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Accommodation Report Public


Accommodation at ESF London 2004
Stuart H, Babels UK

1. The Context

1-1 Solidarity versus commercial accommodation

Part of the internationalist and solidarity ethos of the Social Forums is the desirability for participants from across the world to experience the maximum possible political and cultural exchange and be welcomed into the homes and social centres of the host citizenry as an act of solidarity. Homestay places were used to accommodate the majority of Babels interpreters and translators for Paris, and the aim for the London ESF 2004, agreed by the UK ESF Organising Committee, was to place ALL Babels volunteers in the homes of London activists. This was also designed to save an enormous amount of money that could be allocated to other aspects of the ESF process. Homestay accommodation was particularly relevant to the London context as over the last 30 years, Britain's social housing and municipal buildings have been steadily decimated through lack of investment and privatisation. Consequently, even with a sympathetic local Mayor, securing free and cheap mass accommodation for the ESF faced major political and logistical obstacles from the beginning. The combination of private sector ownership, restrictive legal liability issues and the suffocating political constraints on local government meant that the GLA was unable to open up local gymnasiums, school halls and other municipal buildings as at previous ESFs. The ESF's timing (mid-October) also precluded the utilisation of student accommodation. In this difficult context, finding mass accommodation was always going to rely heavily on creative thinking, solidarity and a committed collective research and outreach effort of local government, trade unions, NGOs, grassroots groups and the left press.

1-2 The accommodation needs of interpreters

Simultaneous and consecutive interpretation, as well as rapid translation of dense political documents, are stressful and demanding activities that require a high level of concentration and energy. Decent accommodation is therefore essential for interpreters/translators to rest and sleep comfortably, and is perhaps their single most important concern. Babels UK issued the following accommodation guidelines to the UK organising and coordinating committes, the GLA and the ESF Office:
* All interpreters must have a bed to sleep in
* There should not be more than 4 people per room
* Rooms must not be mixed (female only or male only)
* All rooms must be non-smoking
* All interpreters must have access to a warm shower
* Accommodation has to be as near as possible to the Forum venues for interpreters' convenience
* Interpreters need guaranteed accommodation from 13th-18th October


1-3 Babels budget and project plan agreements with the ESF Company on accommodation

The Babels budget agreed with the ESF Company in July 2004 stipulated that Babels volunteers would be provided with 100% free accommodation. There was, therefore, a sum of ?0 in our budget for accommodation, with the ESF Company promising to safeguard £5000 in its own budget as a contingency fund. Babels UK argued for a £13,000 contingency fund but this was rejected by the GLA who conducted all negotiations on behalf of the ESF company. Throughout the ESF UK organising process, it was assumed by all parties that free accommodation for Babels volunteers would be homestay. It was agreed that all homestay spaces offered to the ESF would be prioritised for Babels volunteers.

In the final version of the Babels Project Plan agreed with the GLA in mid-September, the responsibilities of the Babels Project Managers employed by the ESF Company regarding accommodation were as follows. Babels Project Managers were to (1) help develop a pool of homestay in cooperation with other parts of the ESF organising process, and (2) allocate homestay accommodation to interpreters. The main tool to be used in creating a pool of homestay was an online accommodation database to be placed on the ESF website. Babels Project Managers were to write a specification for this database. They were also to agree with other non-Babels ESF workers on "a joint communication strategy" to increase homestay offers, including: attending various ESF related outreach meetings to communicate on the issue; developing appropriate literature on outreach packs; sending out call for solidarity in relevant electronic and traditional media; and using all available ESF contact mailing lists and drawing on contacts of affiliated organisations. Babels was then to set up an appropriate system to match homestay offers to interpreters who needed homestay. It was never agreed that finding accommodation for Babels volunteers would be the sole reponsibility of Babels Project Managers.

