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World Social Forum

Marc Becker
The Monitor
February 9, 2005

Every year at the end of January, the world’s corporate and government elite gather under tight police security in the Swiss resort town of Davos for the World Economic Forum (WEF) to plot the future of corporate-led globalization. Five years ago, community organizers, trade unionists, young people, academics, and others began to meet in Porto Alegre, Brazil to rethink and recreate globalization so that it would benefit people.

From these humble beginnings, this alternative annual meeting called the World Social Forum (WSF) has grown into the world’s largest meeting of civil society. Stretching for several kilometers along the open spaces of Porto Alegre’s Guaiba riverfront, from January 26-31 of this year 155,000 participants from 135 countries joined together in 2500 activities in 11 Thematic Terrains under the southern hemisphere’s summer sun.

With the slogan “another world is possible,” the forum is filled with speakers, workshops, panels, debates, marches, and cultural events. The forum provides an open platform for activists to discuss strategies of resistance to globalization and to present constructive alternatives. Although hardly known or recognized in the United States, the World Social Forum has quickly grown into the most dynamic and important political event in the world.

The WSF has grown so large that it becomes impossible for one person to comprehend the scope and extent of activities carried out under its umbrella. Activists use this meeting to debate many different proposals and to launch various campaigns and actions. For example, a new campaign for a Currency Transactions Tax (CTT) attempts to stop currency speculation and redirect funds toward economic development.

A series of panels on “Breaking Down the Ivory Tower” examined the role of universities in the creation of another world. The discussions viewed relationships between scholars and social movements, moved to an examination of the role of academics in the struggle for social justice, and ended with the formation of a transnational network of scholars and activists to promote collaborative actions around common concerns. Another group of critical scholars held a series of informal meetings and created an activist-oriented research network.

Activists who have been involved in the organization of social forums in North America gathered to share their experiences and to chart directions for future action. Bringing a model of mobilizing civil society from the south to the heart of the empire is a fundamentally subversive and profoundly radical activity. It is precisely this attempt to smash capitalism, one organizer noted, that makes it so hard to organize a social forum in the United States. Nevertheless, activists hope to hold a United States Social Forum during the summer of 2006.

Alongside the main activities, 35,000 people gathered in the international youth camp. Some consider the youth camp to be the truest expression of the social forum. Participants dispose of hierarchy and privilege, as they work together in a common project to transcend race, class, and gender barriers.

At the edge of the WSF activities, 400 delegates from 100 Indigenous groups met in an “Puxirum of Indigenous Arts and Knowledge.” In the Brazilian Tupi-Guarani Indigenous language, Puxirum means “a joining of efforts for a common goal.” Their meeting ended with a declaration that “another world is possible, and we are part of that world.”

Although a broad range of issues and concerns drew activists to the WSF, the overriding theme was a confrontation of neoliberal economic policies and to stop the U.S. war in Iraq. This issue unified diverse activists from Brazil to Palestine to Korea. The enemy has a name, some participants observed, and that name is Bush.

Leftist Brazilian president Luis Inácio Lula da Silva came to the WSF to launch a Global Call to Action Against Poverty. The biggest celebrity to visit the forum, however, was left populist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. Packing to overflowing a huge sports stadium, Chavez strongly condemned neoliberalism and imperialism that takes resources away from the poor in order to benefit the wealthy. He framed his message as “the South stopping the destruction of the Bush doctrine.” If the enemy has a name perhaps so does the people’s champion, and for many people at the WSF that name would be Hugo Chavez.

Placing elected political officials at the middle of WSF discourse is rather ironic given that the forum began explicitly as a gathering of civil society that discarded state-centered solutions to social problems. Many activists, however, are rethinking the relationship between social movements and political parties. This has led back to an emphasis on the importance of the state in achieving fundamental social changes.

Next year the World Social Forum moves to a decentralized model with regional meetings planned for Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Americas. A hemispheric Americas Social Forum is scheduled to take place the last week of January in Venezuela. In 2007, plans call for another global meeting of civil society–this time in Africa.

Marc Becker teaches Latin American History at Truman State University and attended the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil at the end of January. More information from the forum is available on his webpage at

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