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World Social Forum- the Background and the Way Ahead

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By Marvi Sermid

The World Economic Forum (WEF) is being held since 1971 in Davos, Switzerland by chief executives of transnational corporations and world financial institutions to chart the world economic agenda. WEF alongside the international financial institutions had been leading the world’s economic agenda without any democratic control since last two decades. Thence, the Davos Man has been shaping up the world – the world centered on capital and the men and corporations- who control it. Autonomy and independence for Davos Man was therefore, the autonomy and independence for capital. The principal for this autonomy was corporate globalization.

A product of capitalist patriarchy, this principal got itself amply reflected in structural adjustment conditionality of Bretton Wood Institutions, the biased and undemocratic rules of World Trade Organization and the neo-liberal economic paradigm in general. This resulted in treatment of biodiversity, life forms and genes/seeds as patentable intellectual property; natural resources like water as trade-able commodity instead of ecological common; GMOs, mad cows, bird flue, obesity instead of healthy and safe food. It goes without saying that menaces like religious fundamentalism, accentuation of violence, militarism, terrorism and war are a bye-product of this perverse system. These are but inevitable consequences of an economic system, which marks down people’s fundamental human and democratic rights, their basic needs and ecological security.

In Seattle in 1999 the paradigm and principal of corporate globalization was confronted by the citizens on global scale at the WTO Ministerial Conference. These citizens belonged to different parts of the world and different walks of life. The civil society at the global level, used non-violence and multiplicity as the basis of social political change to corrode the power of giant corporations and institutions that dish up big capital. On the other hand, these capitalist giants promoted violence, terrorism, inequality, coercion and anti-democratic processes, on which economic globalization was based, to counter any bid of citizens against them.

The emergent social movements backed by the global civil society based on pluralism, self-organization, solidarity and non-violence was writing a new chapter of history in which future was being fashioned by the unflinching struggle of people against power. And when the largest ever mobilization of people took place against war on February 15, 2003, the global civil society was acknowledged as second Super Power: the onset of a bipolar world order once again! With different connotation though.

At the World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil organized after Seattle and parallel to World Economic Forum in 2001, the world came across a new slogan resonating in social movements: “Another World is Possible”, which deposed the previous postulation that there is no alternative.

First World Social Forum (WSF) was timed to coincide with WEF in 2001 when its annual session was being held. It was the time when civil society groups gathered to hold a mass event to raise a potent voice against imperialist globalization augmented and led by forces of World Economic Forum. The WSF is thus seen as the counterweight to the propositions of WEF.

World Social Forum as is described in its Charter of Principles, is not an organization, not a united front platform, but “. . . an open meeting place for reflective thinking, democratic debate of ideas, formulation of proposals, free exchange of experiences and interlinking for effective action, by groups and movements of civil society centered on the human person” . The basis of WSF is anti globalization, anti neo-liberalism. One thread that runs across is the slogan, ‘another world is possible’.

World Social Forum was conceived as an international forum against neo-liberal policies and capitalist led globalization. It rummages around for providing a space for discussing alternatives, for exchanging experiences and for strengthening alliances between social movements, unions of working people and civil society groups.

The decision to hold the Forum in Brazil was significant. Brazil has been one of the countries affected greatly by the neo-liberal policies. On the other hand, different segments of Brazilian civil society have been resisting these policies in rural and urban areas, in factories, political parties, churches, schools etc. this richness of Brazilian civil society’s experience provided a source of inspiration for the evolution of WSF.

Porto Alegre, a city situated in the southern most province of Brazil led by a pro-left government, was headed by a progressive city mayor who supported greatly the holding and development of such a Forum in many ways.

The first WSF in 2001 saw the participation of more than 50,000 people representing approximately 800 organizations and parties. Keeping in view the success, the level of participation and the content of the Forum impacting capitalist patriarchal powers, it was decided to make the Forum an annual event. Second WSF was even larger event, which saw the participation of some 75,000 people from 150 countries. The third Forum in Jan 2003 showed similar trend of evolution and growth and the participation rose to approximately 100,000 people representing more than 1500 organizations parties. Then comes this year’s WSF organized out of its birth place for the first time. WSF 2004 held in Mumbai, India was participated by more than 140,000 from across the globe.

It is important to note that prior to the WSF Mumbai, the WSF process had sparked action at continental, country and more expanded local levels.

The birth of Asian Social Forum, African Social Forum, European Social Forum, South Asian Social Forum, Sub Saharan and Asia Pacific Forums, and more recently Brisbane Social Forum in Australia, Pakistan Social Forum and various state level Social Forums in India are but few examples. These events have generated coverage by local media in Pakistan, India, Brazil, Australia, Africa, Asia Pacific, European countries and among independent media sources in the United States. As this idea and process continues to evolve and grow, it will become very hard for the corporate media around the globe particularly in USA to ignore it.

