Only four years old, the World Social Forum has become a gigantic expression of the civil society’s ability to come together to debate, plan and act under the slogan “Another world is possible.” Last week’s gathering of over 100,000 in Mumbai attracted not only NGO activists but also Nobel Prize winners, religious leaders and cultural celebrities.
IT STARTED as an idealistic vision of a few Brazilian and French intellectuals and social activists in 2001.
By the time the World Social Forum (WSF) ended last week in Mumbai, it had become by far the biggest and most important annual gathering of people discussing the ills and problems of the world, and their alternatives.
This year’s WSF gathering attracted over 100,000 people, taking part in hundreds of workshops and dozens of rallies on issues ranging from protests against the war and occupation in Iraq, the ills of lopsided globalisation and the destruction of the environment.
It was the first time the WSF was held outside Porto Alegre, Brazil, where it was born in January 2001 with 20,000 people from 117 countries.
The numbers of participants kept swelling, to 50,000 in 2002, about 100,000 last year and 150,000 from 130 countries in Mumbai last week.
The WSF began as a counter-point to the World Economic Forum (WEF), the famous annual meeting of global political and business leaders held in Davos, Switzerland.
Today it is common for the media and public to contrast the two events.
On one hand there is the WEF, where many hundreds of world leaders ponder over the future of economic growth and where business leaders strike deals.
On the other, there is the WSF where many thousands of mainly idealistic people meet to discuss and plan how to overcome the problems of the world’s poor and marginalised, which they claim are caused by a monopolistic global system of wealth and national systems of social inequity.
In recent years, the WSF broadened its agenda from questions of unfair economic globalisation to express outrage at the use of military might, mainly by the United States in its wars on Afghanistan and Iraq, and also by Israel against the Palestinians.
Today, the WSF has matched (or even more than matched) the WEF in capturing public attention and imagination.
The WEF’s Davos gathering started at the end of last week, just as the WSF’s Mumbai event ended.
Speaking at Davos, former US president Bill Clinton made a reference to the WEF-WSF contrast.
Clinton remarked that the participants in the World Social Forum described themselves as opponents of “imperialist globalisation” and said he respects the beliefs of people who are against economic globalisation.
But, based on the differences between the two forums, said Clinton, “the world is divided, politically, socially and economically,” backing this with data showing how large sectors of the world population were excluded.
The WSF message is indicated in its motto: “Another world is possible!”
Around that call, thousands of participants have been rallying to find solutions and alternatives to problems at global and grassroots levels alike, and towards “another world,” based on “peoples’ rights to dignity, equality, employment, diversity and resources.”
Media reports have highlighted some of the significant messages from the Mumbai meeting.
According to a OneWorldnet report, the famous Indian author, Arundhati Roy, asked the forum to “identify two companies from the US that have benefited from the war in Iraq, identify their offices and projects, and shut them down.”
Jeremy Corbyn, Labour MP from Britain and anti-war activist, said that “unity among the people and victims of globalisation” could bring about desired changes.
South African activist Dennis Brutus said there would be “a global action against war” with a march against war across the world on March 30, the first anniversary of the US invasion of Iraq.
And on April 22 to 25, when the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) are celebrating their 60th anniversary, there would also be a campaign to question their role and whether they are needed any longer.
One of the WSF’s stars in Mumbai was Nobel Laureate for Economics and former World Bank chief economist, Joseph Stiglitz, who criticised World Bank and IMF policies that catered only to a “single set of objectives.”
Stiglitz spoke on the dangers of “capital market liberalisation” which triggered instability from flows of short-term funds.
“Foreign investment enters a country and produces an economic boom. But soon the investment moves out, leaving the country with worsened economic and political conditions.”
He also attacked the international financial agencies for encouraging developing countries to privatise social security with the real aim of opening markets for foreign firms.
In some countries, the IMF-inspired reform of social security eroded the already meagre protective measures that workers have.
Amarjeet Caur, secretary of the All-India Trade Union Congress, said the WSF had helped prepare South Asians to meet the impending onslaught of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) regime on their countries.
She warned that “predatory countries” were using “every trick in the book, including the encouragement of divisive forces in the Asian continent such as ethnicism, caste, religion and gender.
Referring to the massive crowds of people in Mumbai outside of the meeting area, Brazilian Catholic bishop Tomas Balduino, called it an “explosion of the popular masses.”
“The images of extreme poverty in Mumbai’s outskirts melded with the never-ending marches staged around the WSF venue by groups from India, with their many colours and demands for social change,” said an IPS news report.
The magnitude of India’s social problems, reflected in the immense slums around Mumbai, where living conditions are much worse than those of the favelas of Brazil’s big cities or the villas miserias in other Latin American urban areas, proved shocking to many of the foreign WSF participants.
A report from the Indian daily, The Hindu, said the WSF ended with a march of delegates over a 7km route, from the suburbs to the city’s Azad Maidan (the meeting ground from where Mahatma Gandhi in August 1942 launched his Quit India movement against British rule).
In a keynote speech at the meeting, India’s former president, K.R. Narayanan, said that “this movement is one of the most significant in history. To fight globalisation, you need to fight the way Mahatma Gandhi fought with the strength of the masses.”
“He was the first to show the way to non-violence and this has also been the method of this new movement. People’s power is a new factor in international politics.”
Pakistani human rights lawyer Asthma Jehangir told the concluding meeting: “We want to tell the world that we don’t fight with tanks, cluster bombs or atom bombs. We fight with our resolve, and with our pens. Victory will be ours because our resolve is based on principles.”
She demanded that the US leave Iraq and be held accountable for the war.
“We want the US to have a pact with the world that it will not go to war against any country unilaterally,” she said.
In a special message to the meeting, former South African president Nelson Mandela said: “We owe future generations a better world in which every individual is respected. This world will soon become a reality.”
Said The Hindu in its editorial: “In just three years the WSF has acquired a profile that matches that of the much older World Economic Forum. In terms of creating an awareness of alternatives, if not in terms of having a concrete impact on national policies, the WSF has been a success story.
“With the forum moving outside Porto Alegre for the first time, the shortcoming of drawing little participation from Asia was addressed at Mumbai.
“The WSF provides the space for members of a variety of political, social, economic and cultural organisations to discuss and exchange ideas.
“It has also become a rallying point for groups hoping to formulate alternative agendas.”
Next year, the WSF will be held once again in Porto Alegre.
And there are proposals that the venue be in Africa in 2005.
Although it began as a dream of idealists, it now appears that the WSF is here to stay, acting to mobilise not only the activists but more and more members of the establishment, such as Nobel Prize winners, religious leaders and politicians.
It is considered a badge of recognition for someone to be invited to the WEF in Davos.
It is now equally or even more prestigious (at least in some circles) to be invited to speak at one of the official plenary sessions or seminars in the WSF.
The “competition” between the WEF and WSF is healthy and looks set to continue.
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