The Future of the World Social Forum: to be or not to be?


By Francine Mestrum*

The world has changed dramatically since 2001, the year of the first WSF. Looking back, one can only congratulate its founders for their insights and thank them with great respect for the way in which they have preserved these basic principles.

Re-inventing the forum?

Nevertheless, it is very clear that something has to happen. The attendance of the International council meetings is dwindling, many movements have no resources anymore to travel, others are fed up with endless bureaucratic discussions of reforms that never are made concrete.

As for the WSF itself, the hope of the first years for really sharing alternatives for the neoliberal and capitalist world order is also dwindling. Those who speak of a ‘talking shop’ are not totally wrong. Hundreds of workshops are held, attempts to have convergence assemblies are not really successful, too many initiatives are organized for the own in-group. There is little interaction between different sectors and groups.

If we want the forum to survive, something will have to change. But the difficulty for having a real discussion on this comes, surprisingly, from the same people who were so brilliant fifteen years ago. By emphasizing the horizontality, the fear of being captured by political parties, the non- representativeness, etc., they block all new developments and show that power relations are not absent from the WSF process.

Apparently, one major element is missing in the whole discussion: the failure of our actions, the failure of bringing about the change we desperately want and need. The methodology that helped us to emerge beginning of this century, is now making us politically irrelevant.

Less contradictions, more conciliations

Horizontality and verticality are not drastically opposed. To refuse a hierarchical structure should not stop us from having a light structure with clear responsibilities and mechanisms for monitoring and accountability.

Self-organisation is a beautiful principle, but it should not stop us from realizing that some topics may have more priority than others. Hip-hop movements can be very important, but a workshop on peace or democracy or climate justice might, in some circumstances, receive primary attention. It is not breaching the charter of principles to try and make a kind of hierarchy in the topics to be discussed.

Most of all, some attention should be given to the state of the left. That it lost some of its attractivity after the fall of the Berlin Wall is normal, that it was not able to recover after the economic and financial crisis of 2008-09 is not. The left is still very fragmented and in spite of its beautiful principles, the WSF did not contribute to its healing.

So what should be done?

Before deciding that in the future we only need thematic forums and that there is no need for the IC anymore, I think we should reflect on a couple of elements in order to see where the WSF remains relevant.

First, however important the self-organisation of workshops is, we cannot leave the convergence and the interaction between groups to the participating movements themselves. The WSF should

get organized. It means that initiatives should be taken to bring groups together, not only within one single sector, but amongst sectors. As long as the climate justice groups do not coordinate with the social justice groups and the peace movements, they are condemned to fight an isolated struggle. They will not win.

Secondly, the movements themselves should get organized in order to work together and try to arrive at alternatives. This does not mean they all have to share one way of thinking, it is enough they realize they have things in common and can work in the same direction. Diversity remains important. Every year I look in amazement to the World Economic Forum in Davos where participants certainly do not agree with each other but are able to align their positions without any solemn declaration. Progressively, they do the agenda-setting and build a new cultural hegemony. Every year they invite some of the world’s most important thinkers to present new insights. It is a learning and converging process. Why can we not do that? Was the WSF not meant to answer the WEF? Should there not be a progressive forum of movements and thinkers to shape an agenda of change?

The World Social Forum is not the only global space for social movements, but it is the only potentially transversal space. Different movements can meet each other and this should be stimulated. Coordination and organisation should be high on the agenda, because in situations of crisis and chaos, it is those with the strongest organisational power who will set the agenda. Alternatives may grow during actions, organisation has to be there. The WSF can be a very politicizing event, which is very positive, but this should be made sustainable. It should become a real process indeed.

In Salvador de Bahia we will have once more an opportunity to discuss all these points. The very positive thing in the IC is that in spite of our differences of opinions, we have become friends. We respect each other. This should make it possible to leave the dogmatic viewpoints behind, to look for middle ways to become politically relevant, to have a global voice that speaks and can be heard.

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*Francine Mestrum has a PhD in social sciences and coordinates the global network of Global Social Justice (www.globalsocialjustice.eu).