2. The Experience

2-1 London: the general accommodation crisis

Despite the difficult accommodation context in London and the promises and assurances of the GLA and ESF Company at the ESF European Assemblies, general accommodation outreach for the ESF never took place in a serious or systematic way. The GLA monopolised all aspects of accommodation outreach, consistently blocked demands and attempts to create an accommodation database and only became interested in finding accommodation for ESF participants at the last minute (see section 2-2 below for Babels experience and explanation of this). This led to a situation where with a week to go before the ESF, there was almost zero solidarity accommodation for ESF participants. This forced the Mayor of London to secretly turn to the private corporate sector and buy 5000 floor places for three nights in the Millennium Dome for an alleged six-figure sum and sell them back to individual ESF delegates for ?10. While the political factions supporting the GLA's involvement in the ESF celebrated the speed and generosity of this move, others saw paying the TNC owner of the Dome, Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), to provide emergency accommodation for the ESF because of the failure to take such matters seriously in the first place as representing a major failure of the process and completely counter to the Social Forum ethos. This arrangement also only guaranteed 5,000 places for those who could afford an extra £10 on top of huge cost of arriving and subsisting in London, one of the most expensive cities in the world. However, another 15,000 people attended the ESF from all over the UK and the rest of Europe, and there were stories of some groups being forced to sleep rough on the Sunday night because the Dome was only booked for the Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.

That said, the solidarity accomodation picture during the ESF was not entirely negative with some inspirational actions. Halkevi, the Turkish and Kurdish Community Centre in Hackney, put up about 250 delegates from Hungary, Poland and Italy for free and provided cheap food. PROUT, an organisation promoting Progressive Utilization Theory, housed around 20 people in two health centres. The Wombles and others involved in organising Beyond the ESF at Middlesex University secured squatted spaces for around 725 activists to bed down for a week. Indymedia volunteers put up around 70 people and other squats accommodated nearly 200. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Londoners also opened their homes to British and international friends. Many of these efforts took place either in response to, or in spite of, the disappointing efforts of the official process.

2-2 The Babels Experience

Babels selected approximately 445 interpreters and translators for the ESF in London, and had 55 additional coordinators on site. In the end, only around 238 required accommodation from the ESF due to the efforts of Babels coordinators in deliberately selecting a high percentage of London-based interpreters (127) and helping to find private accommodation within the Babels network for 135 others from the UK and elsewhere in Europe. However, contrary to the Babels Budget, Project Plan and political agreements of the European Preparatory Assemblies, the 238 interpreters/translators requiring accomodation were mainly accommodated in hostels (190), at a cost of more than £15,000. This is because the accomodation outreach process agreed in the Babels Project Plan was consistently blocked by the GLA, leaving Babels in a situation where with 12 days to go before the ESF was due to begin, only around 60 suitable beds in homestay accommodation had been found for interpreters. This forced the ESF Company to pay for hostel beds. The problems did not stop there: a number of serious administrative errors and lack of communication by the GLA led to a major shortfall of hostel beds on the Wednesday and Sunday evening that cost vaulable time of Babels coordinators and GLA officials to sort out, and much distress to interpreters and translators. The hostel situation proved to be an almost intolerable strain on Babels coordinators and some interpreters during the ESF, but it would have been a lot worse if Babels coordinators had not taken pre-emptive action to reduce the demand and increase the supply of accommodation.

The following time-line of events demonstrates the serious problems Babels experienced with accommodation during the ESF from February to October 2004. Some analysis of why this happened is then offered.

February 2004

Two GLA officials and one SWP member organise a private meeting with some of the French team who developed much of the ICT tools for the Paris ESF. The French team offer to donate the accommodation database they developed for Paris to the UK process on condition that the database would not be re-used for commercial purposes, that the ESF company would not be the owner of the database, and that the tool would be passed back to the ESF process for the following years. The GLA never makes such guarantees and the French offer is withdrawn. At a UK organising committee meeting, the GLA claims to have started "scoping work into the availability and booking of accommodation across London".

