The Risks to World Social Forum Posed by Its Own Success
Published on Tuesday, February, 1, 2005 by Inter Press Service
The Risks to World Social Forum Posed by Its Own Success
by Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO - The World Social Forum could become a victim of its own success, as loud calls for translating ideas and talk into action and practical results threaten to generate divisions and frustration.

Portuguese Nobel literature laureate Jos Saramago expressed that tension when he called Friday for turning the World Social Forum (WSF) into an instrument for action based on concrete proposals and ideas with broad support, rather than a Mecca for an annual pilgrimage by the Left to engage in discussions and debates on utopias.

Saramago, who for the first time took part in the global gathering (whose fifth edition ended Monday), joined 18 personalities with close ties to the WSF Saturday to release the Porto Alegre Manifesto, which takes its name from the southern Brazilian city where four editions of the WSF have been held, including this year's.

The 19 intellectuals who produced the Manifesto, made up of 12 proposals that as a whole give sense to the building of another possible world, clarify that they are not speaking in the name of the WSF, but in a strictly personal capacity.

However, they say they have made a synthesis of 12 recommendations, out of the innumerable proposals presented during the global gathering, that, if they were applied, would permit citizens to at last seize control again of their future.

But the fact that most of the authors of the Manifesto have been prominent participants in the WSF since the very start, and that many of them are members of the international organizing committee, could give the impression that the document represents a common position assumed by the Forum. It could even appear that the WSF, contrary to its very nature, has acquired a politburo.

Among the signatories are Argentine writer and Nobel Peace Prize-winner Adolfo Perez Esquivel, Portuguese sociologist Boaventura de Souza Santos, French editor of Le Monde Diplomatique Bernard Cassen, Egyptian economist Samir Amin, U.S. sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein and Pakistani writer Tariq Ali.

Seven of the recommendations concern the economy: the cancellation of the public debt owed by countries of the developing South; the taxation of financial transactions and weapons sales; full employment and social protection; the dismantling of tax havens; fair trade; food sovereignty and security through small-scale agriculture; and the prohibition of patents on knowledge and living organisms and the privatization of water.

The remaining five are an in-depth democratization of international organizations; guaranteeing the right to information and the right to inform; the dismantling of foreign military bases; fighting for public policies against all forms of discrimination; and putting an end to destruction of the environment, especially in the area of climate change.

Another of the signatories, Walden Bello, the head of the Thailand-based non-governmental organization Focus on the Global South, had already argued that the WSF should be allowed to assume political positions, because it is not enough for the Forum to merely be an open space for debate.

Many activists and participating intellectuals would like to see the WSF choose three or four main themes at the most, in order to concentrate the global meet's efforts. They argue that such a broad range of ideas and proposals stands in the way of making the WSF more effective.

The WSF, however, is merely a forum, an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action against the neo-liberal, free-market economic model, that does not intend to be a body representing world civil society, says the Charter of Principles adopted by the WSF international council in June 2001.

Point six of the Charter clearly states that The meetings of the World Social Forum do not deliberate on behalf of the World Social Forum as a body. No-one, therefore, will be authorized, on behalf of any of the editions of the Forum, to express positions claiming to be those of all its participants.

Nor will the participants in the Forum be called on to take decisions as a body, it adds.

The WSF thus does not constitute a locus of power to be disputed by the participants in its meetings, concludes point six.

These principles clearly outline the nature of the WSF and protect it, serving as an instrument that has frequently been used by the organizers to withstand pressure.

It is the participating social movements, NGOs and activists who should join together in umbrella groups or networks to adopt decisions, rather than the Forum, the organizers argue.

The impact of the annual gathering that has brought together thousands of civil society groups since its first edition in January 2001 has grown enormously, although its significance is sometimes overestimated as a platform for catapulting social issues onto the global agenda, while overlooking the influence of the international United Nations (news - web sites) conferences of the 1990s.

It is an increasingly irresistible temptation to use the WSF's symbolic and mobilizing strength in the struggle to make another world possible (the Forum's slogan).

Success is becoming a poison that could deprive the Forum of the source of its innovative strength - its horizontal nature, lack of hierarchies and broad diversity of participants and experiences.

The failure to comprehend the nature of the WSF appeared in the proposal by Brazilian President Luiz Incio Lula da Silva to promote a dialogue between the Porto Alegre gathering and the World Economic Forum (news - web sites) held simultaneously in the Swiss ski resort of Davos.

That suggestion caused irritation in the WSF, which has neither leaders nor spokespersons who could take part in such a debate, since it is not an organization per se.

Although some members of the international council said it was possible to discuss the idea of participating in such a dialogue as the leaders of their own organizations, they added that it would be impossible to avoid appearing as representatives of the WSF.

It will also be difficult to maintain the unity of the Forum. A split recently occurred at the European Social Forum, which took place in London in October as a regional WSF meet. Disgruntled groups met separately, accusing local authorities and political parties of imposing rules by controlling the budget for the gathering.

Organizational decisions are not neutral. Although these social forums reject hierarchies and internal power disputes, the WSF international council and organizing committees are, in fact, scenarios of struggle.

It will not be easy, for instance, to decide whether or not next year's social forum of the Americas will be held in Venezuela, as President Hugo Chavez and his supporters would like, due to worries that the regional civil society meeting could be distorted by the appearance that it would be expressing political support for the Venezuelan government.

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