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Dying, or More Alive than Ever?

There are plenty of prophets of doom foretelling the death, or at least a deep crisis, of the World Social Forum (WSF), based on reports about organisational problems and a great fall in numbers at the 7th WSF, held in Nairobi in January

(by Analysis by Mario Osava, Inter Press Service)

Some champions of the WSF, in contrast, tend to exaggerate its alleged triumphs, such as a decisive contribution to the election of left or centre-left governments in eight Latin American countries, and the inclusion of social issues on the international agenda.

But this global gathering of civil society, first launched in January 2001 in the south of Brazil, could not have had the influence attributed to it on the political current now sweeping the region. The Latin American leftist movement arose from processes that are now decades old, when grassroots and social movements swelled the leftwing electorate.

The first WSF in Porto Alegre also took place after the major United Nations conferences on the environment, human rights, social development, population, women, habitat, and even the U.N. meeting that approved the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which mobilised tens of thousands of heads of state, diplomats and experts between 1992 and 2000, giving civil society delegates a major voice in the discussions for the first time.

The usual critics of the WSF, for their part, are forgetting the recent history of diversification, or fragmentation, of social and political movements, which destroyed the monopoly enjoyed by trade unions, the class struggle and political parties in fighting the injustices of capitalism, and added various forms of discrimination and inequalities to be battled.

The WSF is a response to the need to overcome the dispersal of the diverse initiatives and efforts that make up society, and to make international connections between them, without using traditional mechanisms of representation via elections or unions. It is developing new ways of doing politics and creating a more participative kind of democracy.

Thus, the WSF may change its methods, how it organises its meetings and even its name and its key ideas, but global civil society will no longer be able to do without a forum for representatives from all over the world to articulate and energise their struggles, exchange experiences and reflect together.

The WSF is a new actor on the world stage. Its organisational style is diffuse, but at particular moments it can reach a consensus that has mobilising power, such as the 2003 demonstrations against the war in Iraq. It is here to stay, and it plays a role in democratisation. And it is searching for the best ways and means to empower participants and get their voices heard.

The civil society meeting arose out of opposition to the World Economic Forum, and proved that it met a need by gathering a mass following, promoting wide debate and spawning new international networks and campaigns, as well as local, national and regional meetings. But there is nothing permanent about its present shape, let alone its uniqueness.

There are pressures to convert it into a political instrument that would adopt resolutions and action plans.

Many activists and even members of the WSF International Council are calling for decisions and action, arguing that the current formula is causing immobility. At the 2005 WSF in Porto Alegre, a group of 19 prominent intellectuals tried to change the WSF's course, by proposing a "Consensus Manifesto" and inviting people to sign it. But it fell by the wayside.

As an open space for free dialogue between civil society movements, without any hierarchy and fully respecting diversity, as its Brazilian founders intended, the WSF can absorb dissension, opinions and proposals of all kinds. The participating organisations and movements are free, and encouraged by the forum context, to unite and mobilise around common proposals.

Francisco Whitaker, one of the founders, defended this methodology in his book "Desafío do Forum Social Mundial: um modo de ver" ("The World Social Forum Challenge"). He stood up for the Charter of Principles which have defined the WSF since 2001 as an "open meeting place for democratic debate," not a representative nor a deliberative body, that is against the use of violence and neoliberal globalisation.

But the ambition of the WSF to strengthen connections and mobilise civil society in order to build "another possible world" implies huge challenges. Press coverage of the mega-forums declined sharply once the initial novelty wore off, so a different way of communicating with the people of the world is needed.

Less than 50,000 people came to the Jan. 20-25 WSF in Nairobi, barely half the number of participants in each of the previous four years, and half the expected number for this year.

The high registration fees limited attendance by poor delegates from Kenya, fueling criticism of elitism by those who want to make the meetings more accessible so as not to continue to reproduce social inequalities.

But surveys have shown that three-quarters of the participants at the January forums are university students or graduates, indicating that they are indeed an economic elite.

This is the reality, caused by long and costly journeys and the fact that participants are mainly from the third sector (civil society, non-profit and voluntary organisations).

The WSF International Council decided to postpone the next global meeting until 2009, given the difficulty of self-financing annual gatherings. This has added impetus to its would-be epitaph writers.

Instead, in January 2008, major protests will be held around the world during the World Economic Forum, the annual meeting of the global financial and political elites in Davos, Switzerland.

An even greater challenge for the WSF is to overcome the chaotic degree of diversity of its debates. There were 1,200 seminars, panel discussions, dialogues and rallies at Nairobi: too many, although they were half the number held at previous forums. This indicates that the connections focusing actions and programmes are still not strong enough.

The ideal number would be about 500 different events, according to Cándido Grzybowski, another Brazilian coordinator of the forum.

In spite of -- or because of -- the variety, there is a lack of overall, holistic vision, and several struggles are being carried on in parallel.

Environmentalists, for example, feel themselves to be "peripheral" to the WSF process, in spite of the urgency of the issues they espouse, and have developed their own ways of international networking.

In addition, little attention is paid to the political and economic viability of the many proposals and causes, in spite of the slogan "Another World Is Possible."


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