World Social Forum 2009: New Pathways and Opportunities

Leandro Morais - 26 February

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The ninth World Social Forum (WSF) took place in January 2009 in Belem, Brazil. There were many hopes for this year’s Forum, including the expectation to raise its international visibility and mobilisation potential. IDS Masters Student, Leandro Morais gives his insights on the key issues discussed at Belem and the challenges faced by the Forum in moving from a space of diversity to one of convergence as well.

A critical juncture

From 2001-2004, the WSF successfully consolidated itself as an innovative network of left social movements and organisations worldwide to confront the neoliberal agenda. Since 2005, however, the movement has been unable to articulate its goal of society transformation within the new international scenario of political and economical relations. This has constrained the WSF’s influence (especially since Porto Alegre, 2005) and left it at a critical juncture. Belem, was expected to enable the organisations involved to forge ahead with an effective counter approach capable of raising previous levels of mobilisation.

Pillars for discussion :’crisis of civilization’, indigenous protagonists and the Palestine cause

The so-called ‘systemic’ or ‘civilization’ crisis crosscut almost all discussions at Belem. Debates highlighted the profound crisis of the capitalist system based on the unprecedented crises in the global economy, environment, and governance (especially in multilateral organisations); militarisation and immigration. Under this framing, many discussions focused on central issues, such as: • cancellation of foreign debt in developing countries • justice and climate change • migration policies and rights • labour, xenophobia and human rights • racism • gender • re-appropriation of cities and urban policies, and • media power and communication democracy.

The outcomes of these discussions raised critiques and challenges of the current (mainstream) global system of economic and social organisation, due to increasing forms of commoditisation, emphasis on over-consumption and mainstream policies of development.

Belem 2009 saw the emergence of indigenous and other traditional communities as important protagonists in this process of dialogue, highlighting the value of indigenous livelihoods and culture for alternative social development projects. It also highlighted the challenges indigenous groups often face in getting their rights realised as part of the state’s process of recognising its multi-ethnic and –cultural nature. For the first time, indigenous and other traditional communities from many Latin American countries actively participated in the WSF`s activities, organising, in the same week, the Pan-Amazon? Forum.

Also important were discussions on the increased militarisation of international relations and the impacts of this. The situation of ‘populations without state’, such as the Palestine and Kurd causes, were top issues for mobilisation and debate. Activists and related organisations (such as the Stop the War Coalition) called for the WSF to give increased attention to these issues.

Science and Democracy: a new issue for reflection and debate

Of the many new initiatives and activities organised in connection with Belem 2009, the achievement of the pre-forums deserve special attention, particularly the first Science and Democracy World Forum. (Pre-forums were organised on Science and Democracy, Health, Education, Alternative Media and Culture.)

The Science and Democracy pre-forum involved a considerable number of social organisations and academics in the field of science and society, and encouraged a broad debate on the goals and roles of scientific research and technology in the structure of the capitalist system. Recognising that the values of scientific communities are shaped by and rooted in historical and cultural processes, the participants called for changes in the present context of research and development, ‘there is a need to change the present situation where the interests of the market, corporate profits, the consumer culture and military uses are the main drivers of research, technology and innovation.’ (Science and Democracy Forum`s Declaration). The Declaration also highlighted the importance of re-appropriation of social control in this area, through the involvement of citizens in decision-making processes on Science and Technology policies. Additionally, participants agreed to have regional forums on Science and Democracy in January 2010 to prepare for WSF in 2011.

Belem 2009: a new approach

The 2009 WSF represented a turning point in the Forum`s history, moving it from not only a space for sharing experiences and building alliances to a space for strategic reflection of the role of social movements and civil society organisations in the current context of crisis.

A new methodology of work was put in place in Belem, encouraging participant organisations to set up Thematic Assemblies, with the aim of articulating common understandings and concrete commonalities in their field of work. Also, it established a Convergence Square, a space to announce activities related to scheduled Thematic Assemblies. This helped to disseminate information about work by various organisations, and agreed proposals and strategies. It served as place for organisations` mutual knowledge, which could lead to establishing new alliances. Finally, during the last day, the proposals of each Thematic Assembly were read in the Assembly of Assemblies.

Most of the Assemblies faced difficulties in organising themselves and many of them resulted in general political statements. Others proposed agendas and concrete actions. For example, the Assembly of Social Movements offered a comprehensive package of future actions. Its final Declaration included a Global Week of Action against Capitalism and War from March 28 to April 4, 2009, covering mobilisations against the G-20 meeting, a Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People to promote boycott, disinvestment and sanctions against Israel and mobilisation for the 60th Anniversary of NATO; a Day for Food Sovereignty; Global Mobilisation of Struggle for Mother Earth and ‘common goods’, against colonisation and commodification of life; the Global Action Day for Climate Change Justice; and traditional days of mobilisation (Women and Workers Days, for instance).

Belem 2009 – continuity or rupture?

Eric Toussaint (member of the Committee for the Abolition of Third World Debt and of the WSF International Committee) suggested that, ‘participant organisations combined an analytical evaluation of the current context of crisis with principles and proposals to forge ahead the inherent paradigms of the capitalism structure.’

In its first paragraph, the Declaration of the Social Movements Assembly stresses that ‘anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-capitalist, feminist, environmentalist and socialist alternatives are necessary to surpass the current crisis’. This was the result of negotiations between two main groups: those in favour of neo-Keynesianism and those supporting a rupture from the notions of economic progress, consumerism and commoditisation of everyday life that have framed recent developments in capitalism. The outcome of the negotiations was an explicit statement by the participant organisations to support a rupture.

However, questions still remain. To what extent will the agenda be implemented? Will the WSF sustain this momentum during the coming years? This evaluation will be crucial, given that the WSF does not have an appropriate structure to coordinate global actions: outcomes depend on voluntary efforts of organisations and social movements and their power of mobilisation at the local and regional level. Also, if the agenda has a potential to attract interest for mobilisation worldwide, it is important to highlight that the current crises may limit actors` actions as their capacity has been significantly affected.

The future role of the World Social Forum is under dispute by different sectors of political segments around the world, and many have tried to downplay its potential role. Nevertheless, I believe that now is the time to reinforce the importance of its role. In the context of a ‘civilisation in crisis’, the WSF has filled a ‘blank’ in this global agenda, unable to present convincing alternatives to solve current problems. The controversies of the old debate regarding strategies of ‘reform’ or ‘revolution’ between the left were not solved in Belem. However, Belem 2009 demonstrated a clearer commitment to match theoretical convictions with practical challenges in an attempt to devote efforts towards a more unified strategy of action. By bringing new impulses toward collective mobilisation, Belem 2009 revealed the strategic importance of the WSF for the Left around the world, while it also showed a continued spirit of diversity, dialogue and mutual respect that have shaped this space since 2001 in a struggle for ‘another world’.

Leandro Morais is a Masters Student at the Institute of Development Studies.