Another world is possible: the evolution of the World Social Forum and its contribution to global justice struggles

Lisa Hoyos

“Another World Is Possible” is the theme of the World Social Forum (WSF)–an idea that inspires activists across the globe to come together each year to share experiences and strategies for change. The WSF, as stated by its Secretariat, “is an open meeting place where groups and movements of civil society opposed to neoliberalism and a world dominated by capital or by any form of imperialism … come together to pursue their thinking, to debate ideas democratically, formulate proposals, share their experiences freely and network for effective action.”

The WSF’s opposition to neoliberalism and imperialism make it an extremely valuable political space for U.S. activists who want to better understand the impact of multinational corporations, powerful industrialized countries, and global economic institutions on peoples of the world through the eyes of activists–particularly from the global South–confronting their policies head-on.

History of the Forum

The original impetus behind the WSF was to develop a counterweight to the World Economic Forum where heads of state gather with leaders of Fortune 500 corporations to plan and coordinate the advance of a corporate-driven model of global development. The World Social Forum is a space created for activists to critique this neoliberal economic development, and to craft alternative social and economic visions.

In early 2000 Brazilian social leaders met with representatives from ATTAC France and Le Monde Diplomatique and other European activists to discuss this alternative forum. They then pulled in key Brazilian NGOs and social movements, including IBASE, ABONG, the CUT (Brazilian trade union movement) and the MST (the Brazilian peasant farmer movement) to form an organizing committee that hosted the first WSF gathering in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2001.

Participation at the WSF is broad and diverse, including peasant farmers and landless peoples, trade unionists from across the globe, students, indigenous peoples, journalists, economists, large social movement ,and NGO networks, such as the international anti-WTO network Our World Is Not For Sale, and hundreds of NGO’s large and small. The first WSF drew 20,000 participants, the second gathering drew 60,000, and the third upwards of 100,000.

A Gigantic Teach-In

The WSF has the feel of a gigantic teach-in, organized around “themes”–such as “political power and ethnics in the new society” or “access to resources and sustainability.” There are “central panels” where widely recognized global justice advocates, such as heads of social movement organizations like the CUT in Brazil and key global justice NGOs such as the Third World Network and Focus on the Global South, assess the state of neoliberal strategies and advance ideas for alternatives.

Since the first WSF in 2001, the number of U.S. “delegates” has grown steadily (to be a “delegate” you must be a member of an NGO or social movement organization). After starting out with one of the smaller delegations representing a large country, the U.S. had among the largest delegations at the most recent WSF (behind Brazil, Argentina, and Italy). U.S. groups participating include Jobs with Justice, the AFL-CIO, SWOP, SNEEJ, SCOPE/AGENDA, Working Partnerships, 50 Years is Enough, Food First, the International Forum on Globalization, Friends of the Earth, and many more.

WSF and U.S. Activism

There are several reasons why participating in the World Social Forum is an extremely valuable opportunity for U.S. activists. We get to directly listen to and engage with our international counterparts. With hundreds of seminars and workshops to choose from, U.S. activists can gain exposure to and learn about the organizing strategies of South Africa’s labor leaders, Brazil’s landless peasants, and debt-cancellation activists from all over the world.

There is something overwhelmingly powerful about witnessing resistance strategies transferred into diverse cultural and political contexts–oftentimes, with incredibly high-risk stakes for the activists involved. Represented at last year’s World Social Forum were social movement leaders from Bolivia who successfully rolled back the Bechtel-run privatization scheme that made water unaffordable to the poor. Many of these same indigenous activists went on to oppose the selling off of Bolivian natural gas to the U.S.–a campaign in which 74 activists were killed by military repression, and which ultimately resulted in the overthrow of President Gonzalo Sanchez de Lozada and a commitment by the new president to disallow the sale of the natural gas. Also represented at the WSF were Mexican peasant farmers who led a campaign early this year involving tens of thousands of farmers who blocked the U.S.-Mexico border to keep out the truckloads of subsidized corn that, due to NAFTA-imposed tariff cuts, is flooding their markets and driving them off their land.

The World Social Forum also allows activists to gain exposure to social struggles around the world where political ideology is more pronounced and more openly embraced. In the U.S., capitalism is so dominant as an ideology in mainstream society that it is rarely questioned as a “framework.” It is indeed eye-opening to hear so many activists at the WSF (from developing countries in particular) talk about “neoliberalism”–the economic model characterized by low-social spending (which is reflected in the budget cuts we are confronting in every state), privatization, high interest rates (which makes it hard for low-income people to borrow), and deregulation. While the term neoliberalism is easily found in almost any progressive movement publication in the global South, in the U.S., it is more likely to be found in the Economist magazine. In other words, in the U.S., conservatives talk about neoliberalism and capitalism–in their promotion of it–more than most activists do.

This is not an argument for using large intellectual terms in our organizing. Rather, it is perhaps acknowledgement that in many developing countries (e.g., where the World Bank and IMF have imposed neoliberal austerity measures which include mass privatization and huge cuts in social spending) ideological terms are not viewed as “intellectual” to the same degree they are in the U.S. Understanding the components of a neoliberal economic model becomes part of the homework that needs to be done to confront it.

Change on the Home Front

It is hard not to be struck by how many neoliberal forces are concentrated in the U.S.–and how much disproportionate power. The U.S. has the most votes in shaping World Bank and IMF policy. The U.S. (along with the EU, Canada, and Japan) have the most influence in the WTO, in spite of the fact that it is supposed to run by consensus. The U.S. is home to most of the Fortune 500 companies. Understanding the global impact of this imbalance of power helps U.S. activists recognize that living in the “belly of the beast” carries with it special responsibilities.

Deepening the effectiveness of our international organizing and international solidarity will require us to integrate a more solid understanding of international politics and economics (political-economy) in our domestic organizing efforts–from candidate endorsements to Congressional visits to town hall meetings to street actions. We need to understand more about issues that aren’t as prevalent in the U.S. (the U.S. doesn’t have “austerity measures” imposed on us by other countries–but the U.S. plays a huge role in imposing them on others). Developing our critique of corporate-driven globalization as it plays out in other countries will certainly help us in our domestic campaigns, because we are forced to more intimately understand both how the U.S. government and huge multinationals operate internationally, and in turn, what sorts of new leverage we can gain through international organizing. But, even if that were not the case, it is something we must do, because if indeed, as the World Social Forum asserts, “another world is possible,” it is our home country that will need to undergo radical transformation.

Lisa Hoyos chairs the board of the California Coalition for Fair Trade and Human Rights and is active in international anti-WTO organizing.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group

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