Published: Friday, February 27, 2009 Bylined to: Odeen Ishmael

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World Social Forum urges solutions to pressing global concerns

VHeadline commentarist, Guyana's Ambassador to Venezuela, Dr. Odeen Ishmael writes: During the final week of January, the world's attention was focused on the discussions of political and business leaders at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland. But as they debated issues surrounding the global economic crisis, a much larger World Social Forum (WSF) of social, political and environmental activists convened in Belem do Para in northern Brazil also to consider the same issue as well as other pressing global concerns.

Significantly, five South American presidents — those of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela — stayed away from Davos to make their appearance at the Belem forum.

The WSF, generally viewed as "left oriented," was established in 2001 as an initiative to counter globalisation as well as an alternative to the Davos forum. Since then it has drawn participation from civil society groups worldwide. While the two global forums have trended towards different agendas, this year they both concentrated their attention to the financial and economic meltdown engulfing all regions of the world. Unlike the Davos forum, this 9th WSF involved a wider participation of activists of all social and political hues, including those opposing the Iraq war, third-world debt, capitalism, genetically-modified food, deforestation, global warming, the WTO, IMF and World Bank, Israeli occupation of Palestinian land, arms sales, poverty, discrimination and a host of other issues.

The choice of Belem, at the mouth of the Amazon River as this year's WSF venue was apparently deliberate. It was meant to emphasise environmental and climate issues, as well as social concerns especially with the participation of the poor Amerindian communities living in the Amazon Basin, the world's largest tropical forest and freshwater reserve. Indeed, there were intense discussions on the problems of climate change and environmental protection including the conservation of water resources.

Although its organisers viewed this year's gathering as both a political and organisational success, there was criticism that poor planning prevented the more than 120,000 participants representing social movements and NGOs to discuss at length their proposals to find solutions to the economic crisis and other global setbacks.

Despite the organisational problems, the forum drew from the numerous discussion groups a wide range of ideas and issued a final declaration which urged strong mobilisation of NGOs and other civil society groups to defend the livelihood of people across the world in the face of the critical economic situation. The declaration urged governments to nationalise banks and not to reduce salaries at enterprises hit by the economic downturn. Other demands included the provision of energy and food sovereignty for the poor; the withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq and Afghanistan; sovereignty and autonomy for indigenous peoples; the right to land, decent work, education and health for all; and the democratisation of media and knowledge.

Differing from Davos, the Belem forum mapped out a series of actions to highlight global economic, political and environmental problems. These will include a week of demonstrations and other activities from March 28 to April 4 to press for urgent measures to alleviate climate change. Demonstrations are also planned during the G-20 summit of industrial and emergent economies scheduled for April 2 in London. The organisers of the WSF also expect Argentina and Brazil, which are G-20 members, to voice the forum's demands at that summit for positive reforms of the IMF, the World Bank and the WTO.

And in an expression of concern over the plight of the Palestinian people, March 30 is expected to see manifestations aimed at imposing a trade boycott, international sanctions and de-investment policies, to force Israel to stop military assaults against Gaza and engage in genuine peace negotiations.

The WSF has also planned "an agenda of acts of resistance" against the Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago in April and the Climate Summit in Copenhagen in December.

Obviously, the highlight at the WSF was the participation of the "leftist" presidents of Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Paraguay and Venezuela, who expressed varying views on how to achieve social justice and equality, but who agreed that the current economic crisis must lead to a different global reorganisation.

Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva put the emphasis on protecting working people through regulation and promoting heavy state economic investment. He called on the United States and other rich nations "to resolve this crisis so the poor countries can develop." But he warned against worrying signs of protectionism, saying, "It's not fair that, now that the rich countries are in crisis, they forget their talk about free trade." He blamed the economic crisis on the "casino" capitalism promoted by the industrialised countries, and said the situation could further deteriorate. His sentiments were echoed by his colleagues from Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador and Paraguay. President Rafael Correa of Ecuador, in promoting socialism as the answer to the economic freefall, called for "people's control of political social and economic bodies, backed by a state committed to become a decentralised channel for democratic participation." He was heavily critical of institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank and accused them of also being responsible for the current economic situation.

Touching on the climate change issue, he added: "It is very comfortable for the First World to say, 'Take care of the Amazon, don't drill, don't extract resources,' while they prey on its natural treasures and achieve luxurious lifestyles while our people wallow in misery and receive nothing in return. We have to demand co-responsibility."

Venezuela's Hugo Chavez expressed the view that the WSF must be more pro-active "now that the centres of capitalist power seemed to be confused and disoriented." He urged the forum's participants to "go on the offensive" to counter free trade pacts and other US-sponsored neo-liberal economic initiatives in Latin America and take concrete steps to create alternatives to capitalism. In addition, he encouraged unity among Latin American and Caribbean movements to chart an independent path toward development.

Clearly, the five South American presidents believed that it was necessary, especially at this time, to make their presence felt at this broader global forum in Belem where the views on the global economy and other urgent problems of regional and global significance were being aired by grassroots organisations. The thousands of participants there were obviously not impressed by the Davos forum which they felt did not produce any practical solutions to the current depressing situation.

On the other hand, they were delighted to have in their presence the five leaders whom they saw as being sympathetic to their interests.

No doubt, the WSF organisers now hope that these five leaders will carry at least some of the forum's proposals to regional and international summits aimed at finding tangible solutions to the current economic predicament.

Dr. Odeen Ishmael

(The writer is Guyana's ambassador to Venezuela. The views expressed are solely those of the writer.) (external link)