March 2004

An ESF accommodation working group is set up in mid-March, coordinated by a representative member of Amicus London/SWP. He receives little help, but he also refuses help from certain quarters, especially Babels UK. We ask to have a meeting with him as a lot of homestay would go to interpreters and we have a large amount of information from Babels ESF Paris coordinators about how to deal with homestay that we want to feed into the setting up of an appropriate system. He refuses to meet with Babels UK and fails to invite us to any of his meetings with the GLA.

April 2004

A specification for the ESF website is developed by the GLA without any consultation of other parties involved in the ESF, including Babels. Despite requests from Babels for a homestay database to be included, it does not feature in the final specification requested of GreenNet?, the not-for-profit company given the ESF website contract.

May 2004

Babels UK is still sidelined from accommodation meetings with the GLA, even directly being blocked attending one such meeting.

June 2004

The accommodation group appears to be absorbed by the GLA when the coordinator announces that he is no longer coordinating such efforts.

July 2004

A badly designed homestay offer form full of serious errors appears on the ESF website. The questions asked are completely inappropriate for the information that is being sought. It is only available in PDF format on the website, meaning that it is innaccessible to anyone without Adobe Acrobat Reader software, and respondants have to fill it in by hand and send it back to the office by post - a major disincentive. Babels UK mentions these problems several times at Coordinating Committee meetings and asks that at the very least the 'file type' is changed to 'rich text format' in order to increase the number of people who can view the Homestay form and send it back by email. Our requests are again ignored.

End of July/August

Babels UK coordinators start working at the TGWU office in Green Lanes and begin to look actively into the issue of homestay accomodation. We finally manage to persuade the GLA to have the website homestay form in a different format. Requests for an accommodation database are once again refused by the ESF Office manager seconded from the GLA, on grounds that there is 'no need and no budget', that the database was not a 'British thing' and that volunteers could process the forms. The GLA even refuses to seek a quote for a database.

Babels argues that there is an overwhelming need for an accommodation database for 4 reasons: (1) It will increase the chances of people offering homestay by acting as a direct marketing tool and making it easier to sign-up to than having to print out or download a form and send it in by post or email; (2) It will reduce the time for processing the information and efficiently facilitate the matching of offers with demands; (3) Having volunteers on hand to process the forms is irrelevant if there are not enough desks and computers for them to use and Babels does not have access to enough desks and computers in our offices; and (4) it allows a better system for the matching of supply with demand. We tell the GLA that trying to cut costs by not paying for a database would prove to be a false economy if the consequence of not finding enough free accomodation is to have to pay for hostels and hotels.

Babels UK requests for a meeting with ESF office workers to develop a common strategy for developing homestay (as laid out in the Project Plan) are still being frustrated. The ESF office employees do not understand why they should have a meeting with us because they believe that Babels is in charge of developing homestay. Babels immediately clarifies the situation and explains that it is the responsibility of the ESF as a whole to secure free accomodation for interpreters and that Babels would be responsible for matching interpreters with places. The ESF office workers then assure us that they will liaise with us on all accommodation issues, but this does not happen.

Babels then has an informal discussion with GreenNet? about the possible cost of developing an homestay database. We are given a rough quote of £280 + VAT and pass it on to the ESF office. However, instead of pursuing an official quote, the ESF Office Manager, rings GreenNet? to tell them that they have no authorisation to talk to Babels about any ESF business. After our persistence, a GLA employee asks Babels to develop a specification for a possible database and we work with the current ESF accommodation coordinator from the ESF Office to produce this specification in 2 days Homestay Database Specification. It is sent to ESF organisers 2 weeks later, we learn that the ESF Office Manager has not received the specification because a person from the GLA could not open the attachment. Babels did not know this and the specification is re-sent to the ESF Office Manager immediately. However, Babels never receives a reply and the person from the GLA liaising with Babels says that she has no authority to make such decisions.

