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green@work : Magazine : Back Issues : Mar/Apr 2003 : WEF Vs. WSF

World Economic Forum Vs. World Social Forum

WSF: The Challenger

Have you ever seen 120,000 people gathered in one sweaty place? I mean, really got up close and seen, heard and smelled 120,000 people? If you participated in the World Social Forum that took place in Porto Alegre, Brazil, from January 23 to 28, 2003, then you will have some sense of what I am talking about. The contrast with the World Economic Forum—taking place thousands of miles away in Davos, Switzerland—could not have been greater.

Social activists tend to be flamboyant people. Brazilians are almost by definition flamboyant people. Brazilian social activists must be about the most flamboyant people on the planet! While the grey suits were gathering in snowy, cold Switzerland, WSF participants were dancing the samba until four in the morning (the motto of the 30,000 strong youth camp was “nobody sleeps!”).

Whichever way you cut it, these were two polar opposites. Where the World Social Forum was largely young, unruly and female, the World Economic Forum was middle-aged, male and on-time. While heads of state, multinational corporations and multilateral organizations discussed interest-rate policies, grassroots activists and landless peasants gathered to swap stories on how to resist the privatization of public spaces. As stock prices flashed across screens sponsored by Reuters in Davos, WSF participants were treated to student street theatre and salsa. “Another world is possible,” claimed the WSF logo. Where the WEF and WSF are concerned, we really are talking about two different planets.

How have the big issues changed?

The World Social Forum is now in its third year of existence. Numbers have grown 400 percent in three years, and the forum is now reeling under the burden of its own success. “Happy chaos” was one generous way of describing the initial mêlée, but double-booked meeting rooms, no official programs until the second day, confused translators, meetings starting an hour late (though this turned out to be normal!) were symptomatic of just how complicated the forum has become.

As the week wore on, however, more structure began to emerge. Susan George, associate director of the Transnational Institute and “grand dame” of WSF, suggested that where the first forum was devoted to analyzing the world’s situation, the second was aimed at developing proposals. The third intended to devise strategies to achieve these changes. But as the WSF’s daily newspaper acknowledged, “What we are against is obvious, neo-liberal policies of profit-before-people that underpin the current globalization process. And what alternatives are we for? Well, we need to articulate that better in terms of policies.”

Some of this articulation is coming. Rather than “anti-globalization,” many delegates seem now to acknowledge the value of some aspects of globalization. As Guy Ryder, general-secretary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) put it, “We would like to see globalization proceed along a different path.”

Amnesty International has also argued that the discussion needs to be refocused. “[How do we go about] globalizing respect for human rights, justice and accountability for those who abuse those rights.” This is likely to become the major focus over the next few months and years.

How does WSF see WEF?

One of the complications of the WSF is that it is a very diverse group. While leaders like Susan George and Maude Barlow of the Council of Canadians call the CEOs of multinational corporations “the most evil people on the planet,” Oded Grajew, founder of the Ethos Institute and co-founder of WSF, sees the business community as critical in driving changes forward.

Nonetheless, a—if not the—central issue behind the World Social Forum is a conviction that we need to move away from the current model of globalization that is seen to be based on exploitative sets of relationships between North and South that undermine local communities, destroy livelihoods and keep hundreds of millions of people in a state of misery and servitude. As the principal architects and beneficiaries of this system, leaders gathered in Davos are seen to be responsible for and complicit in these abuses.

What are the key issues?

There were over 1,000 separate workshops at the WSF, several hundred panels and seminars, a handful of testimonies and conferences and hundreds of impromptu street demonstrations. Subjects ranged from the death penalty to debt forgiveness and from spirituality to the solidarity economy. However, while it would be impossible to summarize this diversity, a couple of key themes emerged at the root of many of these discussions:

The negative impacts of the current model of trade globalization including issues of debt relief and ongoing WTO negotiations.
* The on-going militarization of the planet with a particular focus on the threatened war against Iraq.
* Access and the “right” to clean drinking water.

SustainAbility as an organization co-hosted a workshop with the United Nations on business/NGO partnerships and participated in a wide range of other workshops including NGO accountability, the emergence of nanotechnology, corporate social responsibility, neo-liberal policies, debt relief and water rights. While our focus is on corporations and their role in delivering sustainable development, the wider conference spends only a small part of its time addressing these issues. However, when it does, corporations—more specifically, transnational corporations—are invariably cast in a very harsh light. Even the most positive activists are shifting their language away from corporate social responsibility and focusing instead on the need to ensure corporate accountability for impacts.

Is the gap closing or widening?

Of all the wide variety of groups represented at WSF, the most significant presence is probably still the union movement. These groups tend to have a fairly insistent left-leaning perspective on developments—and tend to be the most vocal community calling for “revolution” rather than reformation in the Bretton Woods and other institutions.

For this group, engagement with the WEF agenda is still seen as anathema, and this was clearly illustrated by the criticism levelled at newly-elected Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva when he announced his decision to attend the World Economic Forum in Davos. Nonetheless, Lula is adored by most groups represented at WSF, and when he says that he thinks “there is room for us [the WEF and WSF] to get together to talk”—then it suggests that we may well see some room for convergence between WSF and WEF in the coming years.

What were the most interesting voices?

There is still a split within the leadership of WSF on how the movement should consider the corporate world. Some are intent on engagement, while others are firmly wedded to a more aggressive approach.

One particularly interesting trend is represented by the issue of water, and more specifically, water privatization. Increasingly, it seems this issue is becoming a central point of focus for disparate groups with concerns ranging from the privatization of public space, human rights (in this case to clean water), ecological impacts, gender issues, anti-dam campaigns and so on.

The issue has real traction at the local level, but enough commonality in geographically distant protests to provide an opportunity for transnational NGO groups to help coordinate and support disparate actions. Many view the “Global Water Fight-Back” as potentially the issue to ignite wider support for the WSF’s broader agenda.

Where is the agenda headed?

One thing that is abundantly clear is that the predictions of the movement’s demise following 9-11 were overly hasty. The WSF movement is not only alive and well, but actually going from strength to strength.

The forum really is an extraordinary phenomenon. Attracting 120,000 people from all over the globe to a small city in southern Brazil in itself should be telling us something. As the London School of Economics researchers Meghnad Desai and Yahia Said argued in a recent paper on the civil society movement on anti-globalization, “Given the cacophony of voices behind it, the message from Seattle and Prague [and Porto Alegre] may be neither coherent or constructive. It is more like an alarm, a shout of protest and despair. But it is loud enough that corporations, international organizations and governments can ignore it at their peril.”

Seb Beloe is a director of SustainAbility and is currently co-directing its latest research program, “The 21st-century NGO: Roles, Rules and Risks.”

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