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 Home > Event-related > World Social Forum > Bamako 2006

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Final report – Bamako Project 2006 – Polycentric WSF

(Date: 24 February 2006)

This report is the result of the collective work produced by several different meetings which took place in Bamako with a total of 148 volunteers.

Translation: Alison, Fiona, Philippa

New notions and decisions concerning all components of the Babels and ALIS networks.

Later in this report, you will find details of these various points.
 Notion of volunteer interpreters/Notion of Babels volunteer-activists.
 Notion of co-ordination and distribution of centralised work/Notion of facilitator and of collective distribution of work in cells.
 Decision marking the commencement of Nairobi Project 2007 – World Social Forum

Organisation of the report

 Statistical Presentation and Consequences for the Organisation
 Work Before the Forum
 Work During the Forum
 Today Bamako, Tomorrow Nairobi

Statistical Presentation and Consequences for the Organisation

The Bamako Project 2006 brought together 148 volunteers. These volunteers came from Bamako (126 people), Dakar (11 people), Nairobi (3 people), Athens (3 people), Paris (1 person), Lille (1 person), Barbazan-Debat (1 person), Berlin (1 person) and Rome (1 person).

The WSF was spread across the whole of the town of Bamako in 11 locations. The distance between locations varied greatly, but between the furthest points, it was equal to 1 hour of transport. Each of the locations had a specific theme.

The interpreting took place in around 18 rooms spread over 9 distinct locations chosen for political reasons in agreement with the African Social Forum and the Organising Committee at Bamako 2006. Three of the rooms in three locations (Cultural Centre, Women’s Area, National Library, Farmers’ Area - Youth Centre/Debt Area, WTO, Fair Trade) benefited both from ALIS FM equipment and Babels computers to record the conferences. The equipment available in all of the other rooms and other locations was brought by Babels. The exception was the convention centre hosting the themes Migration and Cooperation, where two rooms were equipped in the standard way. The material brought by Babels comprised “whisper interpreting machines”, small battery-powered boxes. They were fitted with a microphone and headphones linked by wires. They are very easy to move around and can be set up in only a few minutes.

The programme as organised by the Bamako 2006 Organising Committee anticipated using equipment in almost all of the 50 planned rooms. To cover the language needs for the workshops and conferences, approximately 300 volunteers were required, regardless of the number of rooms. We knew from the start that a difference existed between the needs and the means, without however having a precise idea of the problem before being on site. As soon as the more experienced among us arrived four days before the opening of the Forum, we decided together to work on the basis of the human and material means available, and not the requirements of the programme. This allowed us to concentrate on providing both a real interpreting presence where we could, and the best quality possible without acting on the basis of where we should be, and therefore resisting possible pressures. On arrival, together with the African Social Forum and the Bamako 2006 Organising Committee, we identified 14 politically central conferences for the Forum, spread over different sites and on different dates which we considered essential to cover, then tackled the rest of the events based on the available means.

The gap between means and requirements obviously weighed on all of the volunteers present, who accepted an extremely large workload without the usual standard level of working conditions. This led to moments of very real bravery which were fully recognised by the organisations arranging these events, and the participants at events everywhere. The participants in the Social Forum often came to see us after work to invite us to the various meals and social events organised by their organisations or networks, to congratulate us, etc.

Thanks to this mobilising effort, we were able to provide English, Bambara and French almost everywhere, and Spanish, Portuguese and Kiswahili according to requirements. We were also able to confirm once again the practical importance of local languages for the full participation of audiences and speakers, even if these are often undervalued in a normal setting by the presence of a lingua franca, generally of colonial origin, at times wrongly intended as an international language for at least passive understanding. The Forum, the first WSF on the African continent, brought together around 10,000 people which was a numerical success taking into account the transport difficulties, the high cost of travelling in the continent itself, and the lack of public funds and resources within each of the organisations. Delegations were present from everywhere in North, South, East and West Africa, but also from Europe, Asia (particularly India) and the Americas (Brazil and the USA in particular).

