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World Social Forum: The Cradle Of Global Civil Society


ROME, Jun (IPS) – What can we expect from the future of the World Social Forum (WSF)?

At the first WSF in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in January 2001, just a few thousand people were expected; at least 25,000 showed up, putting the organisation of the event to a real test. It was the first time that different representatives of civil society had met to debate global agendas with a deliberately open format for dialogue: there were neither final declarations nor processions but only a space for exchanging ideas and experiences and making proposals for work together.

It was also the first time that the Latin American indigenous movement spoke and listened alongside feminists, environmentalists, and health- and education-for-all movements.

Those were days of fiery enthusiasm buoyed by the event’s utopic motto –’another world is possible’– and the shared belief that the position of the rival World Economic Forum (WEF) was wrong that contemporary market-driven globalisation was the sole engine and arbiter for human society. The political and intellectual positions underpinning the WSF are based on the presumption that the vaunted axioms of the WEF are false.

It is probable that in the history of economic doctrines, none rose and fell as quickly as neoliberalism, which beginning with the Washington Consensus drove economic globalisation throughout the planet. If we read newspapers closely, we see that the word globalisation as we know it today entered into use shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. The Washington Consensus was formulated the following year.

A mere remember to send a bill…

ten years later, the voices critical of the disaster wrought by neoliberal policies had grown into a deafening roar. Everyone remembers how in Seattle in late 1999 an improvised coalition of unions, social activists, environmentalists, and pacifists shut down the ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation. This should lead us to note some of the indisputable historical legacies of the WSF, the birthplace of global civil society. It was in Porto Alegre that the alliance between global civil society and the United Nations was forged. One of the major themes of the last WSF was defending the UN from the decline imposed on it by the Bush administration.
The WSF took on the most difficult challenges. The last Forum, this year, took place on three continents: Caracas for Latin America, Bamako for Africa, and Karachi for Asia. The three forums were successful in different ways, attracting a total of almost 200,000 people. The 2007 WSF will return to a single site model and take place in Nairobi, Kenya.

The challenges will be huge, given the difficulties of the African continent at every level, particularly economic. It should also be noted that the WSF gave rise to regional, thematic, and national forums. Each year there are no fewer than forty. The European Social Forum, held this year in Athens, has a certain autonomy with respect to the WSF and uses methods that are not part of the original philosophy, such as marches and final declarations.

However, these positive aspects are not enough to make a thorough judgement of the WSF. If we set aside the numbers and remember that the forum proclaims the possibility of creating another world, we should ask what impact the WSF process has had on the institutions and politics that, in the final analysis, could concretely affect the governability of globalisation. In effect, those of us who have participated in the WSF since the beginning saw it as a grand process of elaborating alternatives generated in a grand process of participation that could inject vigour and scale into the political process. However, the refusal of the participants to allow themselves to be absorbed by political parties and to establish relations with political institutions has reduced the WSF to a circuit of self-referentiality.

Is it possible to increase the WSF’s capacity for action? The answer is essentially ‘No’. It has not been possible to move past the idea of an ‘open space’, which allows for the exchange of ideas and experiences and the creation and strengthening of alliances but prevents the formulation of proposals or calls for concrete action by the forum. It is thought that such options should be carried out by the organisations participating in the WSF during their normal operations.

There is a minority that holds that the WSF should not limit itself to being a kind of spiritual exercise from which participants emerge stronger and better. They think that the forum should decide on a series of actions that provide an alternative to neoliberal globalisation and should pressure institutions to adopt them. But for now this debate is going nowhere. In all likelihood the WSF will not make significant progress into the political realm and will remain a major exceptional occasion for civil society to meet. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

(*) Roberto Savio, president emeritus of IPS, is a member of the International Council of the World Social Forum.

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