A View from the Margins:
The Case of Pakistan Polycentric Forum 2006


After fifty eight years of independence, Pakistan is a country which is still recovering from colonial encounters let alone launching a struggle against neo-liberal globalization. Since 1947, independence has meant little more than a change of masters. Although, according to the popular belief, Pakistan is seen to be marching towards ‘sustainable democracy', led by a president in uniform, the promise of democratic participation still remains an illusive reality.

Under a global surge of information technology revolution, whereas the state of media and information infrastructure in Pakistan has grown sporadically over the last decade with many creative and private actors entering the fray, a large number of population is still marginalized due to lack of access to information infrastructure. Theoretically, a set of modest information channels exist in Pakistan allowing for proactive disclosures and dissemination of information. Besides privately owned vibrant print media, a number of FM radio stations, cable TV networks, satellite televisions and interactive websites are catering to the citizen information needs.

While the potential of the internet to build a citizen-centered, inclusive information society cannot be overlooked, one must not forget to acknowledge the painful reality that majority of the population in Pakistan are largely illiterate out of which only 40% can read and write. Hence the majority relies on traditional electronic media as primary source of information and digital information revolution has made little impact on their lives. Therefore, ICT revolution to empower citizens remains an uncharted territory; a distant dream far from reality despite proliferation of media technologies and government's liberalization of media policy.

In spite of the bottlenecks, there are several micro-initiatives led by a growing body of the third sector: the civil society in Pakistan , which is making efforts towards bridging the information gap, mainly in the rural areas to find a way to alleviate media poverty. Over the years civil society has also made its presence felt, articulating some key public issues and advocating for citizen's participation at the grassroots through social activism.

State of Social Movements/Activism in Pakistan:

The case of Pakistan is full of contradictions regarding the role of media in building and strengthening spheres of participatory democracy and social capital. Sociologists speak of a loss of a sense of social contract among Pakistanis that has adversely affected the country's infrastructure: the economy, the education system, the government bureaucracy, and even the information economy. As population pressure increases, the failure to develop a sense of publicly committed citizenship becomes more and more significant.

Over the years a landscape of social movements and activist groups has emerged to address issues of participation, human rights and democracy. Several grassroots movements are being strengthened by the mobilizations led by structured and institutionally organized movements such as Aurat Foundation and Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and other widely dispersed socially active groups engaged in promoting a cadre of activist lobby at the grassroots level. Many initiatives are led in the areas regarding women's liberation movement, environmental movement, child labour, etc. Some alternative movements such as Pakistan Fisher's Forum are viewed successfully organized experiments in local movements. However, the development trajectory of social movements is not as active in Pakistan as in India or across the wider world of Latin America . The struggle is only beginning to take shape, forming larger alliances of citizen groups, activists and civil society organizations engaged in promoting citizen-based activism.

Pakistan Social Forum vs World Social Forum: Local vs Global Struggles

With this backdrop of the evolving struggle to restore citizen's right to information and participation in democratic processes, Pakistan Social Forum (PSF) was born in 2003 as a forum motivated by the similar world under World Social Forum (WSF) to set a process to contest the prescriptions offered by neo-liberal economic policies and capitalist-led globalization. Built around the slogan of the World Social Forum “Another World is Possible”, it seeks to provide a space for discussing alternatives, exchanging experiences, for strengthening alliances and building coalitions between mass organizations, social movement and NGOs.

The process for forming Pakistan Social Forum formally started after the 3rd World Social Forum in Porto Alegre Brazil in January 2003. The participation of some of the leading social activists, human rights workers, and peace activists and workers federations from Pakistan motivated them to start diffusion process of WSF in Pakistan.

The PSF process aims to be a broad based, inclusive process, uniting the social movements, mass organizations, and non-governmental organizations. It attempts to integrate with other regional and global social forums held around the world. PSF draws on the spirit fostered in World Social Forum events and its dynamic grassroots movements and provides an open space to promote dialogues for those marginalized by globalization phenomenon.

In about last two years the process was taken to more than 87 districts of Pakistan and a large number of social activists, human rights and social activists, peasants, workers, journalists, teachers, students, clerks, forest dwellers, fisher-folk and other actors of the civil society joined the process. The emphasis of the process remained on mobilizing social and political forces all over the country, especially focusing on people involved in livelihood struggles, social movements, democratic and peace movements as well as rights-based struggles especially in the context of economic globalization.

