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WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: New Reference Point for Globalisation Debate

Mario Lubetkin

PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil, Jan 31 2001 (IPS) - The first-ever World Social Forum held in this southern Brazilian city will forever serve as the point of reference in the ongoing debate about the globalisation process.

The Porto Alegre Appeal for Mobilisation, signed at the conclusion of the six-day meet Tuesday by delegates from 144 civil society organisations, and the myriad issues studied in 16 plenary sessions and 400 workshops, indicate that this “alternative” movement has strong momentum.

The World Social Forum will serve as a landmark in the fight against the neoliberal economic model, according to Bernard Cassen, of France, head of ‘Le Monde Diplomatique’ and one of the founders of the conference which convened 4,702 registered delegates from civil society groups and other institutions Jan 25- 30.

Its deeper effects will only be known with time, as was the case for the protests at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial conference in the US city of Seattle in December 1999, and the joint meeting of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank in Prague.

The Forum organisers agreed that Porto Alegre, capital of Rio Grande do Sul state, will host the event again in 2002, and will again coincide with the World Economic Forum, held annually in the Swiss alpine resort town of Davos.

The World Economic Forum attracts executive from the world’s major transnational corporations, leading financiers and numerous heads of state to discuss policies that seek to deepen the economic globalisation process.

The most important sign that the World Social Forum had achieved a place in the spotlight came from Davos itself, when last Sunday some of the World Economic Forum participants held a debate via satellite with delegates at the Porto Alegre meeting.

Though the debate was widely considered “a dialogue of the deaf,” the exchange was broadcast by television stations in several countries, which automatically grants the World Social Forum legitimacy.

Cassen indicated that this world movement against exclusion, as many define it, is no longer on the defensive after the positive experience in Brazil.

Despite the harsh exchange of opinions in the debate between the Forum in Davos and the Forum in Porto Alegre, the possibility arose that this “dialogue at a distance” could continue.

The Hungarian-born financier George Soros, of the Open Society Institute, affirmed that the debate between Davos and Porto Alegre was “an interesting experience, though it proved that it is not easy to initiate dialogue.”

Soros, the target of the sharpest barbs launched by the World Social Forum panellists, said he would not take part in another similar experience because he does not like the verbal abuse, though he acknowledged that an “intelligent” conversation could be held in private.

Attendees of the meeting in Brazil are organising demonstrations to protest another World Economic Forum meeting, to be held Feb 26-27 in the Mexican resort city of Cancún.

Also on the protest agenda are the negotiations to create the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), scheduled for April 6-7 in Buenos Aires and the April 17-22 Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Canada.

The protest schedule extends into May with the meeting of the Asian Development Bank and the G-8 summit of the most powerful nations to be held in Genoa, Italy. Then come the IMF, World Bank and WTO assemblies in Honolulu, Hawaii, and Washington, DC.

Some Porto Alegre participants took aim at the United Nations during the satellite debate, condemning the world body for sending its representatives only to Davos.

John Ruggie, a member of the UN delegation at the Swiss meeting, did not formally respond to the invitation to take part in next year’s World Social Forum, but stressed that it is one of the UN’s duties to seek solutions to the problems outlined in Porto Alegre and ways to redistribute wealth, while attempting to place itself at a point half way between the two Forums.

Soros himself indicated that the organisers of the annual Davos meetings, though they are convening forums for reflection, pay close attention to the signals arising throughout the world.

For Soros, the fact that there were more participants in Porto Alegre than in Davos shows that the social movement has broad support.

According to sources at both meetings, some 2,000 more people attended the event in Brazil than the World Economic Forum, where there were approximately 2,500 registered participants.

The 69 non-governmental organisations that were at the Davos Forum did not represent the participants in Porto Alegre, a fact established during the satellite debate by World Social Forum panellist Nijoki Njehe, of Kenya, director of 50 Years is Enough.

Njehe maintained that her group, which calls for the cancellation of poor nations’ foreign debt, “does not need representatives in Davos.”

The civil society groups in the Swiss city indicated they would rethink their attendance at next year’s event because of the violent confrontations between the Swiss police and representatives of NGOs that were not invited to the Davos Forum.

Brazil’s President Fernando Henrique Cardoso said Tuesday that the debate about globalisation is becoming richer, “though it still suffers from some simplification.” He explicitly pointed to “the limited” economic and social focus expressed in the Davos and Porto Alegre forums.

The growing tensions surrounding the globalisation issue are likely to heat up even more in coming months, because, as UN secretary general Kofi Annan said in Davos, “if we cannot make globalisation work for all, in the end it will work for none.”

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