Published on
Deutsche Welle (Germany)

Social Activists Celebrate 10 Years of Flagship Movement

Ten years ago this month the World Social Forum (WSF) met for the first time to discuss ways of changing global order. A decade on, the movement is still going strong, but just how effective has it been?

Tamsin Walker

(photo by flickr user baltine)

The World Social Forum's slogan reads "Another World is Possible."
But exactly what form that world should take, is not stipulated in the
movement's charter of principles. While it is long on solidarity,
fairness, anti-globalization, human rights and the creation of a space
for reflective thought and democratic debate, it is noticeably short on

So what is the WSF really all about? Jackie Smith author of the book
"Social Movements for Global Democracy" describes it as a "movement of
movements," a "process" which aims to connect social forums and build
networks of people involved in pressure groups. And she believes it is
one of the most important political developments in recent history.

"It has mobilized millions of individuals in well over a hundred
countries," Smith told Deutsche Welle, adding that the WSF has
encouraged "popular discussion and debate as well as action to address
some of the most pressing conflicts of our day."

Global competition

One issue on the movement's agenda is the redressing of the poverty
balance. But Alec van Gelder, project director at International Policy
Network in London, says that while the WSF may have attracted attention
to the problem, its left-leaning principles will never solve it. 

"More and more countries around the world, whether they are left
leaning or right leaning understand that they're in a global
competition and the only way to win is to become more competitive," van
Gelder told Deutsche Welle.

Citing India as a case in point, he says there is a growing
understanding all over the world that a free-market economy is the
better way to tackle poverty.

"Back in 1991, it [India] was a series of catastrophic failures and
really there was no other option but to pursue a more liberal order,"
van Gelder said. "India is not exactly a free-market paradise but it is
unquestionable in which direction they are moving."

And that is fundamentally at odds with the goals of the World Social Forum.

From the fringes to the mainstream

But Hugo Braun, a member of the coordination council of the activist
group Attac Deutschland, holds that the past decade has proved the
movement is on the right track, and that some of the WSF's demands have
made it into mainstream political consciousness.

"The German chancellor, the US president and the French president
are talking about a financial transaction tax that we called for 10
years ago," Braun said. "And that leads me to believe we have put at
least one or two issues on the agenda."

Jackie Smith concedes that the WSF could have had a greater impact
on policies of economic globalization, but she says where the movement
has made the greatest progress is in the minds of the population.

She says it has helped people to imagine alternatives to the kind of
globalization being advanced by elites at the World Economic Forum
(WEF) in Davos.

What's a fair world anyway?

But critics argue that such talk is too nebulous, insisting
instead that if activists really want the fairer world they talk about,
there's no way around capitalism.

"Does a fair world actually mean that more and more people are able
to enjoy the fruits of economic development, have access to modern
technology like live-saving medicines, modern electronics, hospitals
and so on?" van Gelder asked.

"If you ask me what a free world is, that would certainly be a characteristic of it."

NGOs stealing the limelight

In honour of the 10th anniversary of the WSF, there won't be a
single convention as is usually the case, but a string of events spread
out over 12 months. This year, like last, many delegates will be from
non-governmental organizations. But that is not as innocuous as it
might sound.

The forum has come under fire in the past for allowing too many state-funded NGOs to attend.

"A lot of the NGOs gathering at the WSF are actually funded by
governments and their agenda is politically motivated one way or the
other," van Gelder said. "And that obviously becomes a problem."

He says the self-proclaimed non-governmental movement is actually
running to a Socialist agenda and is ultimately trying to achieve a
world-wide Socialist revolution.

For his part, Braun refutes the claim, insisting that while there
are certainly many Socialist-leaning forum participants, the WSF has
always remained true to its non-party identity.

"We have people of very different motivations, members of religious
and environmental groups," he said. "But what I think is so fantastic
about the forum is that there are so many different groups working
together to find possibilities for this undefined better world."

Editor.  Rob Mudge

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