The Economics and Politics of the World Social Forum: Lessons for the Struggle against ‘Globalisation’

Emerging as a political ‘alternative’

Naturally, this school of post-modernism implies that no single political force can represent the common long-term interests of all sections of the people in a country. Along the same lines, NGOs and various funded intellectuals in India have since the early 1980s advanced the notion of a “non-party political process”. It is this understanding that lies behind the World Social Forum’s hypocritical bar on the participation of political parties.

If the bar on political parties were in order to allow mass organisations and mass movements to occupy centre stage, one could understand the rationale. In fact it is to the contrary. Political parties actually do take part in the WSF, appearing as ‘individuals’ — as can be seen by the leading role of PT in the Brazil WSF meets, and the droves of parliamentarians who attended those gatherings. The point here is the ideological concept that post-modernists/NGO theorists strain hard to propagate: Namely, that any single political force aiming to represent all sections of the people amounts to an imposition on the tapestry of different groups or ways of being.

Indeed, for those who run the existing order, it is vital to ensure the absence of any coherent political force which can integrate the myriad sections in opposition against that order.

While NGOs thus oppose the concept of a single political party leading various sections of the people, they themselves are emerging as a single political force in their own right. They have unanimity on most issues. Their explicitly political activities span a wide range of social sections: they run organisations of women, adivasis, dalits, unorganised workers, fishermen, and slumdwellers; they also run organisations for the protection of the environment, cultural organisations, and human rights organisations (indeed, much admirable work in providing relief to the victims of the Gujarat massacres, and documentation of the crimes there, has been done by NGOs).

Till now, however, NGOs by and large have not been treated as a legitimate political force by the traditional mass organisations — the trade unions, peasant unions, student organisations, women’s organisations. And it continues to be the case that the mass organisations command much greater capacity to mobilise masses of people. Through platforms such as the World Social Forum now, NGOs are being provided an opportunity to legitimise themselves as a political force and expand their influence among sections to which they earlier had little access.

CPI(M)’s earlier stand

One of the early critiques of NGO politics and practice in India was written in 1988 by an important CPI(M) activist, now a politburo member, Prakash Karat; it first appeared in the CPI(M)’s theoretical journal, The Marxist. Titled Foreign Funding and the Philosophy of Voluntary Organisations, the publication describes in some detail this phenomenon, and gathers various data and anecdotal information on the topic, and points to what it considers to be its dangers.

Karat stated his thesis in brief as follows:

“There is a sophisticated and comprehensive strategy worked out in imperialist quarters to harness the forces of voluntary agencies/action groups to their strategic design to penetrate Indian society and influence its course of development. It is the imperialist ruling circles which have provided through their academic outfits the political and ideological basis for the outlook of a substantial number of these proliferating groups in India. By providing liberal funds to these groups, imperialism has created avenues to penetrate directly vital sections of Indian society and simultaneously use this movement as a vehicle to counter and disrupt the potential of the Left movement…. The CPI(M) and the Left forces have to take serious note of this arm of imperialist penetration while focussing on the instruments and tactics of imperialism. An ideological offensive to rebut the philosophy propagated by these groups is urgently necessary as it tends to attract petty bourgeois youth imbued with idealism.” (pp 2-3)

Karat argued that the new seemingly ‘activist’ stance adopted by the NGOs was a sophisticated imperialist strategy: “…along with the funding for the second phase [ie of `activism’ by NGOs] came the ideological package also. For how else can one explain the strange spectacle of imperialist agencies and governments funding organisations to organise the rural and urban poor to fight for their rights and against exploitation?” (p. 8)

In the course of the critique Karat mentioned several of the same foundations which have been funding the World Social Forum and affiliated activities — ICCO-Netherlands; Friedrich Ebert Foundation; NOVIB; Ford Foundation; Canadian International Development Agency; and Oxfam. “It would be no exaggeration to say that the whole voluntary agencies/action groups network is maintained and nurtured by funds from western capitalist countries. The scale of funding and the vast amounts involved are so striking that it is surprising that this has not become a matter of urgent public debate in this country…. This open access to foreign funds allowed by the Government of India has become one of the major sources of imperialist penetration financially in the country.” (p. 34)

He ended with a call for political struggle:

“The Left should treat all action groups (ie those directly involved in mobilisation and organisation of the people) as political entities. All those organisations receiving foreign funds are automatically suspect and must be screened to clear their bonafides.” (p. 64)

“The widest campaign has to be built up to force the Government of India to abandon its present posture of allowing free flow of foreign funds on the grounds that it contributes to the foreign exchange fund. The Foreign Contribution Regulation Act which allows such massive penetration of imperialist funds will have to be further amended to ensure: All voluntary organisations which claim to organise people for whatever form of political activity should be included in the list of organisations (just as political parties) which are prohibited for receiving foreign funds…. Most urgent is the necessity for a sustained ideological campaign against the eclectic and pseudo-radical postures of action groups.” (pp 64-65)

Indeed, he proudly states that “it is well known that it is the CPI(M) cadres and activists who have been in the lead all over the country in exposing the designs of foreign-funded voluntary work as they are clear about its implications”. (p. 60)

Sharp turnaround

Such was the official CPI(M) stand in 1988. Drastic changes appear to have taken place since the end of the eighties. In a number of forums, CPI(M) members and NGOs now cooperate and share costs — for example, at the People’s Health Conference held in Kolkata in 2002, the Asian Social Forum held in Hyderabad in January 2003, or the World Social Forum to be held in Mumbai in January 2004. Further, CPI(M) ideologues appear to be developing theoretical justifications for their stand, as can be seen from the following excerpt from a Frontline9 interview with Dr Thomas Isaac, CPI(M) MLA, former member of the State Planning Board in charge of decentralisation:

“Interviewer: There is criticism against the role of NGOs too, like the one you have floated in your constituency, as being that of `agents of globalisation and economic imperialism’ and the seemingly anti-globalisation struggles and programmes they are organising as being a clever strategy to promote essentially imperialist interests.

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