The World Social Forum

What is it really about?

©André Faber for the OECD Observer

The 21st century had just begun when something new came into the world: the World Social Forum, which met for the first time in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 2001, to coincide with the already well-established World Economic Forum in Davos. Since then it has gone from strength to strength and it is now a permanent fixture on the international calendar. What is it about?

Is the Forum, as some claim, simply a matter of continuing a struggle that has been going on for more than a century against the domination of capital, by people who persist in believing that we have not come to the “end of history”? Are the Forum’s participants simply desperate resistance fighters trying to resist a globalisation process which has long captured all of us, making our nations hostage to the interests of the multinationals and speculators? Or is it a supreme effort to ensure that things “social” are not forgotten by governments or international organisations?

All of these are simplistic views, and miss the point. It could be said that the World Social Forum brings together those for whom human beings and their interests are central to all policymaking, not money. The timing was deliberately intended to show that there is an alternative to the business-driven “pensée unique” pursued by the world leaders every year in Davos.

Another of the WSF’s aims is to condemn the harmful effects of globalisation and to establish ties of solidarity that can foster lasting peace between countries. The WSF’s participants are also keen to see democratically elected governments everywhere striving to reduce social inequalities within their countries and beyond.

However, these aims are not new, and any person of goodwill could subscribe to them. The Forum goes further, opening up new avenues of thinking in the quest to solve the world’s problems. This is the reason for its success.

At first it was a new type of politics, though this is not an invention of the WSF’s founders. All we have done is pool the experience gained from mankind’s fight over recent decades against different kinds of domination, from network organisational structures to shared power relations.

The proposition from the outset was to move from simple resistance, with its protest demonstrations, to a pro-positive crusade. It laid down respect for diversity as an essential principle. Social Forums are open, without discrimination, to all those who wish to change the world, respecting the people’s choices, culture and tempo, but rejecting violence as a means of achieving change.

In each gathering, no participant and no activity is more important than another, and everyone is jointly responsible for the event. At the 2005 Forum, this approach probably reached its limit: every activity–some 2,000––was managed by those who had suggested them.

Those who organise the Forums do not exercise control over them. They are only facilitators. This explains why the Charter of Principles–which everyone should read–does not allow political parties and governments to have any hand in organising the Forums, as their power structures are generally competitive and pyramid shaped. No one can speak in the name of the Forum or seek to represent it, since it is neither a movement nor an entity. It is simply a meeting place, in which different civil society organisations may reach beyond the barriers dividing them, to help each other, to learn, to build new alliances and launch new initiatives.

No World Social Forum ever ends with concluding documents that pretentiously (and falsely) claim to shepherd everyone under the same banner. Each organisation or set of organisations can propose measures which are binding on them, however. Some 352 proposals were presented at the closing ceremony of the 2005 Forum. They covered a wide range of questions: from reforming the UN and solving external debt, water, the fight against poverty, knowledge, rights of indigenous people, the spiritual dimension of development, new ways of organising the “grassroots” economy, peace, or against the production of weapons or international treaties that prejudice the poorest countries.

This conception of the forum is not entirely shared by all who take part in the meetings and help organise them. There is, for example, a whole debate about whether the WSF is a “space” or a political movement. Considering its power to convene and mobilise people, those most distressed by the way the world is going or most impatient for rapid change would naturally like the Forum to become a new political player. They see the Forum as a mere talk shop, and think that it needs to identify top priority campaign objectives–even a final communiqué or treaty–and co-ordinate actions needed to achieve them.

The debate is not over, but I and those many like me who believe the social forum is a space, a gathering, are under no illusion as to the negative impact that this sort of organisational change would have on the strength of the event.

The WSF is not intended to be “the movement of movements”, or a new “world party”, with old style leaders and a new “pensée unique” to replace the dominant one. Change will not come that way, but by the action of all of society itself, acting through its myriad social movements, by creating new economic and social realities, and pressuring political parties and governments. The World Social Forum opens up the possibility for these new political players to gain mutual strength, in new networks, in an effort to realise common objectives worldwide. If it just becomes a political movement, then this potential for action will be lost. So far, we have managed to ensure that the Charter of Principles is complied with, which is quite an achievement.

Every meeting under the heading of the World Social Forum process, whether at world, regional or local level, is an opportunity to cultivate a new political culture, in which competition is replaced by co-operation. This helps explain the jubilant mood that prevails at these meetings. The hundreds of thousands of people who subscribe to this process (including a growing number of young people) enjoy the shared optimism about human nature which underlies it.

This viewpoint–so different to that adopted by those now in charge of the world economy–was ably summed up by Ms Hazel Henderson in an article on the sham which is the Nobel Prize for Economics (Le Monde Diplomatique, February 2005), the main argument of which can be summed up as the following: human beings are not rational economic agents with reptilian brains, obsessed by the desire to maximise their own interests on the basis of fear and scarcity. Their motives are more complex than that, including the desire to care for others and to share.

The World Social Forum will certainly leave its mark on this new century, and organisations such as the OECD will have to listen to its participants, through those horizontal and democratic networks known as civil society. These networks are the only means through which the increasingly shared responsibility of all the inhabitants of the planet can muster sufficient power to really bring about “another world”. ~

*Chico Whitaker is the Brazilian Justice and Peace Commission representative to the WSF Organisation Committee and International Secretariat. Mr Whitaker’s new book, The World Social Forum Challenge, is published in Portuguese. He has written several articles, including “Notes about the World Social Forum”, which is available in English and French at the WSF website.

The WSF has been held each year since 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, with the exception of 2004, when it was held in Mumbai, India. The 2005 event brought together 150,000 participants. A series of linked Forums will take place in 2006, and in 2007 there will be a world-level meeting in Africa.

©OECD Observer No 248, March 2005

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