Global Policy Forum

World Social Forum: Polycentric and Losing Focus


By Anil Netto

Inter Press Service
March 24, 2006

While a buzz of excitement surrounds the World Social Forum, now underway in the Pakistani city of Karachi, veteran activists and political scientists here are having reservations over the regional approach to the global event, with some even unaware it was taking place. This is the first year that a polycentric approach is being used for the previously global-level WSF, with regional events in three continents. Two events were held in January in Bamako, Mali and Caracas, Venezuela to counter the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, held in the same month.

More than 15,000 people, mostly from the French-speaking parts of Africa, including farming villages, attended a series of 600 meetings during the Bamako WSF on Jan 19-23. A further 100,000 people participated in the Caracas event immediately after that. About 30,000 people are now converging for the Karachi leg, initially scheduled for January as well, but postponed due to the earthquake in Pakistan.

For many activists in Penang, hub for a string of global, regional, national and local civil society groups, the buzz of excitement surrounding the Karachi Asian-level WSF is a world away. Certainly, it has not infected them the same way that previous global-level WSF events did. An IPS survey of four major non-government organizations (NGOs) here revealed that none of them was sending representatives to Karachi.

Some observers believe that the lack of enthusiasm, and even awareness, among activists hinted at a larger problem that goes beyond the move to a polycentric WSF. ''It's a good idea to regionalise the forum,'' says one veteran activist here who has been following the WSF's evolution closely. He said that regional groups can participate and benefit from the forum and discuss issues relevant to them. At the same time, he says, there is a need to harness the energy generated from previous WSFs and build a genuine global justice movement. ''We must have some structure and organisation, such as a permanent secretariat, with elected representatives, with more than just a coordinating role,'' he adds. This structure could coordinate action, clarify vision, formulate strategic steps and thrash out differences and come up with a broad programme, even if groups cannot agree on a common ideology.

But there is much resistance to structuring the WSF. ''Too much is made of the freedom to do your own thing, and that is understandable as there is some fear that the event could be manipulated by certain groups,'' says the veteran activist, declining to be named. He warned that the glorification of individualism could undermine the WSF. ''What is the value (of the WSF in the end)? It becomes too loose a network, and its annual events turn into a jamboree, a celebration of diversity. It's no use to me (in the long run).''

When the WSF was first launched in 2001 in Porto Alegre, Brazil, its activities were largely shaped by the founding WSF organising committee, made up of a string of Brazilian organisations. The event was also given impetus by a range of progressive European NGOs. By the third WSF in Porto Alegre, the international council of the WSF, which had grown to more than 100 organisations, planned most of the activities. The 2004 edition was held in Mumbai in India while next year's event will be staged in Nairobi, Kenya.

''I have a few misgivings about splitting the venue (the polycentric approach), but I guess it's all part of the new political experimentation in devolved democracy and real participation that I find attractive about the WSF,'' said Glasgow-based political scientist and author John Hilley, who has written about neo-liberal militarism, the WSF and Southeast Asian politics, in e-mailed comments to IPS. He felt that the WSF and wider anti-globalisation movements have to work through multifarious alignments, coalitions and strategies. ''If the prevailing power structure is built around a corporate-political-military hegemony which utilises globalisation and all its ideological resources, any alternative bloc has to think at a similar level,'' he said.

Some argue that the global justice movement should be a political movement and that there is no harm in backing political figures and causes worthy of support. Hilley pointed out there is no essential contradiction with the WSF's founding principles and its capacity to engage either intellectuals or key 'left' political leaders.

While intellectuals are an integral part of the movement, too close an alignment with political leaders could be problematic. ''This is not only because so many 'left' leaders and politicians have sold out and been co-opted,'' observed Hilley. ''It is also because of the fundamental difference between the bureaucratic offices which they inhabit as parties and governments (or oppositions) and the type of open, non-hierarchical politics which the WSF is seemingly trying to construct.''

The polycentric approach this year may also see another sub-regional WSF event taking place in Bangkok, possibly in October. For Sarojeni Rengam, executive director of Pesticide Action Network's Asia Pacific (PAN-AP) office in Penang, that poses a problem.. ''For a group like ours, which covers the whole Asia Pacific region, which sub-regional event do we focus on with our limited resources, Karachi or Bangkok?'' she asked.

She said that the WSF had tremendous impact in its early meetings to challenge neo-liberal economics. ''It brought together diverse groups with different ideologies and the events had a lot of creative energy,'' she told IPS. ''But when you don't have anything to unify the groups, it becomes difficult to mobilise people constantly and regularly.'' ''There should be more debates on issues and some level of calls or statements that people can sign on after such forums,'' she said, adding that there could be a need for some kind of structure. She stressed that local grassroots groups in the struggle -- the displaced and the dispossessed -- should be in the frontline of the global movement. ''They have to be the leaders and play a prominent role.''

Penang-based political scientist, Johan Saravanamuttu, who participated in the Mumbai WSF, was not even aware of the Karachi event until IPS contacted him. ''The publicity is bad,'' he told IPS. ''Somehow I haven't even caught any news about the Karachi event unlike the WTO event in Hong Kong.'' While recognising the benefits of a polycentric approach, he warned that ''if you have too many things going on, you are going to lose focus and people will lose the sense of the WSF being a specific apex gathering of all social movements in the world.''

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