2. Work Before the Forum

An initial team arrived on 14 January (the Forum began on the 20 January for the conferences - official opening on 19 January - and finished on 23 January). The preparation and the beginning of the project started on 19 November, the date of the first meeting of volunteers in Dakar (Senegal).

A - Travelling

The list of tickets for the team was drawn up in late December. However, the tickets were only collected on 11 January. In spite of the fact that most of us reserved tickets in order to book places with the airlines, we decided not to collect any of them before all of the tickets had been bought. The aim was to avoid finding ourselves on the ground with a more reduced team and finding ourselves in a situation where Babels should have been present while in fact Babels was not present to ensure what we had committed to do.

Explanation of the situation: the late purchase of tickets was not due to a lack of goodwill or competence, but to a situation which we find ourselves in at every Forum: a lack of funds. In the case of Bamako, this was largely worsened by the fact that requests for financing from NGOs or foundations which allow us to draw up the WSF budget were met with a very late response (in fact 10 January, the day before the tickets were purchased) leaving the organisers with the impossible task of committing clearly to us. The tickets were therefore once again bought for a more expensive price than they should have been.

Suggestions: the problem of funding has now been clearly identified. To avoid unnecessary expenditure or indeed disappointment after purchasing, tickets actually need to be bought 60-90 days before the Forum. This is inherent in the organisation of the Forums. However in our opinion it could be better managed. Below are some ideas which have not yet been explored:
 prior to the Forum, hold a proper registration campaign for participants in the Forum with on-line payments allowing the generation of funds. This campaign should be managed in the same way as a public opinion campaign clearly explaining our requirements which will enable complete transparency regarding the use and the status of this fund raising;
 ask the organisations taking part or social and socially-responsible financial institutions for interest-free loans to allow the generation of the necessary funds.

B- Situation on site

On 14 January, we found a situation on site which shocked us and had serious consequences for the organisation of the Forum. We learned that the Bamako 2006 Organising Committee (OC) had hired paid interpreters to work at the Forum. Of course, we met and held discussions with the person in charge of this dossier, Mr Mamadou Goita, who had taken it up himself a week earlier due to an organisational failure on the part of the OC.

We learned on 15 January:
 the first OC finances only dated back to 1 December;
 the two Bamako "translation agencies" were the only ones to be in possession of equipment and access to interpreters. They had promised to offer equipment free-of-charge in return for hiring interpreters;
 the difference in speed of the implementation of the Babels-ALIS project and the effective implementation of the OC project led to actions and decisions at cross purposes without there being the necessary co-ordination between us all.

We decided:
 that evening we would send an e-mail to those who hadn’t already taken their flight to inform them of the situation, and to offer them the choice of whether they still wished to come or not (mail of 16/01 at 2am - see annex to this report). Following this news, two people decided not to come to Bamako;
 to prepare a declaration expressing our feelings regarding this area in all Forum locations, while renewing the expression of our desire to make Bamako a success enabling us to set in motion a real African process leading up to the Nairobi WSF07. This is a declaration which we make at the beginning of every conference, or which we have displayed (see Annex to this report);
 to distribute the available materials (7 rooms with 3 booths for one translation agency, and 5 rooms with three booths for another translation agency) across the entire social territory of the Forum, but not to set foot in the two areas, for any reason whatsoever, which we had dedicated to the paid interpreters due to the number of booths which needed to be installed: CRES/ Social struggles and the Modibo Keïta memorial/The Alternatives.

 None of the 9 locations which we dealt with benefited from equipment from the translation agencies.
 In the two CRES and Memorial locations, it seemed that there was very little equipment (1 or 2 rooms only) and that a much smaller team than the expected 30 paid interpreters only worked from time to time.
 All of the participants in the Forum were aware of the situation and we received their active (indeed very active) or passive support, including that of members of the OC and the Nairobi OC.

C- Programme

The WSF programme was not finalised before 16 January. Major changes were carried out during the entire finalisation period. We therefore had to translate the entire programme into English and Spanish on the night of 16 January and on 17 January. This effort involved many of us.

