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WSF: Back Seat Driver of Social Change

Jan 25 2010

By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 24, 2010 (IPS) – The World Social Forum (WSF) is only “a tool” and must not be confused with the global movement for another world, says Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of this meeting which is celebrating its tenth year with a seminar to assess its track record Jan. 25-29, in its southern Brazilian place of origin, Porto Alegre.

It is a mechanism, “an instrument to unite people. The Forum will not change the world; it is up to society to do that, through a multifaceted global justice movement,” added Whitaker, who rejects the label “movement of movements” for the WSF because it sounds too directive, like a political party.

Whitaker, an architect by training, has taken upon himself the mission of explaining the nature of the Forum and defending its Charter of Principles, written in 2002. For over five decades he has been a dedicated activist for social justice, and he represents the Catholic Church’s Justice and Peace Commission on the WSF International Council.

In 2005 he wrote a book titled “O desafio do Fórum Social Mundial: um modo de ver” (The Challenge of the World Social Forum: a way of seeing), in which he expounded the principles and process of the international gathering of civil society, its development, its horizontal networking, and the “temptations” to revert to political pathways that have already shown their ineffectiveness and perversity.

The WSF’s wider vocation, to open new ways and build unity in the movement for another world that embraces such a diversity of activists, is poorly understood, Whitaker told IPS. The tensions that exist within the Forum and its International Council themselves are caused largely by groups that defend the old ways.

Whitaker’s assessment of these past 10 years is that, without being a direct player, the WSF has contributed to many advances, by promoting connections between movements. It deserves a share of the credit for the demise of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), promoted by the United States, as well as for the rise in indigenous consciousness in Latin America, which in Bolivia led to the election of President Evo Morales, the country’s first indigenous president.

Thinking in the United States has changed since the advent of the WSF, and this will be reflected in the second national Forum, to be held in July in Detroit, a symbol of the country’s way of life. And the WSF has also accelerated development of a “solidarity economy,” Whitaker said.

Changing the world is the WSF’s goal, without dictating “perfectly finished models, or a single strategy” as a fait accompli, while demanding changes “at all levels, including personal change,” he said.

In his view, the series of multiple WSF meetings has allowed the spread of “a better understanding of this long process, which is more complex than was ever imagined.”

The global financial crisis of the last two years, which originated in the United States, has opened new frontiers for analysis and political education of young people, by providing new examples to illustrate the tragedies of capitalism, he said.

Without indicating a particular model of the society of the future, and with no intention of taking state power to promote changes, the WSF has a vague and ingenuous motto, “Another world is possible.” In traditional terms, this hardly holds out promise of a long-lasting movement.

Yet the annual international meetings of the WSF have mobilised multitudes of people, and national, local and issue-based initiatives have multiplied on every continent, establishing plural dialogue as a mechanism to foment movements and ideas. This year, 27 decentralised forums have been planned, with no central event.

There was a big increase in the number of young people attending the 2009 WSF in the northern Brazilian city of Belém, the eastern gateway to the Amazon. Out of the 150,000 participants, 64 percent were under 34 years old, and 81 percent were university students or graduates, according to a survey carried out by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE).

But over the 10 years there has also been increasing dissatisfaction among political activists possessing their own projects, utopias, movements or parties. In the light of the lack of concrete resolutions and action programmes, many complain that the WSF process has failed or run out of steam.

However, the founders of the WSF, especially those from Brazil, are reluctant to change it in that direction because they feel it would appropriate the role of the social organisations and become a political agent, like a party or a movement, negating the very nature of the Forum and its Charter of Principles with contradictory goals and strategies.

The disgruntled activists are critical, for example, of the Bahia Thematic Social Forum, to be held Jan. 29-31 in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, accusing it of being a government-led initiative rather than a civil society event.

This meeting, which is being supported by the national government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Bahia state government, will seek to promote dialogue between governments and society in Africa and Latin America, as well as reflecting and sharing experiences on issues arising from the powerful Afro-Brazilian influence in this state, such as culture and religion.

One of the main debating topics will be the development of the “new economy,” based primarily on “intangible” goods like knowledge, which “do not compete” with each other, and “do not deplete stocks when they are used,” but instead foster cooperation, said Ladislau Dowbor, an economics professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo who helped organise the programme of debates in Bahia.

For example, companies using cutting-edge technology to manufacture robots decided to set up a network to share knowledge, using open software, because they realised that “cooperation is more profitable” than sheltering their products behind patents, the economist said.

Nowadays “three-quarters of a product’s value is not physical, like raw materials and labour costs, but is derived from knowledge.” The social sector also has enormous weight in the economy, for example, health services in the United States account for 17 percent of GDP, he added.

All these developments are opening up spaces for cooperation and solidarity, Dowbor concluded. (END)

Positive Reviews, On Balance

By Mario de Queiroz

LISBON, Jan 23, 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. (END)

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