The World Social Forum in Montreal next week is a reminder that long before nationalistic opponents of globalization started to rise, votaries of a more equitable form of globalization already held centre stage. In December 1999, a landmark protest by advocates of pro-people and pro-environment policies made history by disrupting the ministerial meeting of the WTO in Seattle.
International media ascribed this immense protest action the label ‘anti-globalization’, and dismissed the activists for merely offering complaints absent solutions. Oded Grajew, a Brazilian businessman, was among those who felt the need to correct this misrepresentation of the protesters’ concerns.
Grajew, along with Chico Whitaker, a Brazilian architect and social activist, and Bernard Cassenan, editor of the French monthly paper Le Monde Diplomatique, thus conceived of a World Social Forum (WSF), envisaged as an open platform for showcasing and sharing diverse perspectives and methods for the kind of globalization that would promote social and economic justice alongside ecological sustainability.
In January 2001, 4000 social activists, academics, farmers, labourers, politicians, and business people from 120 countries assembled at Porto Alegre, Brazil, for the WSF’s inaugural meeting. Among those who gathered were: advocates of local economy revitalisation, organic farming, the protection of tribal societies, and of technologies that would cause less social displacement and ecological destruction. The organizers emphasised that the WSF was to act as a platform extending beyond any binary divide between left and right wing. From the outset the WSF served to counter to the World Economic Forum in Davos. Some of those attracted to the WSF platform have sought to bring down global corporations, while others have worked to reform them, but all have agreed on one key slogan: ‘another world is possible’.
Fifteen years later, the 12th WSF has an updated rallying call: ‘Another world is needed, together it is possible’. Apart from the five times that the WSF has been located in Brazil, it has been held twice in Tunisia, and once each in India, Kenya and Senegal. In 2006 the WSF was held simultaneously across three locations in Mali, Venezuela and Pakistan. While civil society organizations from ‘developed’ countries have always been part of WSF, this is the first time that the WSF is being held in a country of the North. This is a signal of the growing unrest within populations of rich countries about the extent to which money and power is now concentrated in the hands of less than one percent of people globally.
“There are countless alternatives that flourish locally around the world to build communities that are more cohesive and respectful of the human being and considerate towards the limits of the planet” says the invitation to the Montreal WSF. The gathering in Montreal is pitched as an attempt to to bring together agents of change from both North and South to jointly explore how globalization can serve those who have few assets and a tiny share of global income.
Tackling this enormous task will fall under twelve themes, including, among others, ‘Democratization of Knowledge and Right to Communication’, ‘Culture of Peace and Struggle for Justice and Demilitarization’, ‘Struggles against Racism, Xenophobia, Patriarchy and Fundamentalism’, and ‘Migration, Refugees and Citizenship Without Borders’. Thus the agenda centres not on anti-globalisation, but rather the forging of solidarity on common causes across national borders and ethnic identities.
Votaries of the WSF see it as a process rather than a conference or counter-summit at which consensus is reached on a specific plan of action. The lack of tangible results is one reason why coverage of the WSF among international media has been skimpy. Indeed the forum can come across as a jumble of ideas and enterprises lacking in structure. This will still be the case on 9 August, when over 50,000 people are expected to take to the streets of Montreal for the inaugural WSF rally, carrying banners asserting gender rights, labour rights, protection of the environment and indigenous peoples, calling for fair trade and much more.
In the heyday of business-driven globalization, there may have been some justification for policy makers, corporate leaders and media to dismiss the WSF as irrelevant. But as the globalization of the last two decades unravels, it is imperative that think tanks, media, and policy makers listen to the voices raised at the WSF. Not because this platform will deliver the final word on anything, but because it is a window to the diverse world-views that reaffirm the inevitability of globalization as the operating system of the 21st century, and has ideas on how to make it work in practice for people and planet, not just profits. Among the ideas up for discussion at WSF are:
- ‘Basic Income, a Major Social Innovation for the 21st Century’,
- ‘Education for all: from dream to reality’,
- ‘From Africa to the Americas: women fight for their rights’.
Why these topics matter is best articulated by Garjew, who, apart from being a co-founder of the WSF, is also one of the founders of Brazilian Association of Businessmen for Citizenship, as well as the Ethos Institute of Business and Social Responsibility: “Another world is possible when you make the first step the social, not the economic. The economic as a tool for the social; not the people being a tool for the economic.”
Rajni Bakshi is Gandhi Peace Fellow, Gateway House.
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