Civil Society, Development & Aid, Economy & Trade, Global, Global Geopolitics, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean, World Social Forum

WORLD SOCIAL FORUM: Positive Reviews, On Balance

Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Jan 24 2010 (IPS) - Nearly a decade after its inception, and in spite of some reverses, on balance the World Social Forum (WSF) has proved a resounding success as a platform for planet-wide debate, from the point of view of the people most affected by the world’s problems.

This is the conclusion derived from a close reading of texts by the principal activists and promoters of the forum for another world, which began in January 2001 as a counterweight to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, an annual meeting of top business and political leaders and invited guests.

The WSF was founded after the 1999 protests at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial meeting in Seattle, Washington, which were a milestone of civil society resistance to neoliberal (free-market) globalisation, and relied on instruments recently designed by global capitalism: information and communication technologies.

Because of Seattle and, two years later, the WSF, it became possible to imagine an alternative kind of globalisation, based on civil society movements and organisations.

However, Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Sousa Santos, one of the main promoters of the WSF, maintains that sectors expecting world policies to be decided on by the forum’s movements and organisations have been disappointed at the decline of their organisational model.

Sousa Santos, a professor at the Universities of Coimbra in Portugal, São Paulo in Brazil and Wisconsin in the United States, said that on balance the WSF development process has been very complex, and he believes the WSF should become settled and established, in a broad sense.

The colourful annual gatherings of the WSF contribute most to its visibility, but they are only one of the pillars of this global justice movement, and in Sousa Santos’ view, not the most important one.

Another main pillar of the WSF process is the exchange of ideas and strategies and the building of alliances between movements active on the same issues. In recent years these movements have been able to agree political agendas to be carried out at national, regional and global level, particularly indigenous organisations which have increasingly taken on a leading role, especially in the Americas.

Several initiatives have been strengthened, such as the World Water Forum, the global audit of the foreign debt of the poorest countries, the continental agenda of Amazonian peoples, the global agenda on sexual and reproductive rights, and the continental agenda of Afro-American peoples, especially in regard to recognition of their ancestral territories.

Another main pillar of the WSF is the Assembly of Social Movements, best known for organising global days of struggle against the economic crisis and climate change, and in support of the Palestinian people. These actions were all based on political decisions arising from debates held at the WSF, which also recommended closer coordination between the social movements’ Assembly and the WSF.

A fourth pillar, in a broad sense, is made up of progressive governments that have transformed their countries politically, in part due to inspiration by the WSF.

Presidents Evo Morales of Bolivia, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva of Brazil, Rafael Correa of Ecuador, Fernando Lugo of Paraguay and Hugo Chávez of Venezuela attended the Ninth WSF in Belém do Pará, Brazil, in 2009.

They shared concerns with 133,000 participants from 142 countries, representing 4,312 social organisations from Latin America, 489 from Africa, 155 from North America, 334 from Asia, 491 from Europe and 27 from Oceania.

Sousa Santos has often stressed that among the social struggle innovations introduced by the WSF is that its core is dominated by workers’ organisations. However, they do not identify themselves as such, but as campesinos (small farmers), unemployed people, indigenous people, Afro-descendants, women, “favela” (shanty- town) dwellers, human rights activists or environmentalists, he said.

The WSF motto “Another World Is Possible” has circulated widely among the world’s people, reflecting the inclusiveness and diversity that are the essence of the forum and that have gradually translated into a remarkable capacity to articulate different strategies for transforming society.

Founders and activists frequently affirm that the impact of the WSF over nearly a decade has exceeded all expectations, pointing particularly to the rise to power of the progressive presidents of Latin America. This phenomenon would be hard to understand without taking into account the ferment of social awareness among social movements, that arose or was strengthened by the WSF.

Among its other successes, they highlight that pressure from the WSF, and in particular its organisations fighting to cancel debt in the countries that have been most impoverished by free-market policies, forced the World Bank to agree to debt relief.

Denunciation of the orthodox financial and economic model applied by the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the WTO was decisive in opening up political spaces that would consider using heterodox economic policies.

The remarkable visibility gained by indigenous peoples’ struggles through the WSF also strengthened the continental and global dimensions of their strategies.

But although the diversity of the participating movements and the concept of inclusion have been the WSF’s main propelling force, they have also been a weakness.

Sousa Santos admits it has not been easy to reconcile movements opposed to capitalism in general, with movements that only oppose neoliberalism, which they define as predatory and anti-reformist; or organisations that believe in modern Western progress and those that do not; or those that see racism and sexism as secondary struggles, and those that do not accept abstract hierarchies among social struggles.

On the threshold of the Tenth WSF, one of the setbacks is the forum’s scant presence in “Fortress Europe,” where conservative governments predominate, pursuing a strong regional integration project, but where the powers-that-be are increasingly distant from their citizens.

Sousa Santos says another disappointment is that WSF’s voice has not been heard on reforming the United Nations, on climate change, and on the danger that an interminable war against terrorism could become a war against everyone who questions the dominant school of thought.

He also warned that since the big media are turning into a huge, frequently anti-democratic conservative party, the WSF must beat the information and communication challenge, by promoting alternative media.

The WSF has generated hope and expectations: some realistic, others surprising. Everyone remembers the Paraguayan bishop who had to travel to the first WSF in Porto Alegre by bus, because he could not afford to go by plane. He was Fernando Lugo, now the Paraguayan president.

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