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 world possible?"

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 October 4).

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 !

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