Global Policy Forum

World Social Forum Activists Reorganize to Face Critics


By Laurence Caramel

Le Monde *
January 25, 2005

The World Social Forum, which opens Wednesday in Porto Alegre, has changed. The organizers want to respond to charges leveled the last few months concerning lack of democracy, sterile repetition of debates with no outlet, and political battles.

The organizers of the World Social Forum (WSF) have not remained deaf to these criticisms. The fifth edition of the signature meeting of World Social Forum Activists - organized from January 26 to 31 in Porto Alegre (Brazil) - inaugurates a new formula. In principle at least, it aspires to respond to the charges leveled with growing insistence over the years, i.e. the lack of democracy and risks of sterile repetition.

To answer the first grievance, the Forum's International Council, which comprises more than a hundred organizations drawn from NGOs, labor unions, and social movements, decided to abandon its powers of "grand organizer" to leave the Forum to manage itself. "It's a radical and risky option, but it will allow different people to express themselves," acknowledges Gus Massiah, from the Center for Development Research and Information (CDRI).

This decision was taken right after the fourth WSF, organized in Mumbai (Bombay) in January 2004. Behind the confusion and sense of being overwhelmed, the massive and unexpected presence of popular movements at the heart of the Forum effectively imposed itself as the great novelty of that event. The organizers hope to continue in that direction. According to them, it's one way to create progress in the movement and also to correct the image of elitist rendezvous which tainted observations about the preceding meetings in Porto Alegre.

This year, 100,000 militants are expected in the capital of Rio Grande do Sul. They will renounce the comfort of the Catholic University, now become too small, to converge on the banks of the Guaiba River, where meeting rooms and tents have been set up that, they hope, will attract a larger and more diverse public. The program of debates is the fruit of a consultation conducted over the Internet to which over 1,800 organizations have responded. Eleven priority subjects have been identified. All movements, large or small, will, in principle, have found their place.

The themes, unsurprisingly, carry on globalization critics' major preoccupations: preservation of the environment and the role of multinationals, cultural diversity, the struggle against neo-liberalism, cancellation of developing countries' debts, peace.

The second arrangement decided upon to escape the effects of repetition consists of the creation of spaces consecrated to the elaboration of proposals and action campaigns. "It's a start, and we are somewhat soft in our expectations, but this initiative goes in the right direction since it allows alternatives to become visible," explains Bernard Cassen, honorary president of Attac, who does not despair of one day succeeding in formulating a "Porto Alegre Consensus," the World Social Forum Activists' counterpart to the Washington neo-liberal consensus. Others, such as Pierre Khalfa, from the same organization, consider the changes to be inadequate and are sorry that "the Forum cannot be a great political moment from which struggles will gain encouragement."

A First Experiment

These arrangements seem to have dissipated the feeling of exhaustion that was surfacing a few months ago. "Many organizations from Southern countries are going to have their first WSF experience. The process renews itself as it widens," asserts Jean-Marie Fardeau, Secretary General of the Catholic Committee against Hunger and for Development (CCHD). The CCHD finances the trip for eleven African NGOs. "The choice of a horizontal organization cut short the debate about the manipulation of the movement," Bernard Pinaud, of the CDRI, acknowledges with relief. "The Forum must remain an open space where networks are established, coalitions without political aims around the battles to be conducted."

Far from crying victory, the "World Social Forum Activists" highlight that little by little, some of their ideas are making their way through to the highest spheres of power. At the United Nations on September 20, 2004, a hundred countries aligned themselves with the initiative of Presidents Lula da Silva and Chirac in favor of the establishment of an international tax to fight against hunger.

Thursday, January 27, the Brazilian president will arrive to support the launch from Porto Alegre of a global campaign against poverty. Then he will fly to the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he will once again defend that cause before the business world. The controversial record of Brazil's number 1, two years after the beginning of his term, will not fail to be a subject for discussion at Porto Alegre. However, on an international scene darkened in the eyes of militants by George Bush's reelection, many consider they would be wrong not to take at their word those who give any credence to their vision of "another possible world."

Translation by truthout French language correspondent Leslie Thatcher.

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