World Social Forum 2004

The fourth annual World Social Forum was, for the first time, held in a different location from Porto Alegre, Brazil, its usual home. But it wasn’t just the location that was different — the city of Mumbai, this year’s location, was of an entirely different magnitude. Mumbai is home to more than ten million inhabitants and was a bold but necessary experiment, away from the safe havens of the clean and orderly Porto Alegre. Mumbai is overcrowded, poverty-stricken, polluted, and crime-ridden. One prominent Indian figure frequently featured at WSF events, expressed last year that moving the WSF to India was a bad idea. Corrupt and nationalist politicians may subvert the process and Mumbai was not as hospitable to progressive social ideas like Porto Alegre. As far as I could tell, that did not quite happen. But the organizers had less than a year to put on the massive event and lacked the advantage of experience.

Mumbai was a Step in the Right Direction

And yet, in my opinion, the World Social Forum was an overwhelming success. There were certainly some problems, but the WSF’s ever-growing attendance managed to converge inside the dusty compound of the NESCO grounds in Goregaon, and found ways to cross pollinate ideas.

Better organized:

Last year’s WSF in Porto Alegre, despite being better funded and having had the benefit of two years prior experience, had a very poorly organized schedule with rooms and speakers being double booked or not making it onto the schedule entirely. In Mumbai, however, rooms were where they were supposed to be, events were scheduled properly and speakers mostly showed up. This was an Herculean accomplishment.

Better Represented:

In Porto Alegre a large number of the delegates were poor peasant farmers and indigenous peoples. But in Mumbai, at least via a cursory and probably subjective view, the majority of the delegates from poorer sectors of society was even greater. There were large numbers of Dalits and Adivasis, women, farmers and other rural workers, raging in the streets of the NESCO grounds chanting their slogans in Hindi, Tamil, Marathi and other languages.

More Culturally Expressive:

In Porto Alegre the cultural expressions of people’s politics was an important component. But in Mumbai, the WSF was bursting with rich, passionate cultural traditions, refashioned to express current political ideologies. Every one of the various outdoor stages was constantly filled with diverse groups of performers. Every lane was occupied at all hours with demonstrations of dancers, drummers, and singers carrying their banners. Cultural expression was the very life blood of the South Asian movements that were present.

Closer to Reality:

In Porto Alegre, the very real poverty of Brazil was out of sight. It was easy to discuss creating a new world away from the inconvenient stares of the dispossessed on every street corner. But in Mumbai, the reality of the “Third World” festered just outside the walls of the forum. Mumbai’s undeniable poverty clarified the urgent context of our work. Yes, it was horribly difficult. It was smelly and filthy and beggars tugged at our sleeves and followed us around constantly… and we need to get used to it. We have to face the ugliness of this world in order to change it.

Accessible to a Different Set of Movements:

In Porto Alegre, Brazilians and other South Americans were the largest proportion of delegates for three years in a row because of obvious geographic proximity. But in Mumbai, Indians and other South Asians were the largest proportion of delegates – there were tens of thousands of people who couldn’t afford the airfare to Brazil and wherever else the WSF goes in the future. South Asian political movements and activists from the rest of the world were finally introduced to one another. And hopefully, in two years, the same opportunity will be available to African or East Asian movements depending on where the WSF heads.

How can we Make the Forums more Effective?

The World Social Forum has come a long way and moving to Mumbai, India only improved it. But, this essay would be incomplete without a set of critiques of the WSF in general. If we are to build a better world, the very process by which we begin a dialogue on a new world has to be under constant scrutiny. So here goes:

Sponsor fewer “Stars”:

In the last two years that I attended the WSF, an obvious feature of this “space” (that isn’t supposed to be a conference I’m told), was that it was designed quite like a conference. Despite the large numbers of small, self-organized events, the huge, grand plenary sessions with left-wing superstars such as Noam Chomsky, Arundhati Roy, Jose Bove, Nawl El Sadaawi, and many many others, were center-stage. These huge plenaries inevitably overwhelmed the self-organized events. And in fact, one speaker told me that she would never have come to the WSF had they not paid her way. The large number of high profile speakers is a financial drain on the WSF that could be better used to provide facilities for the general attendees. Is it necessary for the world we want, to heap privilege on a chosen few? I imagine the logic of superstar speakers is to attract large numbers of people to register for the WSF so they can hear from their favorite writers and thinkers. So why not have fewer key plenary sessions, with just a handful of high profile speakers, but completely different ones each year? The most committed high-profile speakers who are also activists interested in hearing what others have to say, will make their own arrangements to attend — like the rest of us.

Emphasize Solutions, Not Ills:

At the World Social Forum we gather to envision and create another world. We are not there to protest World Bank elites or George Bush-like tyrants. Most people present are politically educated and organized and benefit little from hearing about the destructive nature of corporate globalization. Even the details are fairly unimportant (one can pass out flyers or announce websites to disseminate information). I came to the WSF to hear how activists in their diverse communities are winning their fight and what strategies and ideologies they are employing in that fight, so that I may learn how to apply it to my organizing. I suspect most delegates would benefit from an emphasis on ideas and solutions rather than lectures and rhetoric. Unfortunately I heard much more of the latter at the last two WSFs.

Design a Better Translation System:

It is imperative that while we are globalizing our struggle to remake the world, we figure out how to talk to one another via our various languages. The solution cannot be for all to learn a single language such as Spanish or English (like a business school graduate learns Chinese or Arabic to better serve their capitalist career). I heard the interpreters at the last WSF announce that they were working on designing a complex system of translation for WSFs to come. I await that technology with impatience and laud the interpreters for their important work and vision. Much precious time was wasted in attempts at translating between all our languages of choice at the forums. And even more time, in my opinion, wasted on some speakers decrying the use of English to communicate as English is a colonial language (so is French, Spanish and pretty much every other modern language – language use should be judged by accessibility, not history).

Adopt Specific Goals, But Democratically:

One common complaint against the WSF is that it is too vague, not focusing on any goals, not willing to take stands on anything. While I initially agreed with the importance of having an open space, I think it is a mistake for us to not harness the energy and power of our ever-growing, ever-globalized movements. Another critique is that decision making at the WSF needs to be more democratic and transparent. I was pleasantly surprised to read that the World Social Forum decided to endorse the March 20th march against the occupation of Iraq and take a specific stand on an issue of global importance. However, I have no idea how that decision was reached and who exactly made the decision — and that is disturbing. Delegates like me read about the decision to back the March 20th event in the headline of an article in Terra Viva, the daily WSF newspaper. What if at each WSF, delegates picked a small set of goals for the year from a series of short proposals submitted by other delegates, published in the schedule? Delegates could potentially cast votes at the end of the forum and decide, to varying degrees, to tackle one or two issues that year before the next WSF.

This critique of the World Social Forum is written in a spirit of excitement over our growing global movement. And the forums are a yearly message to the elites of the world – that we have power and it is growing every year.

Sonali Kolhatkar is the host and co-producer of Uprising, a daily morning public affairs program on KPFK Pacifica Radio, Los Angeles.

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