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World Social Forum

by Marc Becker

Over 100,000 activists from all over the world gathered in Mumbai, India from January 16 to 21, 2004 for the fourth annual meeting of the World Social Forum (WSF). The forum provides a space for social movements to discuss alternatives, exchange experiences, and strengthen alliances in a struggle against neoliberal economic policies. Delegates debated a broad variety of issues including those of economic globalization, military imperialism, land rights, racism, gender, labor, and the media.

Globalization is one of the main topics of discussion at the WSF. Advocates of neoliberal economic policies argue that a privatization of government services and a reduction of trade barriers will lead to economic growth. Opponents contend that these polices have resulted in a dramatic increase in inequality between the rich and the poor. Joseph Stiglitz, a Nobel laureate and former advisor to the Clinton administration and chief economist at the World Bank, told participants at the forum that neoliberalism results in political instability due to an erosion of workers’ earnings. These policies must be modified in order to assure a protection of social security systems and worker rights.

Other speakers disagreed with Stiglitz that a reform of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was possible, asserting that an abolition of capitalism was necessary to lead to economic progress and social justice. For example, Trevor Ngwane from South Africa argued that “only the struggle of the oppressed to overthrow capitalism will end oppression.” Ngwane pointed to the important role of the WSF in forwarding alternative visions to capitalist systems that place profits before people. Capitalism is antithetical to democracy, Ngwane contended, because it removes power from the people.

A second major theme of the WSF is a rejection of imperialism and militarism. Writer-activist Arundhati Roy called the Bush administration’s war and occupation of Iraq “the culmination of both neoliberalism and imperialism” and urged participants “to become the resistance in Iraq.” She urged activists to identify corporations that benefit from the war and to use the unified power of an organized civil society to “shut them down.”

The first meeting of the WSF was held in Porto Alegre, Brazil in January 2001 to provide an alternative to the World Economic Forum (WEF), an invitation-only annual gathering of corporate CEOs and trade ministers who travel to the Swiss resort town of Davos at the end of January every year to plot the future of corporate-led globalization. The open spaces for civil society that the WSF creates provide a dramatic contrast to the exclusive and closed door meetings in Davos where elites plan the future of neoliberal economic policies.

Moving the forum for the first time from South America to India changed some of its flavor. Gone were the Che t-shirts that were ubiquitous in Porto Alegre, replaced instead with an emphasis on such issues as castes including the rights of Dalit (untouchables) and Adivasi (Indigenous peoples). Next year the forum returns to Porto Alegre, and organizers are contemplating holding the 2006 forum in Africa. In the meantime, a regional meeting of the Americas Social Forum will be held this summer in Quito, Ecuador.

The WSF grows out of what some term an anti-globalization movement, but in reality it provides an alternative and positive example of globalization that benefits people rather than corporations. The WSF champions the power of civil society, which some have termed “the world’s second superpower.” Much more than what it opposes, the WSF is marked by what it affirms. Under the slogan “Another World is Possible,” it presents (as stated in its Charter of Principles) “an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society that are opposed to neo-liberalism and to domination of the world by capital and any form of imperialism, and are committed to building a planetary society directed toward fruitful relationships.” Sometimes termed a “movement of movements,” the WSF empowers civil society in its struggle for social justice.

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