Global Policy Forum

WSF: Still a Stranger to the Public Eye


By Mario Osava

Inter Press Service
January 11, 2007

Defending human rights, democracy and diversity are its strongest point, but its "main defect" is lack of public visibility. That is how most participants viewed last year's World Social Forum (WSF), held in Caracas and Bamako, according to a survey.

The global civil society gathering, held annually since 2001, also suffers from a "lack of attention" from the media and political leaders, according to close to one-third of the 4,800 people surveyed for "An X-Ray of Participation in the Polycentric Forum 2006", conducted by the Brazilian Institute of Social and Economic Analysis (IBASE).

Other shortcomings marked by just over one-fifth of those surveyed were "division in the organisational committee" and the WSF's "confusing political messages." But the fact that it offers "a forum for democratic discussion" of ideas is one of the most positive aspects of the WSF. Like "defending human rights," that option was marked by a little over half of survey respondents, followed by "being a place to exchange experiences" and "proposing alternatives to neoliberal globalisation." This image of the WSF as seen by its own participants is part of the survey report that IBASE will present at the 7th World Social Forum, to take place Jan. 20-25 in Nairobi, Kenya.

Last year's WSF was held in the capitals of Venezuela and Mali, in January, and in Karachi, Pakistan in March, which is why it was called "polycentric". The survey thus compares characteristics and opinions of participants present at Caracas and Bamako. (It was not possible to carry out the poll in Karachi.)

There were some remarkable differences. In Caracas, where nearly all of the participants were Latin American, 64 percent of the 2,400 respondents described themselves politically as "leftist," and only 1.2 percent as "rightist," whereas among the predominantly African participants in Bamako, the proportions were 30.4 percent and 8.7 percent, respectively.

And 33.1 percent of those interviewed in Bamako totally disagreed with the prohibition of child labour, compared with only 10.1 percent in Caracas. Legalising abortion, meanwhile, was totally opposed by 44.4 percent of African respondents, compared with 19.4 percent of Latin Americans.

The different responses reflect "cultural differences, different concepts but the same concerns," said Cándido Grzybowski, the director of IBASE. Among Latin Americans, there is no doubt that child labour must be eradicated, while among Africans in a more rural culture, opinions are divided. But sometimes there are distortions in the survey because the same question is understood differently on the two continents, due to "different perceptions," he said.

Holding this year's reunified Forum in Nairobi will embrace "an Africa excluded from the debate" and overcome the idea of "a lost continent," neglected by the international media, said Grzybowski, a member of the WSF International Council. Africa "has vitality; lots of energy and diversity" to contribute to the Forum, he added.

The six previous Forums, four of which were held in the city of Porto Alegre in the south of Brazil, were attended by a combined total of more than 560,000 participants. Distance and the high cost of transport means that the vast majority of those attending are from the continent where the meeting is held, which poses a challenge to the global nature of the Forum, Grzybowski acknowledged.

The great annual forum of social movements, non-governmental organisations and civil society associations is also difficult to finance. Organising the 7th WSF will require an estimated five million euros (6.5 million dollars), but the total cost is ten times more, Grzybowski estimated, taking into account the expenses paid by participants themselves and other contributions not handled directly by the organisers.

Because of this, the Forum may not continue to be held annually, as it has been since 2001. Instead, it may be replaced by regional meetings, or demonstrations in many cities coinciding with the World Economic Forum, held every January in Davos, Switzerland. The WSF emerged in opposition to the Davos meeting of global business, finance and political leaders.

These and other decisions for the future, and planning of actions to be taken, will be discussed on the fifth day of the Nairobi meet. Another challenge the Forum faces is to promote greater convergence and systematisation of ideas, and effective connections between the many civil society organisations and networks that have sprung up in recent decades. At the 2005 WSF, fragmentation meant there were over 5,000 separate activities, which everyone now recognises was excessive.

The problem is what method to use to seek consensus. "Divergence is not a problem," diversity of ideas is creative, but "not to an extent that justifies thousands of activities" at every Forum. "Perhaps the ideal would be to bring them down to about 500," IBASE's director said.

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