As with the other Forums, the final programme proved to be partly wrong: change of speakers; languages announced by the conference promoters different to those actually used during the conference; events cancelled or moved at the last minute; occasional absence of speakers and event promoters. In this last case, as at Porto Alegre last year, interpreters found themselves moderating debates, that is to say making it easier for the public to speak on the theme of the conference, making the Babels volunteer interpreters linguistic facilitators and not only interpreters of the conference.

Suggestions: it should be possible before leaving for the conference to mobilise a small team of very experienced Transtrad translators who could actively be involved long-distance and very quickly translate the programme of a SF. This would avoid tying up people with these tasks who are needed elsewhere on site to solve and manage other problems.

D – The Bamako volunteers

14 January, first day on site. When we had begun a tour of the various WSF sites, we had the luck to meet a group of students from the National Management School in Bamako who immediately volunteered to help with and contribute to the success of the Babels and ALIS projects. We then immediately began a series of meetings, a number of poster advertising campaigns throughout the city and two intensive days of site preparation and various training sessions.

A team of 127 people was formed, of which around thirty worked on ALIS equipment management and the recording of the conferences. This team proved to be extremely effective and the fortuitous meeting turned into real projects. Two meetings, including one after the Forum on 23 January, allowed us to launch Babels and ALIS initiatives in Bamako.

At the same time, as was said during a meeting at Bamako, we cannot ask a volunteer to become a volunteer-activist without letting him/her know before he/she leaves. This intrinsic aspect of a Forum must therefore be clearly set out when calling for volunteers. It must clearly be stated that "it will be chaotic, you will have to improvise, these will not be the working conditions you are used to... if this is not your way of working, then don’t come.”

We must clearly specify somewhere that at Babels, there is no distinction between "we the Babels interpreters" and "you the Babels organisers".

Everyone is a Babelista, everyone helps each other out and gives of him/herself to make the event a success – even if this means doing things that are not a "normal" part of his/her usual work (wander through the Bamako bazaar to negotiate buying small FM radios, negotiate a budget with the organising committee, take charge of planning a location, coordinate airline tickets, etc.)

There is no “Babels office” which is in charge of logistics, no positions assigned in advance, everyone is a participant. There are no “pure interpreters” who come "just to do their work" and demand that the "Babels organisers" provide them with "normal" working conditions. The conditions are what the Babelistas succeed in making of them, taking into account the local reality.

E- Logistics

Everyone who did not already live in Bamako was able to be put up in the same hotel. Some of us negotiated with the organiser’s office in order to obtain for all volunteers (including those from Bamako) the same per diems as other official participants for meals, buying water, and reimbursement of various expenses, in particular phone calls on site.

This phase required a lot of consultation with the OC (to be fitted into an already very tight preparation schedule, by people who were also interpreters). Negotiations were made difficult because they were late, just two days before the start of the Forum, and also because the main part of the WSF funds came from payment of registration fees by the public. Each item was therefore paid in several stages (often in different currencies), as the money arrived, and detailed accounts were necessary in order to justify the sums paid to the OC-WSF accountant, and to keep track of the various payments.

On the whole, in spite of the necessary time and energy spent by the people who were in charge of this area, this aspect of the project went well.

Although the payment of a per diem which was not initially planned was a pleasant surprise, it unfortunately also had the effect of creating the start of a "normal professional" situation (I am a professional, I come to work, I am paid for my work, full stop) which blurred the limits between voluntary work and voluntary participation. The per diem suddenly became seen as a “must”, a payment for our work and not as compensation. From this came financial discussions springing from the reactions of our professional world, which had no relation to the reality of the WSF.

In addition, from the moment that the non-Malian volunteer interpreters were put up, transported and provided with bottles of water by the Organising Committee, the difference in the treatment of the Malian voluntary interpreters could not be justified. In future, if there is a per diem, it should be the same for everyone, whether they are local or non-local. Equal work, equal per diem. Moreover, a number of non-Malian interpreters shared their per diems with their team, notably for buying meals on site, fuel for motorcycle journeys or phone cards, etc.; the transport fees ate up the majority of the small per diem for Malian interpreters and technicians (2000 CFA for a taxi ride, or 4000 CFA per day out of a per diem of 5000 CFA).

