Anti-elitists sincere, but poorly organized

The second annual World Social Forum, held in Porto Alegre, Brazil, at the end of January, is now over, and the intention is to make it an annual event. Overwhelmingly, participants agree the forum was a success.

First, it showed clearly that the “Spirit of Seattle” was not killed by Sept. 11. The global justice movement is alive and well. It’s estimated that some 60,000 people took part in the World Social Forum, three to four times more than last year.

Second, the theme “Another world is possible,” and the setting, the socially progressive city of Porto Alegre, were uplifting. For those who traveled here from highly repressive and unstable realities – Palestine, East Timor, Guatemala, Colombia, and Argentina, for example – Porto Alegre offered psychological relief.

While in the final communiqué delegates pledged to be “fighting for” global social and economic justice, democracy, abolition of external debt, and a host of other ideals, there is a strong philosophical and tactical commitment to nonviolence.

Third, it has been both unusual and instructive to be in an international gathering where most discussions were not driven by American voices or views. While September 11 was referred to often, it was not the primary determinant of all discussions.

The World Social Forum was conceived as the people’s alternative to the World Economic Forum – an annual gathering of leaders of the richest corporations and countries. Today, the World Social Forum, intentionally held in the Global South, seems to be taking on a life and character of its own. But it faces some tough challenges and difficult choices.

While the World Economic Forum represents, as Jeff Faux, president of the Economic Policy Institute, put it, the political party and the agenda for the world’s elite, the Porto Alegre gathering should be viewed as the party and the agenda for the rest of us. But while the elite seem to have their act together on how they view and deal with such critical issues as foreign debt, trade and corporate responsibility, ours is still a very mixed bag.

Far too many of the World Social Forum’s 700-plus workshops were repetitious, off-the-cuff presentations with little audience participation. In addition, there was not enough attention to the ties between U.S. global military programs and armed conflict in different nations.

The World Social Forum, for instance, offered surprisingly little discussion of the role of the United States military in Colombia, even though the United States is deeply involved in the hemisphere’s hottest war.

Any holistic understanding of corporate-led globalization needs to incorporate an analysis of the role of military power, as well as of institutions and mechanisms for conflict prevention and peacekeeping.

There also has to be more attention paid by organizers of future World Social Forums to the diversity of participants. Women were prominent (though still not equal as panelists and organizers), but people of color were a small minority.

The Institute for Policy Studies and other organizations helped bring African-American and Latino organizers from the United States, and there were a handful of delegates from Africa, Asia, and indigenous and Afro-Caribbean communities in Latin America.

But this “people’s gathering” hardly looked truly international. Even the location, the state of Rio Grande do Sul, was the least diverse part of Brazil, populated largely with descendants of German and Italian immigrants who displaced the indigenous population.

As plans begin to be laid for the World Social Forum’s next meeting, many are asking if it will evolve into a serious political platform or merely descend into a fun street party.

While it’s important to enjoy the venue of World Social Forum, the serious solution is to use our time better to educate ourselves about the critical issues surrounding globalization, to lay plans for the challenges ahead, and to map out and reach consensus on alternative agendas to those proposed by our elite counterparts at the World Economic Forum.



Martha Honey is co-director of the Foreign Policy in Focus Project (www.fpif.org) at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C.