While Seattle's 1999 WTO protests provided the most visible rejection of the global corporate agenda, the World Social Forum is its most determined and thoughtful adversary. Conceived as a counterforce to the elite World Economic Forum held annually in Davos, Switzerland, the World Social Forum picks up where Seattle left off by providing the setting for activists to create alternatives to corporate dominance. Last month, my son Reed and I, along with Reed's friend Grant, made the trek -- with 100,000 others -- to the latest forum (the fourth) in Mumbai, India.
Mumbai (formerly Bombay), the third-largest city in the world, was a most suitable venue. Although I knew that extreme poverty is common worldwide, I was struck viscerally by the vast multitudes of people -- half of Mumbai's 18 million inhabitants -- living in lean-tos along noisy roads, amid dark, noxious air. More than a billion people worldwide -- mostly in the largely invisible "global south" -- live in desperate poverty.
Former World Bank chief economist Robert Stiglitz explained at the forum that the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund directly contribute to worldwide poverty. Indian activist Vendana Shiva noted the drive to turn basic public goods such as air, water and seeds into commodities to be controlled and sold to the highest bidder.
The economic agenda was not the only issue discussed. Government repression (in Burma, for example) was examined in workshops and demonstrations as was discrimination based on gender, race, sexual orientation or caste. The presence of Dalits, the "untouchables" at the bottom of India's elaborate (and technically illegal) caste system, reminded us that basic human rights are far from universal. Regional issues such as so-called honor killings, dowry practices and children's rights were also discussed. Jabala, a group that works with children in red-light districts, led a rally with the chant: "Aloo becho, machchi becho, par bachchon ko mat becho" ("Sell potatoes, sell fish but don't sell children"). Thousands of children are inducted into the sex industry every year.
Throughout the four-day gathering, labor groups, human rights advocates, anti-war campaigners and others conducted boisterous processions accompanied by dancing, sign brandishing and drumming. Minutes after our arrival we found ourselves sandwiched between Tibetan monks protesting China's occupation and Dalit marchers, both groups proclaiming their demands in the universal language of speaking truth to power.
Along with rallies, films and photography exhibits, delegates had organized scores of workshops, seminars, information-sharing sessions and debates. I attended the "Democratization of Information with a Focus on Public Libraries" workshop with Finns, Russians, Indians, French and an Australian woman now living in Cambodia who is working with GPS and other digital technology to document the war crimes of the Khmer Rouge.
Although the U.S. government was singled out for criticism (primarily for its invasion of Iraq), we were pleased that the animosity did not extend to U.S. citizens. On several occasions, in fact, we were offered solidarity from people who realize the particular challenges faced by activists in the United States today.
The genius and the power of the WSF to increase society's "civic intelligence" is unprecedented. Delegates from more than 130 countries discussed strategies, areas of mutual concerns and opportunities for collaborations based on newly discovered links between issues. Regional social forums are springing up, including one planned for the Pacific Northwest in October.
Throughout the forum, Reed and Grant digitally documented the vibrant ambience. Every face, encounter and issue was alive with urgency and possibility. For me, looking through their eyes, ending militarism, oppression and environmental brutality seemed attainable.
Attending the WSF makes one appreciate the enormity of the world's problems. On the other hand, one cannot help but feel some cautious optimism. Co-existing for those few days with tens of thousands of dedicated people working to create the "another world" that the forum's slogan proclaims "is possible" was deeply inspirational for all of us.
Douglas Schuler lives in the Puget Sound region.
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