F- Planning

This aspect of the project was the object of an innovation which we hope to share with the entire network. The people who were involved in this question had already participated in the planning process for Porto Alegre and had therefore already experienced the failure of the method then used, the same method as used everywhere with varying degrees of success and always accompanied by a lot of distress in previous Babels projects.

The planning for Bamako was based both on the desires of volunteers and the requirements of the programme. Each person, as far as possible, was able to express his/her preferences and/or choose the theme on which he/she would work. These preferences were respected as far as possible. There was therefore a distribution of volunteers for the majority languages that were pivotal to all the various locations. Each location therefore had a team made up of a facilitator and volunteers. The planning process was therefore halted when names were allocated to time slots. The few people who corresponded to the rarest languages at the Forum were added to the units which had the most need for them the most often. In another situation, these people would have received a more detailed schedule for the whole of the Forum.

It is compulsory for the facilitator to be a certified interpreter with experience of the Forums. His/her task is to co-ordinate a team for a room or locations where the rooms are next to each other for the whole day and for the whole of the Forum. The facilitators share a directory and are always contactable by telephone. They meet up at the end of the day.

On the eve of the Forum, each team held a meeting led by the facilitator at the work location. In this way, with the programme of the location for the duration of the Forum, work was distribution based on the requirements and desires of the interpreters, at the same time as the various responsibilities to be taken on during the Forum besides translation (for us: equipment to bring, water to be distributed etc.).

During the Forum everyone interpreted and therefore went into booths or did whisper interpreting in Bamako, regardless of other responsibilities taken on besides translation, often with the same booth workload (in another setting we could picture a slightly lighter workload if possible).

The absence of centralised planning proved particularly effective and in particular enabled adjustments to be made in respect to each person and the realities on the job. The fact that the facilitators were also interpreters during the Forum very clearly helped to improve relations between people, manage the different situations with increased effectiveness and carry out the distribution of work in a particularly effective way. The small number of facilitators also enabled a huge amount of direct co-ordination between locations and on numerous occasions enabled the quick resolution of human or technical problems. The facilitators controlled problems of language and co-ordination and the organisation of booths and the particular context of a Social Forum all at the same time. They therefore directly led the planning process for their teams on the eve of the Forum, as well as the follow-up and adjustments during the Forum with the members of their team. This also enabled good co-ordination of all of the teams during the Forum without the need for other people.

This method of completely decentralised planning, requiring little time or resources, allowed us for the first time to know precisely who was where and when; to take into account the necessary flexibility based on individual cases; and to give a sense of responsibility to all people at the same level based on a team (a location) working well during the whole Forum. We think that this method is not unrelated to the success experienced at Bamako and to the feeling of really belonging to a team for each of the volunteers.

Note: The Youth Area at the Modibo Keita stadium wanted to self-organise by recruiting volunteers for linguistic facilitation directly from the participants. One person from the team therefore supported and aided their efforts during the Forum and was able to directly help along this process, which corresponded to the political will of the moderators of this area.

This situation is yet another confirmation of the general approach which was adopted in all the areas of the Forum under our responsibility: to enable the political expression of requirements through flexible organisation which was able to adapt to different configurations.

Working During the Forum

We are not going to go back over the specific character of this Forum, where a lack of human and technical resources were the impetus for some incredible achievements. Nevertheless, during our work in the WSF we have been able to pinpoint a recurring problem affecting different Babels projects up to now.

A – Voluntary worker or volunteer-activist?

Babels describes itself as a network of volunteer interpreters and translators without having ever clearly explained why it does not constitute a network of voluntary (non-paid) interpreters in the usual sense of the term, at least for the duration of a Social Forum. Bamako 2006 has at least made it possible to highlight some elements of an explanation which could pave the way for specific activities, in the course of the international meetings initiated by Babels (3-5 June 2006 –, working towards a more defined agreement which would allow participants to better understand their position, thus avoiding ambiguity.