In four provinces, provincial social forums are now active. These provinces have already formed committees to discuss ideas, coordinate and evolve strategies at the local level that will lead up to social forums in each of these provinces. Through a membership drive about 2000 organizations, networks and individuals have joined the forum. It is also constituted by organizations across the country working on issues including economic justice, human rights, environmental, labor, youth, indigenous people and women's rights. The first Pakistan Social Forum was organized in January 2004 as a process leading up to WSF Mumbai 2004.

Now on the offer of Pakistan Social Forum, the Asian Council and International Council of WSF has agreed to organize WSF Polycentric Continental Event in Karachi Pakistan from January 24-29, 2006 . It expects around 100,000 delegates from all over the world (mainly from Asia continent) who will attend this large assembly in Pakistan This mega event will be coordinated through an event secretariat and an organizing committee.

Although the concept of Polycentric Forum offers a great opportunity for the convergence of local struggles in Pakistan to find a platform to give voice to the local issues and problems, there are several challenges that need to be encountered before convening the polycentric forum, Karachi .

The apathy of mainstream media to project the upcoming event is a challenge as in the cases of the WSFs elsewhere. However, the importance of mobilizing support from mainstream media to create awareness among general public cannot be overlooked and the challenge has to be met in some way or another. In spite of the mainstream role of some leading non-government players in the organization of the Forum, support from influential players from the public sector still needs to be sought to make the Forum strategically effective. There's lack of information infrastructure as well in order to use alternative tools of information and communication technology to mobilize people. This is where one needs to implement alternative strategies of what Gill (2000) refers to as ‘indigenization of universalism'; to appropriate information architecture to meet the local, specialized needs – the promise of which is not yet possible due to the lack of technical information infrastructure for the isolated communities of Pakistan. Before the realizayion of this goal, there are several issues that need to be sorted out. From lack of education and computer literacy to the readiness and acceptance of masses to adapt to the opportunities provided by ICTS is important. It cannot take place overnight. A slow and incremental nurturing of this process along with support for providing access to infrastructure and information are multi-tiered challenges that call for a concentrated and strategic approach both from the voluntary sector as well as players of new social movements in Pakistan .

Inspite of these multiple challenges, the opportunity of Polycentric Forum provides an inroad to the possibility of realization of ideals of participation and democratic change in Pakistan.


In order to frame the global struggle from below and to institute a lasting and sustainable change in the arena of global politics, it is a little difficult to imagine a global civil society without a contribution from ‘state' as an actor. The case of Pakistan provides a window into this dynamic. Local struggles need local solutions, while they also need to be scaled-up to the global level. The concept behind, ‘think global, act local' still holds a lot of weight in view of the challenges of the contemporary information society. In this regard, the role of alternative, tertiary genres of media and mediated communications is important. Media have to be understood, contextualized and indigenized according to local demands.

In order to restore the humanity of the world; one needs to understand the vital force of the ‘first cell in which the germs of the collective will come together and tend to become universal and total' (Gramsci, 1977); the importance of local, indigenized universalism. Zapatista movement is one example in this context. In this continuous ever expanding rising tide, all such movements need to be charged with the vision of constructing ‘a new form of state, society, and a new global world order' (Gill, 2000: 137) through an enabling corresponding ‘grammar of the multitude' leading towards collective action.


Antonio Gramsci, (2000) Selections from David Forgacs ed. The Antonio Gramsci Reader , New York University Press

Hardt, M. & Negri, T. (2005) Democracy of the Multitude , Hamish Hamilton

Gill, S. (2000) "Towards a Postmodern Prince? The Battle in Seattle as a moment in the history of Globalisation." Millennium, vol. 29 no. 1

Joll, James (1977) Gramsci , Fontana/Collins

Sylvere Lotringer, (2004 ) ‘We the Multitude', forward to Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude , Cambridge Mass, Semiotext(e)

Unpublished information material from Pakistan Social Forum Secretariat obtained through electronic correspondence.


Copyrights © 2005 Sumaira Sagheer Toor
Masters Dissertation, MA in Global Media and Postnational Communication, School of Oriental and African Studies, London