The process of WSF led the global civil society to Mumbai early this year on January 16 where WSF 2004 started with all its fervor and zeal, to conclude on a mass rally on 21st January, 2004. With chants and innovative slogans, the beats of drums, the chortles and chugs, activists from across the world began pouring into Nesco Grounds, Gorey Gaon, East Mumbai – the venue of WSF 04, on Friday morning Jan 16th. Expectations about what the WSF had to offer to the participants, varied from region to region. So too, the messages they were bringing in to share with the rest of the world. Voices from Asia, for instance, were hoping to find support for local issues and those that had international relevance. One of the most brash in the opening ceremony was the rally of about 300 Pakistani activists who turned up the tempo at the venue with their collective chants against globalization, WTO and last but not the least, in support of Paki-India people’s friendship.

From then onwards, following four days saw a variety of events discussing diverse issues involving assorted audience and speakers. Ranging from seminar on “Globalization from Below” by South Korean group; the rally by Tibetan group to raise voice against the forced detention of world’s youngest political prisoner, the eleventh Panchan Lama, Gendhun Choekyi Nyima of Tibet by Chinese Government; number of seminars on nuclear non proliferation and against threats of war by European groups; on African woes, HIV/AIDS, alternative solutions of neo-liberal policies, “Africa is not for Sale” by Africa Social Forum; democracy in Burma; Emerging Reproductive and Genetic Technologies; Water Resources; Corporatization of agriculture, Globalizing democracy and democratizing globalization; Neo-humanism – an ecology of oneness; organizing women workers; etc. alongside 800 more seminars on issues equally important were going on simultaneously during these four days.

Pakistan’s participation in the events was divided among 2-3 organizations that led their independent delegations making the total participation from Pakistan at about 1000. The dominant contingent among them was of Pakistan Social Forum (PSF) comprising hundreds of civil society organizations from all over the country, political parties, media persons, academicians, intelligentsia, professionals, women, laborers, peasants, farmers, and youth. PSF had more than 700 people from four provinces and the federal capital. The issues raised ranged from democracy, anti globalization, ownership rights, labour rights, child rights, women’s human rights, more specific issues included invasion of Gwadar Port by corporate transnational corporations, status of women’s political participation in South Asia, ‘Violence Against Women’, Gender and Development, process of social change in Pakistan etc. It was conspicuous presence and strong participation of Pakistan Social Forum that made International Committee of WSF to urge PSF to host next South Asian Forum in November this year. It is hoped that Pakistani civil society will not hold back this time around and will show utmost solidarity and conviction that not only another world is possible, but another South Asia is possible too.

The Forum was concluded on an impressive rally that started from Agust Karanti Ground, walked through the streets and roads of Mumbai for two and a half hours to culminate at Azad Maidan on concluding ceremony attended by more than 100,000. It was a treat to hear Shobha Mugdal singing Faiz Sahib’s “lazim hey ke hum bhi dekhen gey”, Asma Jehangir in her usual gusto and Sindhi group of folk singers singing Ho Jamalo to colossal frenzy of people present there.

The striking feature of WSF 04 remained the South Asian touch that the change of venue provided to the Forum. Most potent of the voices came from Dalit and other regional movements to add to the richness of the WSF, which was hitherto dominated by the European factor. Another strong element was the cultural part of the Forum that allowed the delegates to watch 300 cultural events comprising theatre performances, music concerts, film screenings, dialogues, monologues etc. These were in addition to the rallies from different regions and groups including local cultural element of that group.

Most important to mention here is the reference to the messages that went from WSF 04 to WEF. First one is the name itself: WSF revolves around people and the society while WEF gives prime importance to corporations and capital. The second message is that of self organizing of thousands of groups as opposed to the system of organizing of WEF which is controlled by the capital. The third message to Davos is peace and non-violence. Violence is both the means and end of an economy based on economic dictatorship and militarism. Non-violence is both the end and means of people’s choices.

The future of this Forum, however, would depend upon how maturely its saturation point is dealt with. The talk of town during Mumbai Forum was about reaching its maximum expansion. All the four Forums exceeded all the expectations attached to them as regards people’s participation. When the decision was first taken to hold it in Porto Alegre, Brazil as an alternative meeting to the Davos, almost 10,000 people were expected to attend it, while 50,000 came. In the preceding years the participation increased in every Forum till the Mumbai Forum to involve approximately 140,000 people. But the point that should be kept in mind is that numbers don’t matter, what matters is to assess whether they are contributing to the realization of Forum’s founding conviction that another world is possible.

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