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World Social Forum: Back Seat Driver of Social Change

by Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO - The World Social Forum (WSF) is only "a tool" and must not be confused with the global movement for another world, says Chico Whitaker, one of the founders of this meeting which is celebrating its tenth year with a seminar to assess its track record Jan. 25-29, in its southern Brazilian place of origin, Porto Alegre.

In this photo released by Spectral Agency, more than a thousand indigenous from around the world create a human banner that reads in Portuguese 'Save the Amazon' and a silhouette of an indigenous warrior during a demonstration marking the beginning of the World Social Forum, in Belem, Brazil, Tuesday, Jan. 27, 2009.(AP Photo/ Spectral Agency, Lou Dematteis) It is a mechanism, "an instrument to unite people. The Forum will not change the world; it is up to society to do that, through a multifaceted global justice movement," added Whitaker, who rejects the label "movement of movements" for the WSF because it sounds too directive, like a political party.

Whitaker, an architect by training, has taken upon himself the mission of explaining the nature of the Forum and defending its Charter of Principles, written in 2002. For over five decades he has been a dedicated activist for social justice, and he represents the Catholic Church's Justice and Peace Commission on the WSF International Council.

In 2005 he wrote a book titled "O desafio do Fórum Social Mundial: um modo de ver" (The Challenge of the World Social Forum: a way of seeing), in which he expounded the principles and process of the international gathering of civil society, its development, its horizontal networking, and the "temptations" to revert to political pathways that have already shown their ineffectiveness and perversity.

The WSF's wider vocation, to open new ways and build unity in the movement for another world that embraces such a diversity of activists, is poorly understood, Whitaker told IPS. The tensions that exist within the Forum and its International Council themselves are caused largely by groups that defend the old ways.

Whitaker's assessment of these past 10 years is that, without being a direct player, the WSF has contributed to many advances, by promoting connections between movements. It deserves a share of the credit for the demise of the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA), promoted by the United States, as well as for the rise in indigenous consciousness in Latin America, which in Bolivia led to the election of President Evo Morales, the country's first indigenous president.

Thinking in the United States has changed since the advent of the WSF, and this will be reflected in the second national Forum, to be held in July in Detroit, a symbol of the country's way of life. And the WSF has also accelerated development of a "solidarity economy," Whitaker said.

Changing the world is the WSF's goal, without dictating "perfectly finished models, or a single strategy" as a fait accompli, while demanding changes "at all levels, including personal change," he said.

In his view, the series of multiple WSF meetings has allowed the spread of "a better understanding of this long process, which is more complex than was ever imagined."

The global financial crisis of the last two years, which originated in the United States, has opened new frontiers for analysis and political education of young people, by providing new examples to illustrate the tragedies of capitalism, he said.

Without indicating a particular model of the society of the future, and with no intention of taking state power to promote changes, the WSF has a vague and ingenuous motto, "Another world is possible." In traditional terms, this hardly holds out promise of a long-lasting movement.

Yet the annual international meetings of the WSF have mobilised multitudes of people, and national, local and issue-based initiatives have multiplied on every continent, establishing plural dialogue as a mechanism to foment movements and ideas. This year, 27 decentralised forums have been planned, with no central event.

There was a big increase in the number of young people attending the 2009 WSF in the northern Brazilian city of Belém, the eastern gateway to the Amazon. Out of the 150,000 participants, 64 percent were under 34 years old, and 81 percent were university students or graduates, according to a survey carried out by the Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Analyses (IBASE).

But over the 10 years there has also been increasing dissatisfaction among political activists possessing their own projects, utopias, movements or parties. In the light of the lack of concrete resolutions and action programmes, many complain that the WSF process has failed or run out of steam.

However, the founders of the WSF, especially those from Brazil, are reluctant to change it in that direction because they feel it would appropriate the role of the social organisations and become a political agent, like a party or a movement, negating the very nature of the Forum and its Charter of Principles with contradictory goals and strategies.

The disgruntled activists are critical, for example, of the Bahia Thematic Social Forum, to be held Jan. 29-31 in Salvador, the capital of the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, accusing it of being a government-led initiative rather than a civil society event.

This meeting, which is being supported by the national government of leftwing President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and the Bahia state government, will seek to promote dialogue between governments and society in Africa and Latin America, as well as reflecting and sharing experiences on issues arising from the powerful Afro-Brazilian influence in this state, such as culture and religion.

One of the main debating topics will be the development of the "new economy," based primarily on "intangible" goods like knowledge, which "do not compete" with each other, and "do not deplete stocks when they are used," but instead foster cooperation, said Ladislau Dowbor, an economics professor at the Catholic University of São Paulo who helped organise the programme of debates in Bahia.

For example, companies using cutting-edge technology to manufacture robots decided to set up a network to share knowledge, using open software, because they realised that "cooperation is more profitable" than sheltering their products behind patents, the economist said.

Nowadays "three-quarters of a product's value is not physical, like raw materials and labour costs, but is derived from knowledge." The social sector also has enormous weight in the economy, for example, health services in the United States account for 17 percent of GDP, he added.

All these developments are opening up spaces for cooperation and solidarity, Dowbor concluded.

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