Global Policy Forum

World Social Forum:


By Katherine Stapp

Inter Press Service
January 12, 2005

Activists from the United States are heading to Brazil for the upcoming World Social Forum, determined to refute the widespread belief that their country has "gone Republican". They're also in search of fresh inspiration for the fight against the exploitation of people, and natural resources. "With the re-election of George Bush, a lot of people around the world washed their hands of the United States," says Timi Gerson, the field director for Global Trade Watch – a division of the Washington-based group, Public Citizen.

The U.S. president's second term in office has been greeted with dismay by many. Bush's critics disagree with several policies adopted by Washington, from the decision to wage war on Iraq, to the U.S. failure to endorse the Kyoto Protocol – an agreement for cutting down on global warming.

Gerson will be soon be leaving to participate in the World Social Forum (WSF), a meeting of non-governmental groups that is held in counterpoint to the World Economic Forum. This will be the fourth time that she is attending the WSF.

The World Economic Forum, which takes place in the Swiss town of Davos, gathers together the political and business elite. In contrast, the WSF gives a voice to those who feel marginalized by governments and multilateral institutions – and who seek greater respect for human rights in their communities. "Part of our role is to show that there is resistance here, and to look at what four more years (of government under Bush) will mean for all of us," says Gerson. "It's important to feel that you're part of an international movement, especially for a lot of activists in the U.S. who feel isolated right now."

During her time at the WSF, Gerson will focus on strategies to counter controversial trade deals in North and South America, such as the Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Central American Free Trade Agreement. She says the effects of these deals constitute a "crossover issue that...affects working people no matter where they live, whether it's a laid-off American steelworker or a Mexican farmer."

While Global Trade Watch has attempted to get media coverage for the Jan. 26-31 WSF gathering in Porto Alegre, Gerson notes ruefully that "it's been hard to raise awareness of anything here that's not the war or elections." But while the event is not well-known in the U.S., its broad agenda has attracted the attention of dozens of grassroots groups in the country, including labor unions. Anti-debt campaigners, environmental and fair trade activists also sympathize with the aims of the WSF.

At its maiden gathering in 2001, the WSF drew 20,000 participants. Last year, more than 74,000 activists from 117 countries attended the forum (the 2004 WSF was held in the Indian city of Mumbai).

Kristin Sampson of the International Gender and Trade Network, an umbrella group with members around the globe that is sending 23 women to the meeting (including two from the U.S.), says her group is including a link to the WSF web site on its own internet page. A member organization of the network called the Center of Concern will also feature an introductory piece on the forum that is likely to be read by people in over 500 Catholic parishes and schools in the U.S. "For us, the WSF is an important space for social movements – to see how diverse we are, to celebrate this diversity and to find ways to work more closely together where it is strategic," Sampson says.

Other activists point out that the WSF is coming at a time when people in industrialized and developing nations have been united by the drive to help tsunami victims in Asia and Africa. This has created opportunities to discuss issues pertinent to the developing world, such as debt relief – something that may raise the profile of the WSF in the United States.

"In general, more Americans have been thinking about international cooperation and poor people because of the tsunami," says John Catalinotto, who is traveling to Porto Alegre with a delegation from the International Action Center, one of the organizations spearheading the drive to end Washington's occupation of Iraq. "There are some very basic issues to take up, like water for everybody and land reform. But many of the groups that are going – like the IAC – will be especially interested in what is being done against the war," he adds.

Just as the European Social Forum of 2002 galvanized 10 million people around the world to demonstrate against the U.S. invasion of Iraq, so Catalinotto hopes the WSF will spark another international day of action to mark the second anniversary of the war. He agrees that while "people in the (civil society) movement" know about the WSF, it is ignored by the mainstream media and thus largely unknown in the U.S. However, Catalinotto – and others – do not necessarily see this as a liability.

"We'd love to have more awareness raised about this in the U.S., but that isn't the real purpose behind the WSF from our perspective," says Ben Lilliston of the Minnesota-based Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a member of the WSF International Council. This body includes representatives from over a hundred groups that develop policies for how the WSF should be conducted. "It is really a fantastic opportunity to strategize with leaders around the world who are questioning the current system of economic globalization," he adds. Lilliston singled out agricultural subsidies – and the dumping that accompanies them – as "the central most damaging practice in international trade".

"U.S. agribusiness firms are among the world's largest dumpers of agricultural commodities. To address the issue of dumping and plunging commodity prices, there must be a global solution," he said. "The WSF helps put us all on the same path."

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