World Social Forum:
15,000+ in Brazil Demonstrate
Power of Growing Movement
by Soren Ambrose 50 Years Is Enough Network
50 Years Is Enough newsletter, April 2001
The movement for global economic justice didn't begin at the
Seattle WTO meetings, but the protests there were a pivotal moment,
often described as the movement's "coming out party."
Similarly, the World Social Forum held at the end of January in
Porto Alegre, Brazil was hardly the first conference of activists
and intellectuals concerned about economic globalization. But
it was the biggest (so far), and the first explicitly dedicated
to bringing together the many forces of the international movement
that is attracting so much attention m the media, and stirring
up so much fear in the circles of power and wealth.
For that reason, "Porto Alegre" began to assume
a symbolic meaning even before the start of the Forum (rather
like "Seattle")-a reference to the convergence of grassroots,
labor, gender, environmental, political, and faith-based activists
from every country of the world who are mounting a vigorous, uncompromising
challenge to the unchecked expansion of neoliberal economics and
corporate privilege that so recently seemed invincible.
The content of the Forum almost didn't matter; the only truly
important thing was that some 16,000 people (including nearly
2000 journalists) had come to southern Brazil to talk about alternatives
and propel the movement forward. At those moments when participants
were trying to decipher the schedule, or were looking for rescheduled
or relocated workshops, or finding that no translation into their
language was available, reflection on the historical significance
helped soothe frustrations.
Everyone experienced such moments in Porto Alegre, but nearly
everyone recognized that they were inevitable in such an unprecedented
undertaking. Far more common were the epiphanies and revelations
in meeting people from other countries who shared common motivations
or provided information or insights previously unimaginable. And
as at any conference, more of these moments seemed to occur in
the hallways and at lunch than at the planned workshops.
Which is to take nothing at all away from the Forum's program
or organizers. The Forum was a massive undertaking, and they managed
to keep over 10,000 people productively occupied, with a minimum
of serious snafus.
The Forum attracted about ten times the number of participants
originally predicted. It drew many "top names" from
the international progressive movement (which is not to focus
on personalities, but on the visibility and credibility attached
to the events they attend). It staged sixteen plenary sessions,
about 400 workshops, nightly concerts, a dozen or so "testimonies"
by the big names (e.g. Eduardo Galeano, Cuahtemoc Cardenas, Jose
Bove), and was the occasion of countless informal caucuses and
millions of networking opportunities.
It all happened between January 25 and January 31 in the city
of Porto Alegre, not far from the border with Uruguay. I'll confess
that I'd never really registered the existence of Porto Alegre
before hearing about the World Social Forum, despite its 1.3 million
people. Porto Alegre is now firmly on international activists'
map as the home of one of the most innovative and successful socialist
municipal governments in the world (led by the Workers Party-the
PT, in its Portuguese acronym-f or twelve years). The state of
which Porto Alegre is the capital, Rio Grande do Sul, has been
governed by the PT only since 1999, but it has already adopted
Porto Alegre's popular budget process (in which citizens determine
budget priorities in public meetings). The local governments provided
significant support to the Forum, and the setting was itself a
tremendously instructive model for those who must regularly argue
that alternatives to neo-liberalism are indeed feasible.
This particular place, then, was a very appropriate one for
a conference with the slogan "Another world is possible."
At the closing ceremony, about 50 delegates from around the world
gathered on the stage to answer the question "Is another
No one replied in the negative -how could they, with such
abundant evidence of vibrant movements for justice and freedom
in all parts of the world? But among the many profound responses
to the question, perhaps my favorite (and certainly no bias should
be inferred!) was that given by 50 Years Is Enough Network Director
Njoki Njoroge Njehu, who said "Not only is another world
possible, but in fact it is already here, as we can see from the
fact that so many of us from so many parts of the world have connected
to share experiences and make plans here at the World Social Forum."
That response, I think, both acknowledges the accomplishments
and momentum that the international movement for justice has succeeded
in creating, and tells us that even as we succeed, it will always
be up to us to continue making a better world a reality: it is
not some far-off nirvana in which we will be able to simply relax,
but the result of continuing work, continuing communication, and
constant solidarity. The other, better world in many respects
looks and feels like what the participants in the World Social
Forum experienced: good will among people from hundreds of different
places as they work together creatively.
The 50 Years Is Enough Network ended up with a high profile
at the World Social Forum. In addition to her appearance in the
closing plenary, Njehu also chaired one of the 16 plenary sessions
and did dozens of media interviews (I did a few as well). Her
most visible contribution, however, came not from a scheduled
part of the forum but from an appearance in a televised "debate"
with participants in the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland-the
30-year-old annual meeting of corporate chieftains and politicians
which the World Social Forum was designed to counter. The debate,
conducted live by means of a complex satellite link-up on January
28, featured a dozen World Social Forum participants and four
from Davos, including the head of the United Nations Development
Program (UNDP) and billionaire currency speculator George Soros.
In addition to Njehu, the participants from Porto Alegre included
two members of the 50 Years Is Enough South Council -Walden Bello
of Focus on the Global South and Trevor Ngwane of South Africa's
Alternative Information and Development Centre-plus representatives
of Brazil's main, progressive labor confederation (the CUT), the
leader of Via Campesina, the international association of landless
peasants, and Fred Azcarate of Jobs with Justice (with whom we
work closely in the U.S.).
Njehu challenged the UNDP to straightforwardly call for an
end to the structural adjustment programs advocated by the World
Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its head, Mark
Malloch-Brown, the former chief public relations officer at the
World Bank, declined to do so, instead attempting to shift the
conversation to the intricacies of debt relief programs. She also
attacked the "UN Global Compact" which has invited corporations
like Nike and Shell to declare themselves defenders of human rights,
a process Njehu called "bluewashing." Soros agreed with
her, and took up the term himself. Because the debate was broadcast
live in Porto Alegre, Njehu became an instant celebrity both at
the Forum and on the streets of the city.
We led three workshops- one on the World Bank bonds boycott,
one on North-South solidarity activism, and one on the mobilizations
for 2001. 1 also participated in a workshop on the World Bank's
information disclosure policy, which is coming up for a review
this year. We were able to hear a range of Southern perspectives
at our workshops, and what we heard has gone a long way in shaping
the plans for the September mobilization(at the fall meetings
of the IMF and World Bank in Washington, from September 28 to
Of course at an event as big as the World Social Forum, there
is so much going on that you are bound to miss 75% of it no matter
what. We never got to see the youth camp, where thousands of people
were debating and staying up all night and making music. And in
the same facility was a related conference of legislators from
around the world, but we never heard the results of it, nor did
we have much opportunity to talk with the people attending it.
We heard also that there were some organized protests and letters
accusing the Forum organizers of squelching the perspectives and
contributions of some of the more radical attendees (but not having
seen the letter, cannot really really comment further).
The best news of all is that Porto Alegre has agreed to host
another World Social Forum next year, again at the same time as
the Davos meetings. The idea is to make this an annual event,
and, eventually, to see it move to other locations in the Global
South. Many suggestions were made for future sites, but only Porto
Alegre could reasonably commit to 2002. Presumably work is now
underway to find a location in Africa or elsewhere for 2003. Since
many of the attendees remarked on the low turnout of organizations
from the U.S., we would suggest that some or our readers in the
U.S. start making plans to spend the last week of January 2002
in Brazil !