Global Policy Forum

A Critical Review of the World Social Forum


By Kameelah Rasheed*

January 17, 2007

For the past 3 months, I have been trying to decide whether to attend the World Social Forum in Nairobi. The World Social Forum first met in 2001 in the city of Porto Alegre, Brazil, as a challenge to the World Economic Forum (WEF) and 'claimed to organize an alternative to capitalist neo-liberal globalisation.' Lofty mission, right? I have been lukewarm about the forum for a few months because such transformative discourse is not always met by such transformative politics or action. Furthermore, I like to investigate a bit before I invest the 600 USD for a plane ticket plus 300 USD in associated costs. As I scoured for analysis of the World Social Forum, I came across critiques accusing the WSF of being a glorified discussion group for the emerging class of career activists and NGOs, to an incubator for the domestication of possibly explosive actors.

One paper that I found particularly interesting was Rodha D'Souza's "The WSF revisited: Back to the Basics." D'Souza analyzes the WSF as advocating discourses that run counter to the tagline "another world is possible." D'Souza interrogates the notion of "civil society" that the WSF harps on (the World Social Forum as "an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulations of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society.")

She examines civil society within a historical context not as a democratic space for the development of counter-hegemonic activity and discourses, but as an incubator for the domestication of the possibly explosive elements of society. In examining the WSF's support of Third World debt cancellation and leading intellectuals' examination of the Tobin Tax, she finds that the WSF does not interrogate capitalism or state power. Rather it advocates for a "more sustainable exploitation of society." In a search for compassionate capitalism and benevolent states, D'Souza finds that the WSF does not work toward "another world" but toward a reformed vision of the world that does not disrupt the fundamental structures that feed global exploitation.

Patrick Bond's "Gramsci, Polanyi and Impressions from Africa on the Social Forum Phenomenon," further frames the critiques of the WSF. Bond finds that the dichotomous reading of civil society, and by extension the WSF, are rooted in the conflicting arguments of Hungarian social scientist Karl Polanyi's construction of civil society as the "new social movement challenge to neoliberalism", and Italian political theorist Antonio Gramsci's construction of civil society as a "stabilizing, conservative force." If the WSF is a seemingly "stabilizing, conservative force," is the preoccupation with discussion just a politics of diversion to distract us from the need for discourse to be anchored to transformative action?

Before I allowed the pessimism towards the WSF to overwhelm me, I received an email that suggested that our attitude toward the WSF should be that of Gramsci's "Pessimism of the Intellect; Optimism of the Will." Irrespective of the critiques, he reminded me that we should not abandon the WSF or global civil society to the bourgeoisie and liberals who we assume are harmoniously preoccupied with talking and reform agendas. Instead, he argues that we should work toward radical re-appropriations of this problematic space. This process of building is a matter of great urgency. If we become too preoccupied with critiques of the WSF, we will find ourselves both frustrated and without the visions of the new spaces and worlds we want to build.

A lack of funds kept me away from the World Social Forum this year. However, for the lucky many that have the opportunity to participate in this event please keep in mind the words of Patrice Lumumba. Forty-five years ago, before Congolese liberation leader Patrice Lumumba was assassinated, he left a very important message in "Congo, My Country." He wrote: "It is easy enough to shout slogans, to sign manifestos, but it is quite a different matter to build, command, spend days and nights seeking the solutions of problems." While written nearly 45 years ago, this call to action is still important today as many pack our bags en route to Nairobi.

About the Author: Kameelah Rasheed is a community activist and Fulbright Scholar at Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

More Information on NGOs
More Information on the World Social Forum
More Information on WSF: Nairobi 2007
More Information on NGOs and Social and Economic Justice
More Information on NGOs and Global Conferences


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.