Report from the World Social Forum

In mid-January, more than 80,000 global activists, scholars, Nobel laureates, poets, musicians, indigenous peoples, and community organizers gathered to declare once again, "Another world is possible!"
music, drumming, and celebration at the World Social Forum
Dance, music, drumming, and celebration at the World Social Forum

The occasion was the fourth World Social Forum (WSF). Held in Mumbai, India (formerly Bombay), it was the first WSF to be held outside of Porto Alegre, Brazil.

Imagine a setting like a giant state fair—only instead of pigs, pies, and amusement rides—the tents and halls hold seminars and workshops on pressing issues, the stages are alive with dancers, poetry, and plays, and the streets noisy with drumming, chanting groups of indigenous peoples and Dalits (the Indian “untouchable” caste). Now imagine this huge event with no advertisements for SUV's, designer clothes, or fast food—instead the signs call for campaigns to stop the privatization of water, make Tibet a zone of peace, and promote fair trade, not free trade.

Imagine such a space with no Coca Cola or Pepsi. (Activists and villagers in several areas of India claim Coke's bottling plants are drying up village wells and polluting rivers, and have launched campaigns that call Coke “unthinkable, undrinkable.”) Then imagine a space filled with raucous protests, vigorous debates, and exuberant celebrations where there are few if any security searches and the police are friendly and helpful. Imagine people of all races and classes, hot, tired, squeezed together in noisy, crowded streets, greeting each other with warmth and respect. Imagine all of that and you have imagined the fourth WSF, a space that not only declares another world is possible—it creates that world.

Not surprisingly, the current U.S. administration was a common target of protest. Participants universally condemned the U.S. military intervention in Iraq and the takeover of Iraq's economy and resources. Noted author and activist Arundhati Roy, called on participants to focus on “two major corporations that are profiting from the destruction of Iraq,” track down their offices worldwide, and shut them down. Despite the anger directed toward U.S. policies, I felt no hostility toward me as an American; everyone I met expressed gratitude for allies working within the “belly of the beast.”

Over the six days of the Forum, momentum built for a global protest march on March 20th—the first anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Participants clearly had in mind the success of the February 15, 2003, marches, which were called for at the November 2002 European Social Forum. That call was magnified at the third WSF in January 2003, generating the largest protest march in the history of the world, and earning global civil society the moniker of the world's “second superpower.”

The first WSF, in January 2001, was conceived as a counter to the corporate-led globalization agenda of the World Economic Forum held in Davos, Switzerland. But four years later, I heard no mention of Davos. The WSF has come into its own as a place where civil society can advance alternatives to the “neoliberal” agenda and strengthen the networks and movements to make those alternatives real.

The WSF is on a rapid-growth trajectory. The 80,000 participants from 132 countries at Mumbai dwarfed the 20,000 participants at the first WSF. At Mumbai, the 120-page tabloid-sized program tantalized participants with choices of over 1,200 events, up from 420 at the first WSF. What enables this vast offering is that the WSF itself puts on only a few of the events. For the rest, it provides an “open space” in which participants create their own workshops and cultural offerings, making them vibrant reflections of the hopes and concerns of people around the world.

Not only have the global gatherings grown, but over the last 18 months, regional social forums have burgeoned in Africa, Europe, as well as Asia and Latin America. This year, a Social Forum of the Americas is planned in Quito, Ecuador, in late July. And in early October, a Northwest Social Forum—which we at YES! are assisting—will be held in Seattle.

The end of the decade of massive UN-sponsored global meetings explains in part the growth of the WSF. The UN decade, which started so spectacularly with the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro and went on to include the 1995 World Conference on Women in Beijing, came to an end with the 2001 World Conference on Racism in Durban. The UN is not currently planning any more of the huge world summits. But the self-conscious identity that global civil society gained through those conferences is stronger than ever and is now finding expression in a space created not by a top-down global bureaucracy but by civil society itself.

Moving from Porto Alegre to India this year gave the Forum an even clearer position as civil society's premier global gathering. And with Dalits and adivasis (India's indigenous peoples), women's groups, gays and lesbians, and refugees declaring their right to live in dignity, human rights have joined the issues of corporate-led globalization and militarism as central to the WSF agenda.

In January 2005, the Forum will return to Porto Alegre. For 2006, the location is undecided, with many pushing for Africa. Others are asking that the Forum be held every other year to make more space for regional forums.

The growth of the World Social Forum and the flowering of regional forums has naturally brought controversy, even within the activist community. For some, the WSF's commitment to nonviolence makes it too tame; others feel the Forum's insistence on being a space and a process, but not in itself a source of common positions saps its potential for advancing collective agendas.

The controversy and the growing academic literature about the Forums are additional indications that these gatherings have taken center stage as the place where global civil society meets—to protest a disastrously unfair world order and to develop a more empowering vision. The Forums have become a living, breathing manifestation of an emerging planetary consciousness and the indomitable human capacity to imagine that—yes, another world is possible.


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