What has emerged from the different discussions is the need for the individual to accept the collective rules specific to any particular Forum, whatever they may be. Furthermore, these constraints place contributors and interpreters in the same situation with regard to the event. Consequently the professional regulations for conference interpreters, like those for professors or experts engaged in a public address or employees of any given organisation, are made obsolete by the intensity of the different events of the Forum. A Social Forum is, once and for all, by its very nature, a place where chaos is the rule. It is a place which requires a high degree of flexibility from both contributors and interpreters alike. Moreover, all the definitions of the Social Forum refer to notions of contradiction at the level of the venue: a scene of lecture and debate, of meeting and confrontation, of analysis and development of alternative ideas, etc. Format, timetabling and the length of the sessions are thus subject to particular constraints which would only very rarely be expressed by the term ‘conference’ in its strictest sense.

Interpreters, as well as contributors, therefore, need to be volunteers and genuine participants during the Forum itself.

This then poses another question concerning the non-paid volunteer interpreter whose reference point is interpreting in normal ‘professional’ conditions, and who could feel ill at ease in the context of a Forum, since what he/she is willing to offer could appear out of step with the very nature of the event. Consequently this creates tension and problems within the teams. It would be beneficial to reconsider the influence of those wishing to be non-paid volunteer interpreters in a project so as to find complementarity between active and activist involvement.

B – Responsibility shared by the team

As we have seen regarding the planning stage, the presence of interpreters in a room, with all it requires, from language to logistics, should above all be a team responsibility. Bamako, once again, has experienced the same difficulties as other Forums. We resolved these by promoting, in advance, real dialogue between the people involved along with awareness of what each was truly ready to do. It cannot be stressed enough that the facilitators are those who work like everyone else in the interpreting booths for the duration of the event, and that it is in working with the booth teams of a room or a centre, along with coordination among facilitators that we are able together, in mutual respect, to find solutions to problems. The principal advantage of this method is that each person can be centrally involved in solving the problem and that we avoid natural complications caused by people not actually sharing the same working situation during the Forum.

All the decisions were made and problems resolved quickly and very effectively, for all the people involved in decision-making or problem-solving were precisely those facing the situation together. Regardless of whether a team is working in a hall as part of other Babels projects or a centre in Bamako, it represents ten or so people who are able to get to know each other, learn to respect and work alongside one another, and thus to optimise everyone’s skills and abilities. Furthermore, the team becomes ever more easily recognised as such by attendees, contributors and organisations, because, generally speaking, over the course of a Forum those interested in a particular subject will come at least two to three times to the same venue. These two phenomena work to improve interaction of all the team members and recognition of them all and their specific activity during the Forum. In a word, the global quality of interpreting is improved.

For this to work theoretically and practically it must be applied at a fundamental level to project management through a self-management approach, where everyone is clear about their responsibilities. Everyone’s roles are identified and based on the democratic expression of wills, without ruling out a possibility of instigating real and rapid decision-making.

"For Nairobi, we jump in!"

Today Bamako, Tomorrow Nairobi

Apart from the integration into the team of 3 volunteers from Nairobi, selected via a discussion with the Nairobi OC, we have met with some of the Nairobi OC’s members on three occasions. Through these exploratory discussions we were able to introduce the Babels and ALIS projects, as well as something of the realities and constraints of interpreting at a Social Forum.

Of course, no decision was formally made at Bamako, as the whole OC in Nairobi must be consulted. On the other hand, Babels and ALIS have been invited to take part in the International Council which is due to take place in Nairobi on 18 March, by interpreting the meeting and installing the equipment (even if, as members of the Council, we do not need an invitation to take part in the meeting).

Given the short notice, we have decided to attempt to assemble a team of a dozen people from Nairobi itself. Contacts: Kathie, Mossala (+254-722925020) or Asha

We have also agreed to do our utmost in trying to organise a preparatory meeting in Nairobi about mobilisation in Africa, with at least one person from Dakar and another from Bamako.