Early September

Babels UK asks some of the Paris ESF French tech team to help develop an accommodation database but they politely decline, citing the lack of respect shown by the UK process for volunteer work in general and especially for all the people who have worked for free last year on ICT issues. The French team feels that it is inapporpiate to provide a free homestay database when £40,000 has been spent on a website that cost less than 1000 euros for Paris.

At the practicalities working group of the Brussels Preparatory Assembly in September, a representative of the ESF office explains that the ESF office workers are doing a lot of work to secure homestay in London and that the priority would go to Babels interpreters. As Babels Project Managers have still not had a meeting with the other ESF office workers at this point, Babels UK publicly asks her to ensure that we are copied in to all correspondence and involved in the drafting of any outreach materials produced by the ESF office. She agrees. She also mentions that the ESF office is actively encouraging large organisations like trade unions to organise homestay for their own members or European comrades 'separately' from the ESF process. Babels expresses serious reservations with this strategy because it is directing homestay offers away from interpreters and big organisations are always the best source of homestay offers. Babels then approaches her privately for details of the outreach activities the ESF office has understaken so far. She can only refer to putting the homestay form on the website, contradicting her public report to the Brussels assembly. In short, almost no outreach has been done at this point. On the positive side, there is an agreement at Brussels that the ESF organising committee will pay for the development of a homestay database.

Mid-September?

Babels Project Managers are asked to directly liaise on accommodation with a member of the ESF Office. Babels asks him to change the location of the homestay form on the website as it is not in the optimum position to attract homestay offers (it is under accommodation, which is mainly for those needing a place to stay, not those wanting to offer it from London). We make a number of other suggestions and recommendations to him. However, even for the most insignificant, innocuous change, He has to receive authorisation from ESF office managers. Most of the time, his requests are either ignored or turned down; on the rare occasion when a suggestion is given authorisation, nothing then happens.

At this point in time, 5 weeks away from the ESF, the ESF office has received a total of just 25 homestay offers - Babels has asked for 550 homestay places to cover possible demand. As there is £0 for accommodation in the Babels Budget and none of the collective accomodation secured so far is not appropriate for interpreters' needs, Babels is now seriously worried and explains in very concrete detail the problems with accommodation since the beginning of the process and the main reasons for this to the GLA staff member liaising with Babels.

Babels now demands immediate solutions and actions to ensure interpreters have homestay. We ask for: an accommodation database to be developed by Greenet ASAP; a strong outreach strategy to secure homestay to be developed by both ESF teams (Babels and the ESF office); a meeting with the ESF press officer and for adverts and appeals to be urgently placed in print and electronic media for Londoners' solidarity; for the situation regarding responsibilities in the ESF office to be clarified; and to liaise with someone who can make instant decisions on patently non-controversial issues. We also request that an alternative plan is put in place in case the ESF does not secure enough homestay for interpreters.

October

With no response, Babels is now in an emergency situation and releases an Emergency Coordinator Statement? with other Babels coordinators from all over Europe (attending a Babels meeting in London on the 25/26 September) declaring that some coordinations are seriously considering pulling out of the ESF because they cannot see how accommodation is going to be provided. The statement sets out the looming accommodation crisis in clear terms:

As of Monday 4 October, the ESF has received only 80 offers of home stay accommodation. This represents a massive shortfall in the accommodation needs for Babels volunteers. Babels co-ordinators have repeatedly made constructive suggestions to increase the number of home stay offers based on our network's direct experience of dealing with these issues during the previous ESFs. Unfortunately, none of our proposals have been implemented by the organisers of the ESF, meaning that in comparison with previous ESFs, four fundamental deficiencies exist: (1) there is no accommodation database on the ESF website in which delegates can register online their offer of home stay; (2) there has been no urgent appeal for solidarity accommodation on most of the several thousands of leaflets that have been printed to promote the ESF; (3) delegates are not automatically asked to provide home stay when they register for the event, and 4) there has been no appeal for home stay in the relevant local press...The crisis of accommodation provision for Babels volunteers at the London ESF is the responsibility of the ESF organisers and therefore Babels makes the following demands:
* We demand that Babels receives written guarantees that all volunteer interpreters and co-ordinators (more than 500) will be provided with appropriate accommodation. We also demand that concrete and immediate action is taken to make those guarantees possible, including a detailed procedure explaining how solidarity accommodation will be secured and how Babels volunteers will be put in contact with their hosts.

