By Zubeida Mustafa
LATER this month — from March 24 to 29 to be precise — Karachi will play host to an international gathering that will be a phenomenon not experienced before in this city. This will be the World Social Forum (WSF) that, according to the organizers, is expected to draw a crowd of 30,000 of whom 10,000 will be foreign participants.
It is not so much the size of the gathering — the 2004 Forum in Mumbai had attracted 130,000 people — but the concept and motive of this meeting that gives it such an exciting dimension.
The WSF was first organised in Porto Alegre in Brazil in 2001 by eight Brazilian civil society organisations which described it as an “open democratic space for debates of ideas and multiple and plural reflections on the development of alternatives” to the neoliberal policies, imperialist behaviour and globalisation that we are witnessing today. It is designed to be an antidote to the capitalist thrust that has come in the wake of the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the socialist bloc.
The World Economic Forum held in Davos every January since 1971 has been perceived as a gathering of the world’s corporate and government elite — in the words of the Financial Times of London, ‘the masters of the world’ — to plot the future of corporate-led globalisation at the expense of the poor. The WSF was conceived as a counterweight to the WEF and to vindicate the conviction of the architects of the WSF that another world is possible. This alternate world is planned to be anti-imperialist, based on the solidarity of the people and on social justice.
As the capitalist forces began to gain momentum — the launching of the WTO in 1995 symbolised their strength — the forces of resistance emerged in different corners of the globe. The turning point came in 1998 when a proposal for a multilateral agreement on investments being discussed behind the scenes in the OECD was exposed. It would have, if signed, taken away decision-making power from elected governments and transferred it to unaccountable private corporations.
Given the dangers inherent in it to democracy, civil society organisations joined hands to defeat it. The same year the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC) was set up in France to promote measures to help citizens regain control over their political, economic, social and cultural life which was falling under the influence of the financial sector.
Later in 1999, the WTO’s summit in Seattle was scuttled by massive demonstrations by protesters from all over the world. At the time, it seemed that the dangerous march of a globalised neoliberalism could be stopped by creating resistance against it on a social level. After the first WSF ‘edition’ in 2001, a meeting has been held every year in January to coincide with the annual meeting of the WEF.
The issues which come up for debate and for which alternative strategies are discussed are diverse and inherently have a bearing on the poor. The proposed themes of the WSF at Karachi indicate the wide scope of the subjects to be covered. From imperialism, militarisation and armed conflicts the issues range to control of natural resources, trade, social justice, state and religion, development strategies, women and patriarchy and environment.
This year it was decided to make the WSF polycentric — that is, it was to be held in three places. Bamako (Mali) and Caracas (Venezuela) were the venue of the forum in January. Karachi’s moot was put off until March because of the October 2005 earthquake in the north. The idea of spreading out the gathering was to make it less unwieldy as it was in danger of becoming.
The participation had been going up and rose from 2,000 in the 2001 WSF to 155,000 last year. Hence the idea of dispersing the meetings was a sensible one. It has made the forum more accessible as has its unstructured format that is not hierarchical. There are scores of meetings, workshops, symposia and talks held simultaneously and participants can drift from one to another. The informal ambience gives the WSF a carnival-like atmosphere where people gather to express their views, to protest and to celebrate. It is like a people’s mela.
But appearances can be deceptive. The fact is that behind the light-hearted singing and dancing, the feasting and merrymaking at the street stalls, the bright and colourful atmosphere, the protest marches and rallies, and the serious discussions there is a process at work. There is a discourse and the rethinking of issues taking place while a bonding of ties and networking of activists that is also at work.
It has been suggested that the WSF should become a movement of all the participating movements to make the forum a deliberative world parliament. It would have a global structure. Its proceedings would consist of participatory politics. It would operate like a workers’ international or a radical democracy.
But these suggestions may not offer an ideal solution to the economic and social problems the poor face. Reforming its operation and structure is the minor issue. Thus Michael Albert has suggested that an effort should be made to emphasise the holding of local forums. Beginning at the town level which should form the foundation of the next tiers — country, continent and the world forum — the WSF should seek to entrust the decision-making of the local events to a locally determined leadership which should choose the leadership for the next higher level and so on. Although this would create a hierarchy to which many have objected, it seems to offer the only feasible option.
The bigger debate, however, centres on the strategy and content of the ‘alternative world’ that is sought to be created. The issues that have been raised are: should governments and political parties be allowed to participate; how should vital agendas be addressed collectively to allow a considered approach to emerge; will the alternative world emerge in the framework of a capitalist system? The WSF has many critics and they are not just from the Right. The WSF is criticized for being unrepresentative, disorganised and with no realistic agenda or strategy.
But the main objection that has now been voiced is that many of those seeking a change do not know what they are looking for. Naomi Klein, the author of No Logo who attended the first forum, writes, “After a year and a half of protests against the World Trade Organisation, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, the World Social Forum was billed as an opportunity for this emerging movement to stop screaming about what it is against and start articulating what it is for.” President Chavez of Venezuela where the WSF was held in January also expressed the same fear when he appealed for a serious political discussion and the need for direction.
Will it be possible for the WSF to evolve a direction to which the oppressed people of all continents will agree? The Forum is basically a collective of a large number of anti-systemic movements that are not seeking power within the modern world system but are in quest of a more democratic and egalitarian world. But the WSF has so far failed to formulate “a vision for an alternative to neo-imperial-liberalism” that is the need of the day. Even the socialists couldn’t do it when they were in power.
Hence the WSF will have to content itself by providing the open space — as well as moral support — to all the movements working for change. How each of them brings about this change will have to be determined by the leaders and participants of the struggle in different regions of the world.
If the WSF is to retain its vitality and dynamism it cannot sustain itself indefinitely on a negative diet of protests and demonstrations. Each chapter must evolve a plan of action to build an alternative system. Of course the moot at Porto Alegre, as it is planned for every other year, could provide the participants the opportunity to compare notes and draw moral strength.