Initial discussion has already brought out several points:
– the main centres of mobilisation (in terms of the number of interpreters) must be Nairobi and Arusha (transport within the African continent is very expensive, which makes it all the more necessary to source at least half the volunteers for the WSF from these two towns);
– the number of African languages concerned is already high: Arabic and Swahili are included, of course, but also Masai, Kikuyu, Luo, Somali, Lingala, Kirundi and so on. (The list is far from exhaustive, and should be discussed at the IC.) These languages correspond with to the political activity of the WSF in this region. We agreed therefore, in order to ensure that these languages be represented, that the job of identifying volunteers is to be carried out in complete collaboration with the organisations involved;
– first estimates (which are, for the moment, virtual) will be based on a standard Social Forum set-up: 30 rooms with 3-4 booths, involving around 500 interpreters or in budgeting terms around 150,000 euros (which is only a tentative indication);
– we must establish negotiation between the Athens and the Nairobi OCs as regards equipment;
– we will designate two people for Babels and ALIS who could come for the ESF one month ahead of time to be able to participate fully in the event organisation and so get hands-on experience.


1- Mail sent to the volunteers just before their departure

Bamako, 16 Jan 06, 2.10 am

Dear Babelistas,

This mail follows information we received this afternoon at Bamako after a meeting of the 9 Babels and ALIS volunteers already in Mali.

After a long-awaited meeting with the Bamako Organisation Committee we have finally understood the approach taken here to the question of interpretation. It transpires that, aside from the volunteers, there will be paid interpreters, hired by the Organisation Committee to work at the Forum. We have all found this news very disturbing given its political implications..

You are all aware that there is finance for only a team of twenty to come to Bamako from Africa and Europe. We had decided to come to Bamako early to assess the proposed logistics, install the technical equipment provided by ALIS and the FPH and to recruit volunteers in order, as far as possible, to meet the needs in terms of interpretation.

This evening we learned that the local organisation committee had, concurrently, contacted interpreters here in Bamako. Thirty of them are volunteers, while thirty others will be working on a paid contract. They were hired through two translation agencies who closed this deal including twenty interpreting booths free of charge. We were told that twenty of these paid interpreters have agreed to be more flexible and are prepared to work longer hours in the interests of the Forum process.

Here in Bamako, we Babelistas held a meeting to discuss the situation, its implications, the options we have available and how we should respond.

At this meeting we came to the conclusion that:
perhaps one of the causes of this situation is the late start of the Babels Bamako project, initiated as it was only in November; we have all renewed our commitment to the Babels charter, our support for establishing an African process and our common vision for the World Social Forum at Nairobi in 2007; we will clearly express our dissatisfaction at the situation we have been presented with this evening; we will maintain our commitment to the Bamako WSF process which has brought us here, by offering alternative technical solutions, high quality interpretation and our skills of organisation; we will continue discussion on this issue in future meetings and work to produce a suitable memorandum to be addressed to the Bamako OC and to the WSF international Council.

We feel it was important to advise our Babels colleagues of this situation and of our respective decisions. We would be happy to discuss it further with you, over the Babels forum as well as in person, here in Bamako.

Yours in solidarity,
Spyros, Nfally, Marina, Luis, Laurent, Judith, Gregoire, German and Emilie

2- Statement read and published at the WSF 2006

Babels is an international network of interpreters and translators working across the world, born of the Social Forum dynamic. As such Babels is a full member of the International Council.

While 320 interpreters will be needed to cover the programme for the WSF at Bamako 2006, only a team of 25 could be financed; 250 interpreters will be at Caracas the following week. We have this week recruited and trained students at Bamako who have made themselves available to take part in the adventure of the Bamako Forum, and thanks to them we will be able to guarantee the presence of linguistic teams in the conference venues. Simultaneous interpretation of the high quality that Babels volunteers would like to provide will be limited by the lack of interpreters and equipment. Less than a third of the rooms are furnished with the technical resources indispensable for translation. We will do our best.

We are faced with a political problem that we wish to share. The Bamako WSF OC has decided to sign contracts with 30 paid interpreters. In so doing, we believe that they have committed a very serious error, as this step divides us. We cannot make another world possible by setting paid work in competition with the work of activist volunteers.

Conscious as we are of the significance of Bamako in the WSF process, and determined to contribute to progressing towards Nairobi 2007, we have decided to:
– work independently, covering the venues not covered by the paid interpreters, who will be working in the University and Modibo Keita Memorial venues;
– make you aware of this error which is a division between us;
– continue the work of cultural facilitation that is interpreting.

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