* Babels volunteer co-ordinators need to receive the above guarantees by Tuesday 5th October at 5 pm. In the absence of any appropriate action being taken, some Babels volunteer co-ordinators will suspend the final selection of interpreters and Babels will no longer be able to guarantee interpretation for all seminars and plenaries of the ESF.


The ESF company responds immediately with the following reassurance in the name of the ESF Company:

Every Babels volunteer and coordinator will be provided, free of charge, with the standard of accommodation specified in the statement including at the minimum a shower and a bed in a room of no more than four people. Where home stay accommodation is not available the UK ESF Organising Committee will pay for accommodation for Babels volunteers and coordinators...We will provide all of the precise details and guarantees requested in the Babels statement in a fuller statement tomorrow.

She also tries to shift responsibility for the accommodation crisis onto Babels by making the following assertion:

Indeed, the UK ESF Organising Committee has employed on a full-time paid basis three people to assist in the delivery of the requirements for Babels full participation in the ESF in London.

In what is now a familiar story, the promised "fuller statement" from the ESF Company never appears and no specific details are ever communicated to Babels, despite repeated informal warnings during the week 4th-11th October that without guarantees of how and when accommodation would be found, interpreters would simply not feel able to come.

In the context, using hostels is now the only solution to the accommodation crisis. Babels UK has no choice but to agree to this in order for the ESF to take place but asks Lthat this does not count against Babels own budgetary expenditure as it was not our fault.

7-8 October 2004

Some last-minute welcome efforts are being made to expand homestay. Adverts are placed in two, low circulation left-wing newspapers, Tribune and the Morning Star, appealing for solidarity accommodation and this yields 20 more spaces by the following week, demonstrating what could have been achieved if such a strategy had been pursued much earlier and more regularly. Requests to ESF office Manager that an advert be placed on the website and in The Guardian newspaper (which had daily adverts) are ignored.

9-10 October

Booking hostel accommodation for Babels is proving difficult. Although we have a general idea of how many interpreters need accommodation, we don't have exact numbers or a definitive list of names because of changing information, the shortcomings of our own database system, the non-existence of an accommodation database and the non-finalisation of selecting interpreters. So we ask the GLA to reserve at least 250 hostel beds to create a pool of places. The GLA informs us that four hostels had been booked: 155 spaces at The Generator; 4 at the Dover Castle; 15 at the Hyde Park Inn; and 16 at the Millennium Lodge - around 60 beds short of what we think we will need. Then we are asked to try to avoid allocating another 30 beds in The Generator as they have been donated by Unison to the ESF but they might now want them back. Babels is sent over spreadsheets to fill in with interpreters names and then send back to the ESF office a few days before the ESF begins in order for them to send them to the hostel. Things go from bad to worse when we discover that some of the hostel bookings are 16-bed, 8-bed and 6-bed dorms, which are totally inappropriate for interpreters who need a peaceful night's sleep. These are then supposedly changed to 4-bed dorms. However, because of the mix-up, many interpreters were forced to stay in 6-bed and 8-bed dorms, contrary to the promises of the ESF Company.

Sunday 10 October

We now discover that the hostel accommodation has not been booked for the correct dates (Wednesday 13th to Monday 18th) despite constant reminders from the beginning of Babels involvement. This means at least 70 interpreters will be arriving on Wednesday night without anywhere to stay. Liz-Anne? Broderick of the GLA immediately assures us that the problem has been solved and 100 hostel beds are now booked for Wednesday night. Given this mix-up, we double-check all our hostel bookings and find that three of the four hostels have not received payment from the ESF Company on time and are unable to contact the ESF office or GLA by email or phone to confirm the booking. They warn us that if no payment is received by Monday 11th October, the booking will be cancelled, removing 35 beds. Babels coordinators again inform the GLA.

