The Commonwealth People’s Forum- Malta (23- 27 November)

The Commonwealth Foundation, an important supporter of AFAI projects, invited a representative of AFAI to attend the Commonwealth People’s Forum in Malta (23- 27 November). As the Research Manager, Sophia Sanan flew off to connect with fellow Global South and Commonwealth colleagues and engage with the pressing themes on the table.

The Commonwealth People’s Forum has been taking place every two years since 1997 and aims to give a platform and voice to civil society- both as a way of articulating its concerns to the heads of state and to confer and strengthen cross-regional ties. The theme of the 2015 Forum was ‘resilience’, a concept which is ‘used to define the ability to respond to crisis’ and one which also ‘connotes renewal and hope, and challenges the narrative of vulnerability and the current constructs of adaptability and preparedness’ (CPF 2015 programme). While the notion of resilience hopes to cast a positive and solutions based outlook on global problems, the criticism that it might not be able to address the structural issues that give rise to great inequalities and crises was raised in diverse sessions during the forum.

At the same time however, discussions around climate change, environmental justice and the agency of indigenous people and their knowledge certainly benefitted from a less ‘doom and gloom’ framework and instead focused on best practice examples in Africa and the Carribean for example. In addition, the notion of resilience and happiness were fleshed out in a session on alternative measures to GDP, which looked at the notion of the happiness index, Bhutan’s role in its development and an exciting case study from the Vanuatu state in the Pacific Islands in which indigenous communities were shaping their own frameworks for measurements of national ‘development and progress’.

On the other hand, the sessions on ‘Migration and Resilience’ and ‘Cultural responses to conflict’ opened up serious questions about how far back in history one must go to understand, diagnose and respond to root causes of current conflict and crisis. In the former session, migrants were often referred to as resilient communities. While this highlights the often underplayed agency of migrants, it does less to understand how and why host communities and cultures facilitate or inhibit the possibilities of new and successful lives being constructed for migrants. In addition, the complex causes of the crises causing imbalanced flows of human movement, for example out of Syria, cannot be tackled through the notion of resilience. Curiously, Malta’s controversial and clandestine agreement with Italy to keep migrants at bay (literally), was given a wide berth. Instead there were gentle hints at a crisis in ‘European’ identity in the face of migration and cultural diversity, and discourses of ‘fear’ and ‘national security’ emerged in a surprisingly non-critical way. In fact, the Maltese Prime Ministers’ opening address of the CPF 2015, reported in glowing terms the enormous financial growth of the small island state, openly welcomed highly skilled and moneyed migrants and made no mention at all of the culturally complex position that Europe finds itself in today. Perhaps an indication of the extent to which a ‘positive spin’ in times of crisis can obscure more than it unearth.

The centrality of culture and the showcasing of art as a way of understanding and articulating social change was inspiring. Two Sri Lankan artists- T Shanaathanan and Chandragupta Thenuwar were featured in a discussion on ‘Culture and Conflict’ alongside Pakistani actress and writer Feryal Gauhar and Ugandan feminist Ruth Ojiambo Ochieng. The ways in which culture reifies practices that prolong conflict were reflected on alongside the radical expressions of culture that have helped to dismantle and challenge oppressive regimes and sometimes retrospectively untangle complex conflicts. Shahidul Alam’s exhibition ‘Kalpana’s Warriors’ (which opened on the first evening in a quiet room lit only with candles) spoke to this theme as it looked back on the wake of destruction left in personal histories by the Bangaladeshi states’ oppressive regime.

The important connections with AFAI’s cultural Global South affiliates were reaffirmed as many participants in the CPF 2015 in Malta had also attended the Commonwealth- funded Global South conference hosted by AFAI in September 2014. Many informal discussions centred on sustainable ways of keeping communication, inspiration and exchange alive in less costly formats, indicating the need and desire to maintain the collective of Global South voices against the odds decreed by typical ‘North-South’ material power dynamics. The opportunity to participate in this forum was accepted with great excitement and honour from AFAI’s representative, who was also thrilled to connect with the Commonwealth’s dynamic and diverse leadership cohort.

Sophia Olivia Sanan (11 December 2015)