WSF: Is Another World Possible?

The recently concluded World Social Forum is a
good gauge for assessing the state of the world's alternative social,
economic and political movements. Organized in 2001 as a counterpoint to
the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of global and corporate
elites held in Davos, Switzerland, the WSF brings social movement
organizations and activists from around the world together around the
idea that "another world is possible." If Davos represents a failed
globalization from above, the WSF represents an emerging globalization
from below. It's a massive affair--this year more than 100,000 people
gathered here for the five-day event. Part political convention, part
carnival, part countercultural happening, the WSF serves as the center
of gravity for the global justice movement that emerged in the late
1990s to contest corporate globalization.

The question on the minds of many was how to respond to what some call
the "crisis of crises"--the economic, climate, political and cultural
catastrophes that have engulfed the planet--and whether social movements
can provide a unifying alternative vision for a better world. Economist
Walden Bello of Focus on the Global
summed it up: "There is a sense of urgency and seriousness
combining both pragmatism and principle. There is much less rhetoric.
Things are taking place very fast outstripping what many predicted.
There is a clear collapse of neo-liberalism. We have been triumphant
over Davos.... Now we need alternatives and must get down to the hard
work of creating them."

Why Belem?

Even before the economic crisis broke, Belem was chosen as this
year's site to highlight environmental threats. Located sixty miles from
the Atlantic on Guajara Bay in the Amazon estuary, Belem is no
stranger to environmental conflicts or to impact of globalization.
Originally built as an outpost of the Portuguese empire, it served for
centuries as a gateway to Amazonia and shipping point for the region's
natural resources. Today it is a port of call for container ships
picking up aluminum, iron ore, lumber and other riches of the

According to climate change activist Oscar Reyes of Carbon Watch, the selection
Belem was appropriate: "The deforestation issue is connected into
the global negotiations and essential to dealing with climate change.
The threat to the Amazon--an area that contains half the remaining
rainforest in the world--is not primarily from small-scale
deforestation, it's pulp mills, mining, cattle, soy, and agrifuels. You
can make sense of that in Belem where these are real and live

Hard economic times and the remoteness of the location skewed the
turnout this year--the vast majority of the participants were from
Brazil and Latin America--but there were still healthy contingents from
every continent. While most of the 5,808 participating organizations
were from Latin America, about 1,600 were drawn from the rest of the
world, including 491 from Europe, 489 from Africa, 334 from Asia and 155
from North America. In addition to the rank-and-file participants, the
presidents of Brazil, Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay also made

The WSF also chose to highlight the Amazon's indigenous people. Their
attendance was not a folkloric touch: in marches and other events,
indigenous participants demanded that their concerns be addressed and
that their struggle for cultural survival be part of the global justice
movement. From their perspective, the "other world" the WSF envisions
must include space for those who have made a different pact with

This forum carried on its tradition of logistical chaos. The 2,310
"self-organized seminars" and other events were spread out over two
university campuses along the banks of the river about a mile and a half
apart and a few miles from the center of the city. Some participants
complained of spending more time ferrying back and forth between
campuses in taxis, buses and on a flotilla of old riverboats than they
did in meetings.

The global economic meltdown made the Belem forum different from
previous ones. The WSF and the global justice movement were formed in
the expansive phase of globalization; now they must adapt to global
economic contraction and impending environmental disaster. This year's
participants know that they were right about the failure of
corporate-led globalization, but they also know that just saying no is
no longer adequate. The prospects of a global wave of
beggar-thy-neighbor currency devaluations and destructive trade policies
in response to the crisis and the revival of virulent nationalism loomed
over the discussions. Many wondered if what was once dubbed the
"anti-globalization movement" could produce a global response based on
global solidarity.

Impacts of the Global Crisis

There was general agreement that the economic meltdown is spilling over
national borders, but it is unfolding at a different pace and in varied
ways across the world.

Gautam Mody ,of India's New Trade Union Initiative, told The
that "given the sheer number of irregular workers, most on
contract, in India the crisis is as yet invisible...but millions of
these workers have been pushed off the shop floor." These layoffs go
largely unrecorded and workers receive no benefits. And Kjeld Jacobsen,
of the Social Observatory in Sao Paulo, said that despite obvious signs
that the crisis will rival that of the 1930s, "it's still hard to
convince some workers of the severity of the coming crisis because it is
just beginning."