Tuesday 12 October

We think that Babels accommodation is finally assured. Most of the information about interpreters accommodation needs has come in and, thankfully, we estimate that only around 230 interpreters need accommodation - the rest have indicated that they are staying privately in London. Gerd from Babels-Germany? manages to allocate almost all of the German interpreters with the small number of homestay offers we have. Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace read about the accommodation problems and kindly donate 25 hostel beds to us covering Thursday to Monday in lieu of an affiliation fee to the ESF organising committee. It seems we have just enough beds to cover interpreters and cooridnators accommodation. We inform all of our interpreters where they will be staying, and send maps and directions by email for how to get there from the airport.

Wednesday 13 October

Morning. Babels receives an urgent phonecall from The Generator hostel asking why we have sent over a spreadsheet with 70 names when we only have 30 beds booked. We assure them that we have a booking for 100 beds for Wednesday night as had been garanteed. However, it transpires that the booking supposedly made by the GLA on Sunday (see above) never actually took place due to a 'misunderstanding' between the hostel and the GLA. The hostel admits that it had received a fax asking for 100 beds to be booked but that this had never been followed through with a booking. Babels coordinators now spend the next 3 hours, on our busiest day preparing for the main registration of interpreters for tomorrow, trying to work out which interpreters could go in the 30 beds, and which would have to be broken up and put in other dorms, hostels and even hotels that would be paid for by the ESF Company.

Afternoon. We ring the 3 other hostels we supposedly have a booking with and they again confirm that they have not received full payment from the ESF Company. In the end, The Generator hostel finds extra beds (some, however, had to go in 6-bed and 8-bed dorms) and books the rest of the Babels interpreters into a nearby hotel, managing to get us a special rate of ?18.50 per person. We also manage to find around 5 people emergency homestay. Several interpreters have to wait all day in the T&G offices to be allocated a place to stay.

Thursday 14th October

We receive a number of complaints from distressed interpreters who had been moved from The Generator to the hotel on the previous day. The mix-up had meant that they had had to check out first thing in the morning, leave their luggage in the store, come to the T&G office and then Alexandra Palace, and then return to the hotel late at night, pick up their luggage and check in to another hostel.

Friday 15th October

Some interpreters complain that the mix up with the hostels on Wednesday and Thursday has prevented them having adequate rest before their first session at 9am on Friday morning. A GLA employee rings us to ask how many interpreters will be leaving on Sunday because The Dome is not booked for Sunday night and there is a huge demand for cheap accommodation. We promise to find out as soon as possible but Babels coordinators are now totally absorbed in ensuring that simultaneous interpretation is taking place in the ESF.

Saturday 16th October

On Saturday evening, the Generator hostel gives Babels a courtesy call to remind us that 30 interpreters would have to check out at 10am on Sunday morning because the Unison booking that was given to the ESF Company has ended. This is the first we hear of such an arrangement and it has potentially disastrous implications. The hostel cannot move any remaining interpreters into the empty beds vacated by departing interpreters because it has no idea who is in each room, who has checked out and who has checked in. This is because the spreadsheets used by the GLA do not have any room numbers on them and the hostel's check-in system did not allow for a record of names in each room as it was a group booking. If we had had a proper accommodation databse as agreed in the Babels Project Plan, this kind of mess could have been avoided

Sunday 17th December

On Sunday evening, when the Forum has ended and the demonstration has finished, several Babels UK coordinators have to go in person to The Generator and work through all our spreadsheets with one of their staff, who then has to go and individually check each dorm to see how many beds are free.

The hostel informs us that they have been telephoned by a GLA official who has instructed them to give Babels rooms to around 50 European delegates whose coach has broken down. The hostel refuses to do this and asks the GLA to ring Babels. The GLA official refuses to do so, asserting "we paid for the beds".

