A Year in the Life of the World Social Forum

By Walden Bello*

This article was written for Interpress Service [IPS] on January 14, 2003. Copyright by IPS. Special permission to reproduce it was given to Focus on Trade.

On January 23-28, thousands of people from all over the world will converge on Porto Alegre, Brazil. The pilgrims will include African landless peasants, Filipino trade unionists, Palestinian liberation fighters, indigenous people from all over Latin America, and large delegations of civil society activists from India, North America, and Europe. The occasion is the World Social Forum (WSF).

This year's gathering, the third in a row in this city of 1.3 million, acquires special significance owing to the recent resounding victory of Luis Inacio da Silva, better known as Lula, in Brazil's presidential elections. Lula is the prime mover of the Workers' Party (PT), one of the organizational mainstays of the WSF.

The WSF or "Porto Alegre process," as it is also called, has become the prime organizational expression of a surging movement against corporate-driven globalization. Since the events of September 11, 2001, it has also acquired a strong anti-war dimension, and opposition to the US design to launch a war on Iraq is expected to dominate this year's proceedings.

The Porto Alegre phenomenon has had its share of critics, even among progressives. One prominent American intellectual has characterized it as a gathering mainly of people who want to "reform" globalization. Another has blasted it as a forum dominated intellectually and politically by Northern political and social movements.


These criticisms have not, however, deterred the WSF from drawing widespread adherence globally. This year, some 100, 000 people are expected to show up, up from 75,000 in 2002 and 15,000 in 2001. Perhaps, the reason is that it fulfills three indispensable functions for the anti-globalization movement.

First, it represents a space-both physical and temporal-for this diverse movement to meet, to network, and, quite simply, to feel and affirm itself.

Second, it is a retreat during which the movement gathers its energies and charts the directions of its continuing drive to confront and roll back the processes, institutions, and structures of global capitalism.

Third, Porto Alegre provides a site and space for the movement to elaborate, discuss, and debate the vision, values, and institutions of an alternative world order.


2002 was marked by an expansion and deepening of the WSF. Indeed, this year's meeting will be the culminating point of an exciting year-long global process. A number of cities, including Buenos Aires and Caracas, have held Porto Alegre-style social forums. It was, however, the regional social forums that were the exciting innovation of the year. The European Social Forum (ESF), held in Florence, Italy, on November 6-9, 2002, drew over 40,000 people, more than three times the expected number. Even more amazing was the ESF-sponsored million-person march on 9 November against the planned US war on Iraq, which took place with not one of the incidents of mass violence that scare mongers like Italian journalist Oriana Fallaci had predicted.

Equally impressive was the recently concluded Asian Social Forum (ASF) that took place in the historic city of Hyderabad, India, from January 2 to 7, which drew over 14,400 registered participants, mostly from the host country, though there was representation from 41 other countries.

The atmosphere was electric from the first day of the event. During almost every minute of the five-day marathon, drumbeats and chants of mini-rallies filled the air at the Nizam College grounds, the main site of the conference. There, and in around 40 other sites throughout the city, 18 conferences and plenary events, 178 seminars and workshops, a youth camp, and scores of cultural presentations took place. Topics included resistance to the World Trade Organization (WTO), Dalit (outcaste) rights, the threat of fundamentalist movements, women's empowerment, food sovereignty, big dams, the Palestinian struggle, natural resource theft, and alternative economics.

Militant struggle against militarism was the note on which the peoples' gathering began, with Nora de Cortinas, co-founder of the Argentine human rights group Madres de Plaza de Mayo, telling the opening plenary on January 2 that "We must not allow the US to launch its war on Iraq."

Opposition to the "venom of communal hatred"[C was emphasized by Mehda Patkar, head of the National Alliance of Peoples' Movements, who called for the formation of a broad people's coalition against the government-supported fundamentalist forces responsible for the recent slaughter of over 2000 Muslims in Gujarat state.

Resistance to globalization was the clarion call of former President of India K.R. Narayanan at the outdoor rally closing the event. "We want the world to be one but not globalized, ruled by one country," he stated. "The world is pluralistic and will remain so." Narayanan characterized the "voice being raised at the ASF" as a "voice for human rights, against violence, and against imperialism, and it is only right that it has come from India because it was India that sounded the death knell for an empire on which the sun was never supposed to set."

As was the case with the ESF, the ASF had its share of logistical mishaps like non-functioning sound systems and workshop sites that took hours to find. Like the ESF, too, the ASF had its share of friction among the groups that put it together. The ASF was stitched together in less than a year by what noted Indian activist Minar Pimple characterized as a coalition that was "one third Gandhian socialists, one third left political parties, and one third independent organizations and individuals."

Given the fragmentation of the progressive movement in both Europe and Asia, however, that the ASF and ESF came together magnificently in the end was a stunning achievement. ASF participant Nancy Gaikwad of the Oppressed People's Movement summed up many people's feelings when she said, "This is the first time in a long, long time that this has happened in India, for people from different political streams to be able to work together on a common platform."


Indeed, one of the main reasons the Porto Alegre process is gaining such momentum is precisely that is provides a venue where movements and organizations can find ways of working together despite their differences. While the usual ultra-leftist groups remain defiantly outside it, the Porto Alegre process in Brazil, Europe, and India has brought to the forefront the common values and aspirations of a variety of political traditions and tendencies. The Porto Alegre process may be the main expression of the coming together of a movement that has been wandering for a long time in the wilderness of fragmentation and competition. The pendulum, in other words, may now be swinging to the side of unity, driven by the sense that in an increasingly deadly struggle against unilateralist militarization and aggressive corporate globalization, movements have no choice but to hang together, or they will hang separately.


As thousands of people converge on Porto Alegre in the coming week, there is another development that is equally significant. Since Seattle, the anti-corporate globalization movement has attained a critical mass globally, in the sense that its ability to assemble forces at significant junctures, such as the December 1999 Seattle WTO ministerial and the July 2001 Genoa meeting of the Group of Eight, enabled it to impact on international developments and acquire a high ideological and political profile globally. Yet being a global actor did not necessarily translate into being a significant actor at the national level, where traditional elites and parties continued to be in a commanding position. Over the last year, however, the movement has achieved a decisive majority at the national level in a number of countries, most of them in Latin America.

Not only has espousal of neoliberal policies been a surefire path to electoral disaster, but political parties or movements promoting anti-globalization policies have achieved electoral power in Ecuador and Brazil, joining the Hugo Chavez government in Venezuela at the forefront of the regional anti-neoliberal struggle. Perhaps most inspiring is the case of Luis Inacio da Silva, or Lula, in Brazil, who won 63 per cent of the presidential vote last October. Lula is the prime figure in the Workers' Party (PT) and, as everyone knows, the Workers' Party is the main pillar of the WSF.

Not surprisingly, many of those trekking to Porto Alegre this year will be coming with one question uppermost in their mind: What can the victory of Lula and the PT teach us about coming to power in our countries?

Many personalities of the international progressive movement are slated to come to Porto Alegre. By far the most interesting, most popular, and most sought after will be Lula, the personification of the new Latin American left. And this year's meeting will be, in many ways, a celebration of a movement that, by achieving a remarkable measure of political unity amidst diversity, has changed the face of Brazilian politics.

*Walden Bello is professor of sociology and public administration at the University of the Philippines and executive director of the Bangkok-based Focus on the Global South.

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