From around the world, 100,000 people from social movements and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) converged on Porto Alegre, Brazil from January 23rd to 28th, 2003 for the Third Annual World Social Forum (WSF).
The WSF began in 2001 with 30,000 in attendance. 50,000 came in 2002, and in 2003 participation had doubled. Under the slogan "Another World is Possible," the WSF aimed to create a space to share ideas, to strategize, to exercise participatory democracy, and to challenge the economic order represented by elites at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. Starting largely as a cooperative effort between French and Brazilian NGOs, the WSF has led to the growth of local, regional and continental Social Forums around the world _ such as the Ithaca Social Forum, held for the first time in November 2002.
The spirit at this year's WSF was celebratory, sometimes euphoric, and often chaotic. 35,000 camped in the "City of Cities" International Youth Encampment. Forum participants chose from a dizzying array of workshops, lectures, panels and cultural events in three areas of the city. Crowds packed into giant stadiums and amphitheaters to hear such movement luminaries as newly elected Brazilian President Lula of the Workers Party, Indian activist Arundhati Roy, Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano, US critic Noam Chomsky, and Brazilian social photographer Sebastian Salgado.
The increasing importance of the WSF reflects, in many ways, a changing political landscape in the Americas: the tremendous electoral victory of Lula, the economic and political collapse in Argentina, the election of Leftist Lucio Gutierrez in Ecuador, the now-dwindling business-led strike against Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and the ongoing civil war in Colombia struggles throughout the region animated by a growing rejection of free market policies like those prescribed by the World Bank (WB), the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and their willing partners among national elites. Movements against "structural adjustment" (economic policies promoted by the WB and IMF that prioritize paying external debts and balancing budgets by cutting and/or privatizing basic human services) in the North, such as Kensington Welfare Rights Union, the Southwest Organizing Project, and Jobs with Justice, also strive to make their voices heard at the WSF.
At the WSF 2003, nearby people's movements were well-represented: the landless worker's movement (MST) from Brazil and the "piqueteros" _ the unemployed movements of Argentina. US, European, Canadian and Latin American NGOs were present. There was an African and an Asian caucus. The Via Campesina (a network of farmers who oppose neoliberal trade policy), COMPA (the Convergence of People's Movements of the Americas) and Jubilee South (a network campaigning against external debt) held their global assemblies, as did many others. Still, of 100,000 participants, about 70,000 were from Brazil, and 15,000 were from neighboring countries. Groups without sufficient resources, transportation or connections to bigger networks were largely underrepresented.
I traveled to the WSF representing the Ithaca Coalition for Global Justice and the Polson Institute Social Movements Working Group, a group of Cornell University students who study and collaborate with social movements. Recently, I have begun working with the Kensington Welfare Rights Union (KWRU), an organization of homeless people and welfare recipients from Philadelphia who are leading the national Poor People's Economic Human Rights Campaign (see www.kwru.org). In recent months, I have begun working with KWRU's International Committee, which works to connect and strengthen people's movements around the world.
After the WSF, I went with a KWRU delegation to meet with representatives from homeless and landless movements in Sao Paulo. We visited an encampment of the MST landless workers movement, and an urban occupation by the Movimento Sem Tetos (or "Roofless" Movement) in Sao Paulo. Activists shared stories about occupying abandoned buildings, living in encampments and leading month-long marches to demand housing and economic human rights. MST leaders encouraged the US activists to make their marches "political schools on foot," and the groups strengthened their commitments to further cooperation.
A leader of the Sao Paulo homeless movement told the KWRU group, "When we say there are poor people in the United States, people don't believe it." KWRU activists are committed to increasing the visibility of poor people's movements in the US and Canada. If people from the South believe there are no poor people in the North, solidarity is limited, but KWRU knows they can strengthen solidarity when people are aware of their common struggle.
The WSF Process
The WSF is a significant process, but it's not a finished product. It's one important attempt to create spaces for dialogue and deliberation for people's groups to voice their opinions and critiques, and to discuss proposals for alternatives. So far, the Forum seems to be a good place for some people to raise questions. How can the WSF facilitate participation by groups without resources and without the political connections to leverage resources? What should a participatory democracy look like? Should political parties have a role? What is the other world WSF participants are working to build? Is it a humanized version of the current state of affairs or a new system altogether? What makes the forum different from just a big global party of social change enthusiasts? Michael Albert, co-founder of Z Magazine, makes some concrete proposals that address many of these questions. (http://zmag.org/weluser.htm)
But it's a struggle to make the WSF truly democratic, participatory and inclusive. There's a lot to do to challenge the patterns of hierarchy, and "power over" others _ on interpersonal as well as organizational levels. If human intelligence and creativity can win out over bureaucracy and dogma, I'll lend cautious optimism. Yet as Argentinian sociologist Astor Massetti has written, "the same old world is also possible." The WSF can easily reproduce all of the -isms we know so well. How can we measure the sexual violence, classism, racism, homophobia, First-world-ism, able-ism or other forms of exclusion that took place at the Forum?
The festive atmosphere at the WSF does not take away from the work we all have to do _ building relationships that challenge classism, racism, sexism and other -isms, finding ways to cross barriers in our home communities, to transform hierarchies and bureaucracies and live lifestyles that match our values and fit into our ecosystems. For me, some of the most important events at the forum were personal conversations _ connecting with people who share common experiences, affirming each others' leadership, remembering to celebrate successes, and reminding each other that the struggle is worth it.
Check out these websites for more information: www.portoalegre2003.org, www.worldsocialforum.org, www.zmag.org, www.kwru.org
Alicia, originally from Syracuse, spends lots of time lately at the Cornell University library, and enjoys working with "the Sharks" _ the Ithaca Coalition for Global Justice. Lucas Shapiro contributed to this article.