(Ironically, we learn a few days after the ESF that the ESF Company had actually paid the other 3 hostels at the last minute, meaning that we had another 35 beds all the time but no one had informed Babels and they had thus all gone unused).

3. The Analysis

In the final analysis, Babels was relieved that every single Babels interpreter and coordinator had accommodation during the ESF. Interpreters' experience of their accommodation was decidedly mixed. On the one hand, we received many emails from interpreters who were delighted with their homestay placements and hostel rooms. On the other hand, others found it impossible to sleep in their hostel because of the noise. Around 10 people who were initially allocated homestay had to be found alternative accommodation as their hosts had withdrawn their homestay offer at the last minute but had not been able to inform the ESF Office because the phones were constantly jammed. Most complaints were reserved for the uncertainty of where people would be staying and our inability to offer interpreters information because we did not know ourselves. In the end, we operated at full capacity for accommodation - there was not one spare bed.

In terms of the coordination, Babels UK found the accommodation situation one of the most stressful and resource-wasteful aspects of our participation in the ESF this year. Valuable time of volunteers was diverted away from other essential tasks in order to sort out what should have been a simple accommodation allocation process. In the end, the accommodation situation was just about manageable for two reasons: first, because the ESF company paid their way out of trouble (£15,000+ on hostels); and second, because Babels UK had kept its part of the Project Plan to help create a pool of homestay within the Babels network. We did the following:
* deliberately selected a larger number of interpreters than originally agreed from the London area in order to reduce the accommodation demand and increase the potential supply
* encouraged Babels interpreters who had family or friends in London to stay with them
* generated a number of extra homestay offers within our own networks
* procured 25 free hostels beds from Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth as a contingency measure, which we were eventually forced to use.
* undertook a lot of specific outreach activities: printing posters, taking homestay forms to several ESF organising and outreach meetings etc.


Looking back at the London ESF, Babels UK believes the following logistical and political factors played crucial roles in generating the unfavourable accommodation situation this year.

3-1 There was no accommodation database

The decision not to use a database for accommodation was a major mistake. It meant that Babels and the ESF office had to use Excel spreadsheets to manage information with the consequence that only one person could work on a spreadsheet at any given time. Given the size of the accommodation job, several Babels volunteers had no choice but to update the spreadsheet simultaneously and by the beginning of the ESF we had accidentally created 10 duplicate spreadsheets that each contained slightly different information. The pressure of the situation, especially with all the drama over hostels, did not allow us to merge all this information back into a single spreadsheet.

A database would have allowed any number of people to simultaneously update and use the information on accommodation, and do so from different locations. It would have also made it easier for those wanting to offer homestay to do so by directly inputing their details online and not having to download or print off forms. Data can be drawn off in a number of ways and imported into spreadsheets and it provides a central overview of accommodation offers and needs. For Paris, finding accommodation for nearly 1000 interpreters was facilitated by using an accommodation database developed by ESF volunteers.

3-2 There was no accommodation strategy and very little homestay outreach

While Babels Project Managers kept to their side of the agreement, the main aspects of the Babels Project Plan were never honoured by the ESF Office and GLA, yet it was they who had sole access to the website, huge mailing lists of registered people and the esfaccommodation@gn.apc.org email address - Babels Project Managers and volunteer coordinators were never allowed access to such essential tools. None of the suggestions Babels made were taken up: the database; the request for solidarity accommodation was never on a prominent page on the website; delegates who registered online were never asked to provide solidarity accomodation unlike at previous ESFs; and there was minimal newspaper advertising (and only after Babels pressure). Last year an ESF call for solidarity homestay was published in major french newspapers.

