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Is another world possible?

The incongruity of thousands of protesters marching down the streets of downtown Montreal with banners criticising capitalism and claiming that ‘another world is possible’ was not lost on Chico Whitaker, one of the co-founders of the World Social Forum (WSF). Speaking at a workshop the day after that inaugural WSF rally, Whitaker asked, “Why would someone who lives amidst the comfort and abundance of this city want ‘another world?”

There was a three-fold answer to this rhetorical question at the open platform of the 12th WSF, which took place in Montreal from August 9 to 14. Firstly, ecological limits make replication of ‘first-world’ lifestyles on a planetary scale unviable.

Secondly, capital driven globalization – which has shaped geo-economics for over three decades – has led to extreme disparities of income and wealth with the 1% of people now controlling more than half the world’s assets.[1]

Thirdly, there are forms of innovation based on ‘glocal’ solidarity that offer answers to the problems generated by the dominant model of globalisation, which is seen to serve the interests of corporations and the 1%.

The WSF process, involving a loose network of political action groups, NGOs, and trade unions spread across the world, has been ahead on all these three fronts of the global mainstream discourse, climate change being an example.

In 2001, when official forums of power were almost ignoring the threat of climate change, the first WSF gathering, at Porto Allegre, Brazil, was clamouring for urgent climate action. It took governments 15 years to come up with a unanimous climate agreement, at the Paris climate summit in December 2015.

The Montreal event showed that the WSF was again ahead of the curve by challenging the Paris climate deal for being too little too late and demanding a fairer deal for the nations of the south. System Change Not Climate Change (SCNCC), a coalition of US and Canadian ‘ecosocialists’, had a large presence at the Montreal WSF.

Similarly, from the very first WSF in 2001, its votaries’ advocacy of ‘fair trade’ rather than ‘free trade’ has also been borne out. Prevailing trade and intellectual property regimes are partly responsible for concentrating wealth in the hands of 1% of the world’s population.

Fifteen years ago, social enterprise, solidarity economy and sharing economy were concepts only visible within the NGOs and political action networks that gather at WSF. Today social enterprise is a mainstream phenomenon. Solidarity economy, based on networks of co-operation among small and medium producers or entrepreneurs, is drawing more energy than ever before.

What can policy makers and the private sector learn now from the ahead-of-its-time creativity on display at the WSF? This is a particularly worthwhile exercise since a three-decade phase of globalisation seems to be faltering, where sections of the working class and middle class in many countries see themselves as the ‘have-nots’ of globalisation.

Ironically, the divisive power of national borders was conspicuous at the WSF in the form of missing participants. Of the 15,000 people who had registered online to attend the event, about half were from outside Canada, but only a few thousand were able to attend. According to the host team, the Canadian government rejected visa applications from about 70% of those who wanted to attend the WSF – mostly those from Asia, Africa and Latin America. So even though votaries of creative, experimental alternatives were therefore limited mostly to North America, the emerging picture was still interesting.

At the radical end of the spectrum were advocates of governments, putting interest-free loans into circulation — to ensure greater dynamism at all levels of the economy. This demand goes along with advocacy of local community currencies to complement national currencies.

Such currencies, sometimes known as Local Employment Trading Systems (LETS) or Time Dollars, can be found in a nascent stage in North America, Europe and Australia. By facilitating more exchange of goods and services within a town or cluster of towns, such local currencies prevent some of the surplus from being drained from the local economy to the national and international centres of capital.

Since the prevailing model of globalisation is driven by the Northern nations, these creative challenges within those societies are deeply significant. Empowerment of the local economy is also being promoted in diverse other ways in the South, as evident from the endeavours of Vikalp Sangam in India.

Then there were many sessions on fostering a ‘Solidarity Economy’ in which people run enterprises based on co-operation rather than competition with others in the local economy. For example, Protec-Terre, a company operating in Quebec, forms land trusts for those who want to farm, but cannot afford to buy their own land. The land trusts are used by individuals or collectives to grow food – which is often marketed through a mechanism known as Community Supported Agriculture (CSA). A CSA enables consumers to become shareholders of a farm, paying in advance for a whole summer’s stock of fruits and vegetables. Again, the end result is that more of the surplus generated stays within the local economy. What once seemed like a creative niche is gathering momentum, with China hosting an international gathering of hundreds of CSA practitioners in Beijing in November, 2015.[2]

Terra Perma, another Canadian business present at the WSF, caters to the growing interest in the ‘tiny homes movement’ – which began in the USA after the crash of 2008, when people found they could no longer afford their large homes. However, in part, the ‘tiny house’ is also a choice that some people are making as they opt for voluntary simplicity, another growing trend which is more widely reported in the Northern countries, but traces of it are evident across the world.

Of all the organisations present in Montreal, the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) and Via Campesina may have the largest global footprint. WFTO, an extensive global network, estimates that fair trade is now annually worth about six billion euros. Across the world, fair trade goods have moved from niche shops to being available at major retailers.[3]

Via Campesina was founded in 1993 by farmers’ organizations in Asia, Africa, Europe, North America and Latin America in order to oppose the increasing control of agriculture by large corporations. This network claims to have set up agroecology schools around the world to enhance the skills of small farmers.[4] According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), about 500 million family farms are responsible for about 56% of global agricultural production.[5]

When the WSF first began it was held in the same week as the World Economic Forum (WEF), where the world’s business leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland. There was reportedly even a tele-conference link between the two forums at the first WEF. The time has come to make another attempt at a dialogue between the two realms.

Clearly a new form of globalization is required and neither protagonists of the WSF nor WEF can forge it alone.

Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.

This article was exclusively written for Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. You can read more exclusive content here.

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[1] ‘Oxfam says wealth of richest 1% equal to other 99%’, BBC News, 18 January 2016, <http://www.bbc.com/news/business-35339475> (Accessed on 18 August 2016).

[2] ‘Report from the CSA Farming Conference in Beijing’, Urgenci, The International Network for Community Supported Agriculture, 19 February 2016. <http://urgenci.net/report-from-the-csa-farming-conference-in-beijing/> (Accessed on 18 August 2016).

[3] Dalvai, Rudi, ‘The Metamorphosis of Fair Trade’, Fair World Project Magazine, (Fall 2012) pp. 7–8 <http://fairworldproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/FWP_Fall_publication_2012__Page_08-09.pdf >

[4] Hoff, Dena, ‘Peasant Agriculture can feed the world and cool the planet’, speech delivered at World Social Forum, Montréal, 10 August 2016. <https://tv.viacampesina.org/WSF2016-Peasant-Agriculture-can?lang=en> (Accessed on 18 August 2016).

[5] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, ‘Family Farmers: Feeding the world, caring for the earth’, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, (2014), <http://www.fao.org/docrep/019/mj760e/mj760e.pdf> (Accessed on 18 August 2016).