In continental Europe, the crisis is still dubbed the "financial
crisis," an indication that it is not yet being felt in the so-called
"real economy" of everyday life. Bruno Ciccaglione, an Italian trade
unionist, told us that "in the US the crisis helped to delegitimize the
political class and particularly the Bush administration. But in Europe
many of the governments that were very weak before the crisis--like
Sarkozy in France, Brown in the UK and to some extent Berlusconi in
Italy--came out stronger as a result of their economic packages and
solutions, so the delegitimization of the political class for the moment
has not occurred. But it will as the crisis moves into the real
economy." The current strikes in France in response to large-scale
layoffs are an indication that things are changing fast in Europe, he

There is also widespread worry in Europe over a possible right-wing
backlash. Norwegian political activist Asbjorn Wahl explained why: "We
have strong right-wing parties in many European countries, including my
own country where they get almost 35 percent of the vote--and about that
much of the working-class vote. If we don't come up with good
alternatives that address people's needs, we may see that grow. It's a
race between the right and the left, and at the moment, and for the last
ten years, the right is gaining more. We have a history of the right
taking over during in a crisis in Europe."

A recurrent theme in many of the discussions was that elites could use
the crisis to reinvent capitalism in new and insidious ways. And many
from developing countries raised concerns that the emerging crises piled
onto to the longstanding crises of global poverty, migration and access
to basic human needs like healthcare and clean water could have a
devastating impact.

Networks of Networks

The World Social Forum has played an essential role in the
"post-Seattle" world (a reference to the 1999 confrontation between
anti-globalization activists and the World Trade Association) by serving
as a center of gravity for a movement comprised of a diverse array of
organizations, each with its own issues, agendas, programs and
constituencies and with a global geographic spread. The WSF has been an
incubator for the creation of many successful advocacy networks focused
on specific issues related to labor, trade, finance, migration, the
environment, human rights, poverty and alternative economic
organizations. But there has been limited interaction among these
networks. The networks remained "trapped in their own silos," in the
words of one forum speaker.

That changed this year. A major push for "cross-network
convergence"--creating networks of networks--dominated much of the
discussion, and could mark a new stage in the global justice movement's
development. French activist Ameile Cannone, of the Seattle to Brussels Network,
described it this way: "The context is different; we face a global
crisis, people have decided to put that at the center of their
activities. It's a real opportunity to work across networks, a great
first step to start working on climate, labor and development issues I
don't think it would have been possible before and for us this is really
a good step."

There is a great deal of work to be done. For instance, the discussion
in Belem among labor organizations demonstrated that they have
still not found ways to integrate action on climate change--something
that will change the way their members live and work--into their daily
strategies and practices. Indeed, the climate issue rarely came up in
debates about labor's future, but when pressed most acknowledged it as a
critical trade union issue.

It was also clear that environmental activists need to develop a better
understanding of the effects of climate change mitigation on employment
if they are to build lasting alliances with unions. Only a few trade
unionists attended the climate change network meetings and only a few
climate change activists attended the labor gatherings. But those
exchanges are likely to increase as a result of actions taken in

G-20 and Copenhagen

Amid the usual anti-capitalist boilerplate, the closing statement of the
eacute;m Forum
, says: "The challenge for the social movements is to
achieve a convergence of global mobilization. It is also to strengthen
our ability to act by supporting the convergence of all movements
striving to withstand oppression and exploitation."

Two upcoming events will test this new commitment to "convergence:" the
G-20 Economic Summit, to be held in London at the end of March, and the
climate treaty talks, to be held Copenhagen in December. There is a
general sense that these events offer a crucial opportunity for popular
movements to mobilize and make their voices heard.

As for the future of the World Social Forum, it remains a flawed but
essential institution of global civil society. Critics believe it has
become too big and unruly--a carnival rather than a political gathering.
It is not a setting for serious policy debates. And there has always
been tension between those who would push the forum to be more of a
social actor and those that want the forum to remain an "open space" for
building relationships and sharing ideas. On her way home, Haeyoung
Yoon, of the New York-based CAAAV
Organizing Asian Communities
as well as the Grassroots Global Justice Network,
reflected on this tension: "The Social Forum has to be different. It
should be an open space, but a partisan open space." Finding that
balance in a time of crisis will be difficult.

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