World Social Forum and Davos at the Crossroads

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As the ninth World Social Forum (WSF) came to a close last week in the Amazon basin, the simultaneous meeting of select business leaders and policymakers at the exclusive ski-resort of Davos, Switzerland, provided a sharp contrast between a spirit of vibrant public engagement and the mood of depression at the World Economic Forum.

Against the backdrop of the global financial crisis and economic recession, news agency Bloomberg described the meeting as the "grimmest Davos ever ", which was characterised by widespread finger-pointing and high-level walk outs. While the international government and business elite attempted to "Shape the Post-Crisis? World," progressive commentators criticised leaders at Davos for their failure to articulate proposals to counter dominant economic thinking based on consumer spending, debt and trade liberalisation, the very factors widely purported to be key contributing factors of the crisis.

In contrast to Davos, the participants at the WSF in Brazil articulated a number of proposals to promote economic and social justice and increase democratic participation in the world economy. Among them were plans to reform the United Nations along democratic lines, to levy a tax on international financial transactions, to end speculation on commodity markets and to shift international monetary reserves away from the US dollar. Other participants suggested that energy and food sovereignty for the poor, the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan, and the sovereignty of indigenous people must become a priority for governments in order to build a fairer system of global governance.

A number of Latin American leaders also preferred to attend the World Social Forum instead of Davos. Venezuela's Hugo Chavez, Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Bolivia's Evo Morales, Ecuador's Rafael Correa, and Paraguay's Fernando Lugo all attended the event on January 29th, and together criticised the economic orthodoxy of free-market policies, deregulation, and market-led growth. Rafael Correa suggested that activists could take inspiration from Latin America as an example of alternative economic systems in practice. In his key-note speech, Correa called for an "economy for the development of the majority of people."

Although widely acknowledging that the Forum has acted as a 'broad church' for the differing views of progressive civil society groups, many analysts state that the WSF remains limited as a true agent of political change, characterised by disorganisation and a lack of coherence. Other commentators criticise the Forum for its failure to offer new proposals as well as for a perceived bias towards social democratic and progressive Christian views. Some suggested that the organisers of WSFshould harness and steer the global justice movement into the political arena. Between the competing ideologies of "Davos vs Belem", however, few denied that the WSF can successfully facilitate a significant dialogue between the Global South and civil society - a dialogue largely free from blind adherence to outmoded economic ideology.