on the other hand. The first permits autonomy. The second limits it. But the imperatives of this particular forum forced us to fill both roles at the same time! (in my view).

Gemma E. & Merle S.)

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