3-3 Babels was marginalised by the UK ESF process

Babels was never allowed to have a meeting with the Media Officer in order to design a media strategy to develop the pool of homestay; we were never allowed access to the electronic list of contacts built up by the ESF to promote the need for offers of solidarity homestay etc.running monopolised all of the accommodation work. Babels offers of help and advice to the ESF office and company were consistently ignored or rejected. The GLA was so desperate to keep control of every aspect of the ESF process that it became increasingly stretched and hence increasingly inefficient. Babels had to negotiate all of its logistical needs with local government officials who had no understanding of the language needs of the ESF and thus no understanding of Babels work. This explains why throughout the ESF, Babels was treated as a service provider external to the Social Forums, and not as a political actor at their very heart.

3-4 The practical implications of programme and selection

Solving accommodation needs for Babels volunteers is not simply a question of matching demand with supply - it is a logistical issue inseperable from all other aspects of the Social Forum process and entirely dependent on accurate, constant and speedy information flows. Accommodation needs cannot be fully ascertained until the selection of interpreters is at an advanced stage. This is entirely dependent on the progress and communication of the ESF programme group. The longer the programme takes to get finalised, the more 'last minute' the accommodation needs picture is. In such a highly uncertain and fluid context, there is a need for the accommodation supply to be completely predictable and pre-prepared long in advance. In situations where accommodation supply is more uncertain and scarce, information about 'needs' becomes more urgent.

4. Recommendations for Athens 2006

4-1 An integrated accommodation strategy is essential

The single biggest lesson for Babels UK on this issue is that all aspects of accommodation must be planned from the earliest opportunity and in full cooperation with all actors in the ESF process. Babels has to be treated as a full and equal partner in organising the practicalities and explaining how the programme impacts on this. Babels accommodation needs are specific, but they must be integrated into any accommodation outreach activities in order to ensure that the correct type of accommodation is offered and allocated to interpreters. Key parts of the accommodation strategy should include:

§ An online accommodation database (spreadsheets are disastrous) and whatever happens, it is crucial that all the information on interpreters and coordinators (accommodation, travel, languages, schedule) is centralized in the same database in order to avoid duplication of information and problems updating different versions.
§ A committed set of outreach activities for developing a pool of homestay and solidarity accommodation started at least 6 months in advance of the ESF
§ Use of print and electronic media, posters, email alerts, outreach meetings
§ Targeting local authorities, NGOs, trade unions, political parties, charities, community groups, student unions, colleges, schools and universities
§ The ring-fencing of some hostels for interpreters to guarantee quiet sleeping zones
§ Researching hostel and homestay location, transport links, curfew hours, noise, room size, washing and eating facilities is really important and was not done this year
§ The appointment of an accommodation coordinator for the ESF process and an accommodation coordinator for Babels who work together throughout the organising process. Organising accommodation is not a task that can be performed by a revolving door of volunteers
§ Constant communication – joined up thinking – between the development of the programme and Babels. Information about accommodation needs depends on the selection of interpreters, which in turn depends on the progress of the programme.
§ Babels to be given complete autonomy to talk directly to potential accommodation providers, design its own outreach materials e.g. posters Babels coordinators should make contact with local hostels and hotels at the earliest opportunity and agree with them a contact person to deal with. A major problem this year was that the staff at hostel itself changed shifts and only certain people had the necessary information
§ Accommodation must be one of the first things that is planned for, along with food, transport, venues etc.
§ The creation of systems with clear methodologies that anyone can understand. Accommodation must not be allowed to remain in one person’s head.

4-2 A mix of communal and private accommodation

Some interpreters like to stay in communal accommodation with friends. Others need to stay in single rooms. This means that for Athens, Babels will need a mix of communal and pricate accommodation. Hostels are the easiest means of finding and managing accommodation for interpreters. They allow large numbers of people with similar needs and expectations to be housed together, and enable the host coordinators to find predictable supply that is easy to administer. Private accommodation takes a lot more time to arrange because you are dealing with people’s generosity and entering their private homes. Therefore, Babels often has to talk directly with each individual host to ensure that their homes are suitable for interpreters’ needs. Those offering must be kept regularly informed of when their guest(s) is coming and every effort must be made to ensure that all offers are genuine before homestay is allocated.


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