It's puzzling how thousands of ants, apparently scurrying in different directions, manage to move something which no single group of them could move on its own. That's how it felt being one of 50,000 participants of the World Social Forum (WSF) last week, committed to make "another world possible".
We could not succeed in one week to move the weight of corporate power, but those who wield this power, gathering in New York for the annual World Economic Forum, felt sufficiently defensive to proclaim their concern for the social problems that drove our agenda. In Brazil it was clear that "anti-capitalist" was no longer an adequate description for a social movement rich in practical solutions. Delegates had certainly learnt the first lesson of the intelligent insect: always persist.
This is the second year that the movement for global social justice has pitched up in the city of Porto Alegre, in the southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. The impetus in 2001 was a strong belief that "protest is not enough", as Filipino activist and intellectual Walden Bello insisted. This was an occasion to demonstrate that protesters do have alternatives. In 2002, four months after September 11, the number of participants was up three times on last year's event.
"Most people were from organisations working for social justice; there were very few dilettantes", said Thomas Ponniah, a young Canadian volunteer on the WSF secretariat. The faces of those who milled around the city's requisitioned public buildings were confident. The disgrace brought upon the corporate world by Enron and upon the International Monetary Fund (IMF) by Argentina fed this confident mood.
The forum included more than 700 workshops and also held large panel discussions to develop shared alternatives around four themes: production of wealth; access to wealth and sustainability; civil society; political power and ethics.
This event has deep foundations and a well-maintained organisation - especially in the countries of the southern hemisphere - which has grown over the past 25 years. The anti-IMF riots of the mid-1970s marked the beginning of a movement which challenged the way that global economic institutions were turning southern countries into quarry for corporate predators.
National campaigns, often focused on specific cases, have created well- organised networks and coalitions across whole continents. For example, the Asia Europe Forum brings together more than 800 organisations throughout Asia; in Africa, there are the Jubilee South and the Africa Social Forum groups; in Latin America, the Hemispheric Social Alliance.
Then from 1990 the focus began to shift north with the campaign against the North American Free Trade Agreement. The movement grew in 1995, with the creation of the World Trade Organisation, and then again in 1998, with the global campaign against the Multilateral Agreement on Investment.
In North America, US campaigns and the popularly based council of Canadians have joined the Hemispheric Social Alliance to resist the All America Free Trade Agreement. In Europe, the French-initiated campaign, Attac, which has snowballed rapidly into a more general movement for global social justice, has provided the nearest thing to continental coordination.
A sign of the seriousness of the WSF is organising between sessions throughout the five days, from 7pm till the small hours. For Europeans, and particularly the British delegation, it revealed the weakness in our continent-wide infrastructure.
At the same time, the EU is causing immense damage by failing to present a social democratic counterpoint to US free market policies. There is anger, for instance, at the role that Europe is playing in the World Trade Organisation, pushing for the new rules which would prohibit national governments from insisting on terms and conditions on multinational investment, such as the reinvestment of profits, and from using government tenders to encourage investment in depressed areas.
Expressions of disappointment about Europe's role came from Africa, Latin American and Asian delegates. Southern delegates felt more could be done by Europeans to monitor, expose and put pressure on their governments over what are effectively neo-colonial policies towards the south. This was a stimulus to Europeans to organise their own European Social Forum later this year and to convince European trade unions to join this movement for global social justice, as they have done in much of the south.
These extraordinary global gatherings of social and trade union movements and non-governmental organisations - unthinkable a few years ago - are now to be an annual event, hosted by different southern cities. They were initiated to respond tothe global economic institutions which have not narrowed the poverty gap. The UN reports that between 1960 and 2000, the divide between the poorest fifth and richest fifth of the world's population has doubled. Against the background of Enron and Argentina, this crisis of legitimacy is once more to the fore.
One of WSF's most convincing claims is the new thinking on democracy. Olivio Dutra, the governor of Rio Grande do Sul, summed it up from his own experience: "We are practising a new democracy through the direct intervention of the citizens in the use of public money. As a result, public machinery is becoming more efficient in meeting social needs and avoiding waste. The people are becoming critically aware of the state budget and are more able to control the state".
Dutra is a member of the Partidodos Trabalhadores (Brazilian Workers Party). This party, which now holds office in more than 70 town halls and has pioneered an impressive experiment in participatory democracy by opening up the municipal - and, in the case of Rio Grande do Sul, state - investment budget to a process of popular control. The result has been a rooting out of corruption, a significant redistribution of wealth and a degree of citizens' engagement with the political processes unprecedented in the west.
Participatory democracy - not as an alternative but as a reinforcement to representative democracy - was a powerful theme throughout the conference. Interestingly, technicians at the World Bank, concerned that grants get to the people for whom they are intended, now recommend participatory budgets.
Meanwhile, through the WTO, the US - with Europe and Britain playing a supporting role - persists in overriding the public institutions necessary for such democratic control. Let them be warned: after the second WSF, the ants are pulling, pushing and developing a power which will finally move the obstacles in the way.
Copyright 2002 The Guardian