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

WSF 2001, 2002, 2003

The actual gatherings of the World Social Forum in 2001, 2002, and 2003 were marked by a sharp contrast. On the one hand there was the vibrant presence of masses of people — 5,000 registered participants and thousands of other Brazilian participants at the first event; 12,000 official delegates and tens of thousands of other participants at the second; and 20,000 delegates, at the third, which had a total attendance of 100,000.

One report describes how, at the meets, “Bank employees distributed leaflets with the title ‘all bankers are thieves’ and burnt dollar and euro banknotes. Metal and oil workers called for international solidarity with the Palestinians. In the morning the organisation of the homeless people occupied a building, which the city council had promised to convert into state-subsidised flats a year ago.”31

There was a diversity similar to that of the anti-‘globalisation’ protests, ranging from workers, peasants and students to environmentalists, anti-debt campaigners, and NGOs. But the new addition was high-powered officers of international institutions, academics, and politicians. James Petras writes of the second WSF meet:

“The Forum was sharply polarized. On one side were the reformers — the NGO’ers, academics and the majority of the organizers of the Forum, ATTAC-Tobin tax advocates from France and leaders from the social-liberal wing of the Brazilian Workers Party. On the other side were the radicals from the Brazilian Landless Workers Movement, activist intellectuals, piqueteros from Argentina, representatives of left-wing parties, trade unions, urban movements and solidarity groups. There were significant differences in the social composition of the meetings and the public demonstrations. At the opening inaugural march, run by the reformist officials, the marchers were from a diverse array of groups. The unofficial march of 50,000 against the Latin American Free Trade Agreement was organized by the radical groups and included a large contingent of Brazilian workers, peasants and homeless, as well as militant internationalists from ongoing struggles in Argentina, Bolivia and other countries.”32

Naomi Klein notes that, while “any group that wanted to run a workshop… simply had to get a title to the organizing committee”, “there were sometimes sixty of these workshops going on simultaneously, while the main-stage events, where there was an opportunity to address more than 1,000 delegates at a time, were dominated not by activists but by politicians and academics.”33 Petras agrees: “It was the well-known intellectual notables from the NGOs which crowded the platforms and informed the public about the movements in their regions… The official plenary sessions and `testimonials’ were heavily biased in favour of NGO’ers and intellectuals, while the parallel workshops and seminars were the occasional site of fruitful exchange among activists from substantial movements engaged in the significant battles against imperialism (‘globalization’).”

Who was included

Despite the WSF Charter’s prohibition of political parties, Lula, head of the PT and now head of the federal government of Brazil, prominently participated at all three WSF meets. For that matter the PT, the ruling party at the local and now national level, has been omnipresent at the WSF meets. And Lula, as part of his new presidential responsibilities, traveled straight from the WSF 2003 to Davos, to participate in the World Economic Forum meet. Thus it is possible to take part in both forums.

It is worth looking at the credentials of some of the other participants at the WSF. The French government — still more or less a colonial ruler in parts of Africa — has sent high-level delegations to the WSF, containing several cabinet ministers. Among those whom the organising body of WSF presumably considers “accept the commitments” of its charter were the French minister of cooperation (directly responsible for dealing with the foreign debt of the African countries — in particular former French colonies), the minister of housing, the minister of education, and so on. Also present at the WSF was a top-ranking delegation of the United Nations, a body in whose name several heinous wars have been fought since 1991. A special message from UN Secretary General Kofi Annan was read out at the WSF — as it was also in the World Economic Forum at Davos.

At any rate the bar on political parties is selective: any number of representatives of political parties attend in their “individual capacities”, and even hold important positions in the WSF bodies. The bar is actually an enabling provision, to keep out those the organisers wish to keep out.

Even some prominent representatives of the WSF have been embarrassed by the contradiction. According to Jose Luis del Rojo, the Italian coordinator of the WSF: “We have a problem. There are several thousand politicians present, many of whom are members of parliament, mainly from Europe, who voted for the US war against Afghanistan. Many of these had declared themselves to be against our movement. And now they are all here, giving interviews to the international press…We have problems especially with the French and Italian members of parliament. For example, there is the secretary of the Left Democrats from Italy, Piero Fassino, who spoke strongly in favour of Italy entering this war. These are the same people, who in Genoa, while the police was beating us up, called upon the population not to join the demonstration, in order to isolate us and leave us in the hands of the repressive state apparatus…This should be a Forum of local government politicians, but here we have prefects from Europe taking part. These people in their municipalities and regions have expelled immigrants. All this has nothing to do with our principles.”34

Of the German delegation, “The majority was made up of Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), like the Evangelische Entwicklungsdienst (Protestant Voluntary Service Overseas). The bulk of the delegation was formed by foundations linked to political parties, such as the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (Friedrich Ebert Foundation) with a total of 19 delegates, the Rosa-Luxemburg-Stiftung (Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) with 9 delegates, the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung (Heinrich Böll Foundation) with 2 delegates and the DGB (German Federation of Trade Unions) with 7 representatives.”35

An International Council member notes that certain UN organs were actively involved in the WSF despite the bar on intergovernmental bodies. “In order to partially overcome such dilemmas, a new form of participation was attempted in 2002 when it was decided that the WSF would have a new category of events: roundtables of dialogue and controversy. Through these roundtables, representatives of institutions banned from the list of official delegates can be invited to debate and discuss.”36

NGOs are major recipients of financing from the very institutions that the WSF is purportedly fighting. “For the last decade”, said the World Bank president to the WSF 2003, “we have held an active dialogue with the organisations of civil society, including through the projects that we are financing.” Thirteen per cent of the World Bank’s loans to various governments have to be channeled to finance the “participation” of NGOs. On this account, in 2001, the borrowing countries were indebted for a neat $2.25 billion to the World Bank 37. The NGOs in turn do their political bit for the Bank and Fund. The Economist notes that “The IMF, long regarded as impermeable to outsiders, now runs seminars to teach NGOs the nuts and bolts of country-programme design, so that they can better monitor what the Fund is doing and (presumably) understand the rationale for the Fund’s loan conditions. Horst Kohler, the IMF’s new boss, has been courting NGOs. Jim Wolfensohn, the Bank’s boss, has long fawned in their direction, but in the Bank too the pace of bowing down has been stepped up…. Mark Malloch Brown, the administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, has gone further. He has a board of NGOs (including some fairly radical ones) to advise him…”

While the bulk of the participants at the WSF were Brazilian (67 per cent at WSF 2002), the largest non-Brazilian representation was of those who had funds, or who could be sponsored by those who had funds — not social movements, but NGOs and parliamentary parties. Inevitably, the bulk of the deliberations were `constructive’ in the sense that ATTAC uses that word. The ‘dialogue’ with the powers that rule the world has begun. World Bank president James Wolfensohn closed his message to the WSF 2003 with these words: “My colleagues and I have followed the debates of the last two World Social Forums, and we will discuss with interest the ideas and proposals that will emerge this year… We can work together much more closely.”38

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