Global Policy Forum

Global Poverty Targeted as 100,000 Gather in Brazil


By John Vidal

January 26, 2005

Elvis, Betu and Renatu live in a rubbish dump. Every day the teenagers take out their wire pushcarts, collect the waste of the southern Brazilian city of Porto Alegre and bring it back to the illegal slum of Chocolatado to sort and then sell on. It's a grim place, made of reclaimed tarpaulins, waste timber, old plastic and metal. None of the shacks have running water or toilets, and most of them are deep in litter.

This, then, is the ideal backdrop for the launch today of the World Social Forum, which meets annually to discuss issues affecting developing countries. Begun five years ago specifically to counter the annual meeting of world business and political leaders in Davos, Switzerland, it has unexpectedly become a global political and social phenomenon.

More than 100,000 activists will be in Porto Alegre this year. They will be joined by two presidents, several Nobel peace and literature prizewinners, the world's leading international non-government groups, healthworkers, MPs, educators, unions, students, the landless, indigenous peoples, intellectuals, environmentalists and dissident economists.

"It's not perfect, but it is the most tangible global rejection of the neo-liberal globalisation policies of the US and G8 countries," said Ricardo Jimenez, a Uruguyan doctor. "But it needs to be seen in context. More than 1 billion people in developing countries live in slums; 800 million go hungry every day; 27 million adults are slaves; 245 million children have to work. The poor are everywhere still getting poorer, the cities are disintegrating and bankrupt. It is a response to a global scandal."

In other years there has been a video linkup between Davos and Porto Alegre, but this year the two worlds will stand further apart than ever, with no formal contact beyond accusations and petitions sent from Brazil.

"Developing countries now owe $1.6 trillion [£860bn]. In 2004 they transferred $300bn to rich countries," said Eric Toussaint, chair of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt. "Yet we can say that the people of the third world are creditors. They have already paid their debts many times over."

The highlights of the forum will be the flying visit of the populist Brazilian president, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela. Both will address 30,000 people in Porto Alegre's main stadium, but the reception given to the two most charismatic South American leaders could be very different.

Mr Da Silva is still popular but there is growing impatience at the slow speed of the radical reforms expected. According to many at the forum, Mr Chávez is increasingly the person to whom the continent looks for significant change. Significantly, Mr Da Silva will fly on to Davos for talks with world leaders after his Porto Alegre appearance, while Mr Chavez is expected to spend time in an encampment of the Brazilian landless.

But people are still upbeat. "Analysts are talking of a new South America. There is a sense that this is the only continent now challenging the US," said Martin Fernandes, a Brazilian doctor. "There are now leftist presidents in Venezuela, Brazil and Argentina, as well as in Uruguay and Ecuador ... We have a sense that change is possible."

The forum has been criticised in the past for not including marginalised peoples. But this year it has invited some of the poorest in the world, including dalits (untouchables) from Nepal, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, former slave communities from Brazil, and more than 100 tribes of Brazilian Indians.

It may also be the last forum for several years in Porto Alegre. "There has been a very strong proposal that, instead of one single event, the forum next year will take place simultaneously in six cities on six continents, with smaller events in many towns," said an international committee member, Mukul Sharma. "It would signal that the WSF is expanding and becoming a global force. It is also highly probable that in 2007 it will go to Africa for the first time."

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