World Social Forum

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 21 (IPS) – Returning to its original venue of Porto Alegre, Brazil, this year’s fifth World Social Forum (WSF) will attempt to incorporate some of the lessons learned from the 2004 edition, held in Mumbai, India.

The higher degree of heterogeneity achieved at last year’s meeting, where a significant number of the participants represented poor and marginalized sectors, has prompted major structural changes for the upcoming meeting in southern Brazil, taking place Jan. 26-31.

The WSF 2005, which is expected to attract some 120,000 participants, will include a number of organisational and methodological modifications aimed at generating concrete proposals for resolving the problems the world faces today.

While this has always been a goal of the WSF, it will be even more strongly emphasised this year, in the hopes of generating “many more proposals that are better prepared and geared to coordinated action,” said Francisco Whitaker, a member of the Brazilian organising committee for the meeting.

The first two hours of every morning will be devoted to assemblies in each of the 11 “thematic spaces”, where the participants will work towards reaching consensus on specific campaigns to be carried out after the Forum, Whitaker explained.

The proposals that emerge from these debates will be posted on notice boards set up in each of the meeting spaces, thus giving them greater visibility, he added.

Whitaker’s organisation, Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace, will join with its sister organisation in Barcelona, Spain to develop anti-war initiatives, he said.

A major campaign set to be launched at the upcoming WSF — with Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva scheduled to attend — is the Global Call to Action Against Poverty, promoted by an alliance of over 100 non-governmental organisations (NGOs) from around the world.

The campaign aims to force world leaders to live up to their promises and adopt concrete policies to fight poverty.

During the upcoming WSF, the Global Call campaign participants — who will wear white headbands or armbands — plan to organise demonstrations for early July, when the next summit of the Group of 8 (or G8, comprising the world’s most powerful nations) will be held in Scotland, and in early September, coinciding with the fifth anniversary of the U.N. General Assembly’s adoption of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs).

The need to move from diagnosing and denouncing problems to finding solutions, and from theory to practice, has been echoed by a great many of the activists involved in the WSF.

The marked increase in the representation of the poor and socially excluded seen at the fourth Forum in Mumbai, India, highlighted the need to adopt changes in the way the giant meeting is organised.

Joao Felicio, general secretary of the Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Brazil’s largest trade union federation, advocates working towards “three or four joint efforts” to mobilise participants into action, instead of remaining “caught up in academic debate.”

Some of the initiatives that could be promoted, if a consensus is reached, include fighting poverty and corruption, pushing for the taxation of speculative financial transactions, and working to more effectively mobilise the younger generations.

However, according to Guacira de Oliveira, co-director of the Feminist Studies and Advisory Centre (CFEMEA), “the richness of the WSF lies in its diversity.”

She said she would prefer to see “thousands of proposals presented, and if some of them bring together a large number of organisations, so much the better. But it’s also good for proposals that don’t attract as much participation to be aired, because it’s important to ensure that less high-profile issues are not forgotten.”

The Forum provides the opportunity for all participating groups and movements to express themselves, ideally without discrimination or hierarchies. Choosing a limited number of priority themes would lead to a “fight to be heard”, which would contradict the spirit of the event, De Oliveira added.

The programme of activities for the fifth WSF is the result of a concerted effort among hundreds of organisations to seek greater coordination and less “dispersion”.

The issue of water, for example, was previously discussed at over 100 isolated events. This time, the organisers have strived to combine activities, which will serve to promote linking among groups and networks with similar concerns and goals.

As a result of consultations held last year, this year’s schedule was designed through a much more participatory process, “from the bottom up”. All of the activities included were proposed by participants, and none by the organisers, who previously selected the themes and guest speakers for the large lectures.

A total of some 2,500 activities are scheduled for the fifth WSF, a record number. The organisers managed, however, to group them all into 11 main thematic areas, defined through last year’s consultation process.

Each theme will have a specific space within the so- called WSF Territory. The theme of human rights encompasses the largest number of activities, with close to 500.

The search for coherence with the goals behind the Forum led to other changes, which were also influenced by last year’s experience in India and a study revealing that up until now, the participants in these meeting have largely represented a highly educated elite.

As a result, the meeting venue has been moved from what some perceived as the “elitist” location of the Catholic University of Porto Alegre to a park on the banks of the Guaiba River, where 295 tents and 205 meeting halls have been erected, made primarily from recycled or natural materials.

Around 15 percent of the total budget of 14 million reais (five million dollars) has benefited the “solidarity economy” through the purchase of products and services from cooperatives, associations and other self-managed enterprises. A special currency with the indigenous name “txai” will circulate at the event.

The Forum ceased the practice of inviting guest speakers who formerly had all of their expenses covered. The money saved was used to create a Solidarity Fund to finance the transportation and other costs of representatives from poor and geographically distant communities. Participating organisations were also encouraged to develop Solidarity Funds of their own.

The organisers described the move as an “inversion” of priorities, stressing popular participation as opposed to appearances by more famous personalities.

Efforts have also been made to internationalise the Forum, previously marked by an overwhelming predominance of participants from the host country. At the first three editions, from 2001 through 2003, all of them held in Porto Alegre, the proportion of Brazilians was 85.9 percent. A similar situation was seen in India.

It has already been agreed that the 2007 WSF will be held in Africa, although there are expected to be difficulties when it comes to choosing the country.

For 2006, the Brazilian organisers are calling for greater decentralisation by holding a number of simultaneous forums in different countries, with a greater emphasis on specific themes at each.

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