As G8 leaders wrapped up their forum in Hokkaido in Japan, some 13,000km away, the hundreds of people who had gathered for the seventh annual alternative People’s Forum, this year held in the town of Koulikoro, Mali, were issuing a closing statement to their own conference, and its tone was defiant.
The focus of discussions on 10 July, the final day, was on privatisation. Participants issued a statement urging the Malian authorities “to take bold steps against privatisation and to extend public services in Mali… to stop the privatisation of schools, and to establish national strategies to fight against corruption.”
Participants described as “interfering” the push from international financial institutions to privatise state-owned enterprises.
Koulikoro, 60km from the capital, Bamako, was an apt setting for such a discussion, given that its cotton processing company HUICOMA - the town’s largest employer - was privatised in 2006 laying off half of the 1,000-strong workforce.
Amidou Kouma, 49, a former employee at the factory, told IRIN: “I worked in the HUICOMA factory for 15 years and the government had to privatise it. The new owners laid us off without paying us our dues. Heads of families found themselves without work and without any income. We denounce reckless privatisation policies by our government."
The mayor of Koulikoro, Souleymane Ndiaye, said the closure of the factory led to a revenue loss of US$1.8 million for the local authorities. "The region of Koulikoro has been stripped of its lungs. This factory provided a living for most of the town’s population.”
"This region of Mali is symbolic of all places that have become victims of privatisation, imposed on us by powerful international states,” added Barry Aminata Touré, coordinator of the People’s Forum, and representative of the Coalition of African Alternatives to Debt and Development (CAD-Mali).
However, while most participants were keen to blame outsiders for privatisation, some stressed the need for reform of state institutions themselves. N’diaye Yacine Touré, representative of the Regional Federation for the Promotion of Women in Senegal, said it was up to state institutions to manage corruption to prove their worth at managing themselves.
A young activist by her side agreed: "It is primarily up to us to ensure the development of our countries. This involves fighting against corruption, and it requires good management of public funds… We must organise ourselves better inside countries to create favourable conditions to establish sound economic policies," he said.
As the closing ceremony began, some participants appeared more ready to compromise, accepting privatisation as an inevitability, and focusing their energies rather on how it should be done.
Dounanké Dao, secretary-general of CAD-Mali, said: "We are not formally against all privatisation. But we ask that [the process] take into account the rights and respect the dignity of workers who are laid off. Privatisation requires good management and we the government must recognise that.”
For Siaka Diakité, secretary-general of the National Union of Malian Workers, the key to better managing privatisation in Mali is to follow the example Guinea, the Gambia and Burkina Faso where private-public partnership agreements have been set up in certain sectors and been shown to work well. “Workers are not fundamentally against privatisation. We just advocate alternative solutions to how it is done.”
But there was less compromise when it came to wider issues on the agenda. "The G8 has few priorities beyond trade liberalisation, structural reforms and capital movements, but this approach has resulted in violations of people’s rights, boosting of poverty and more misery for our country,” Forum coordinator Touré announced.
And the Forum’s organisers while drafting the closing statement took the criticism of international financial institutions further, demanding they be banned altogether. It called for “the pure and simple abolition of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund… to replace them with the Bank of the South, a privileged instrument for cooperation and development financing on a fairer and more equitable basis… and the immediate cessation of external interference in the internal affairs of states”.
As participants started to pack up and leave it was clear they had welcomed their chance to have their say. “This forum gives us an opportunity to propose alternative solutions to our governments who must refuse to simply follow in the tracks laid down by international institutions,” concluded Emilie Atchaka, representative of the Society for Sustainable Development in Benin. And with that, those standing around her packed up their banners, brandishing slogans such as “Movement for People with No Voice”, and began the journey home.