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 Forumtaking
place thousands of miles away in Davos, Switzerlandcould 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 worlds situation, the second was aimed at
developing proposals. The third intended to devise strategies to
achieve these changes. But as the WSFs 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
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, aif not thecentral 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
* 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, corporationsmore specifically,
transnational corporationsare 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 developmentsand
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 talkthen 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 WSFs broader agenda.
Where is the agenda headed?
One thing that is abundantly clear is that the predictions of the
movements demise following 9-11 were overly hasty. The WSF
movement is not only alive and well, but actually going from 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