Report on the Methodology of the WSF and its Possible Relevance for the 2006 ESF

23 February 2005
Article

In 2004, the International Committee of the WSF, inspired particularly by the organisation of the Mumbai WSF , adopted a new methodology for organising the programme for the fifth WSF.

In 2004, the International Committee of the WSF, inspired particularly by the organisation of the Mumbai WSF , adopted a new methodology for organising the programme for the fifth WSF. It was based on dissolving a centrally decided programme and involving participating organisations fully in setting the framework of the Forum's activities.

This is a very important experiment for the development of a global and plural force for radical social change - a new radical subjectivity. It makes the organisation of the WSF itself a part of the movements' innovative search for participatory, democratic, pre-figurative ways of organising. It significantly changes the role of the IC. With the new methodology, this controversial committee takes on an explicitly facilitating, rather than directive role. It brings the organisation of the WSF closer to the desire of social movements to combine autonomy and horizontal connectedness. It tests the potentiality of the new technologies to facilitate popular participation, share knowledge and develop dense networks of resistance and alternatives.

The widespread commitment to this new methodology and to making it work, from many different standpoints, indicates the maturing of the resistance to neo-liberalism; it points to the potential for creating sustained, cumulative forms of international organisation rooted in day to day struggles with all their various territorial and sectoral locations. This maturation will be tested by our ability to self-critically assess the experience of this methodology, highlighting and understanding its successes, identifying where and why it was only weakly implemented, asking what new, unanticipated problems it revealed and what new possibilities it opened up, including for the organisation of the European Social Forum.

At its January meeting in Brussels, the ESF Programme working group agreed to encourage an evaluation of the methodology by ESF people at the WSF. This is a first - and inevitably limited - attempt at such an evaluation. It starts with the aims of the new methodology, explains how it was implemented, reports on some of the critical points made by those - members of the Brazilian Organising Committee and Secretariat - involved in implementing it - and then summarises the assessments of a wide a range participants. It ends with some concluding remarks to stimulate further discussion and activist investigation.

Aims of the new methodology

  1. To facilitate new or stronger dialogues, networks and common actions amongst the participants of the forum and to make the WSF more useful in promoting the density and dynamism of the relationships and networks resisting and creating alternatives to neo-liberalism.
  2. To implement more effectively the principles of the Charter, in particular participatory democracy, respect for plurality and diversity and a refusal of hierarchy.
  3. To avoid the Forums becoming simply an annual event and to put concerted energy into creating a process that strengthens struggles and the development of alternatives in a cumulative way.
  4. To ensure that the Forum develops a systematic collective memory.
  5. To find ways of ensuring that the Forum treats divergencies as a source of strength so that it does not simply represent moments of convergence on particularly struggles but enables a process of testing of different ideas in a process of continuing debate.
  6. To overcome a certain repetitiveness of the Forum.
  7. The memory project that is part of the new methodology is also an attempt to avoid the huge loss of information and knowledge involved in the work of Forums.

How it was done

There were four stages i. The democratisation of the programme framework. ii. The registration of the proposals and the stimulation of convergence. iii. The stimulation of action; iv. the accumulation of a live memory.

i. The democratisation of the framework.

Participating organization in the previous WSF were asked to propose themes for the next Forum. Organisations could make 3 proposals on key issues. This `consulta' was begun in July and the results interpreted in September. More than 1800 organizations responded. The Methodology and Content Commission of the IC organized the responses into clusters which provided the basis, after discussion at the IC, of the main themes of the Forum. These themes were organized as 11 `terrains' which were the political and physical focal points of the forum coincided.

Assessment by individual members of the WSF Organising Committee and the Methodology Commission.

a) Most people judged this consultation process to be the most successfully implemented part of the new methodology. However people had some questions about the spread of responses: they pointed to disproportionately few women's and peasant organizations. People felt it was an open question how widely the consulta should go, that is, participating organizations were a first step but perhaps it should go further.

ii Proposal of activities and stimulation of convergence

From September - December more than 4000 organizations registered and proposed around 2650 activities. The general idea was to make it possible for every organization to contact other organizations working on a similar theme in order to try to co-ordinate their activities. The idea was that co-ordination could take place according to at least four different schemes:

  • Fusion. When organizations registered for the WSF realize that two or more events they have proposed would be enriched if they agreed to turn them into a single event;
  • Sequence. In this case, the registered events are kept but organized sequentially in order that all participants could join them all;
  • Dialogue. The programmed events are kept and each organizer commits himself/herself to send to each other a representative member who could jointly inform and construct the debate.
  • The promotion of thematic assemblies bringing together many activities across one theme or terrain.

Teams of six facilitators were nominated for each terrain from organizations affiliated to the IC, to facilitate these different processes of fusion, sequence and dialogue. Their job was also

  1. to identify gaps in the activities(important topics for the terrain not covered by activity proposals: topics not covered;
  2. identify cross-cutting or 'transversal' issues across themes,
  3. ask groups to spell out what outcomes they are planning for - in order to ensure that seminars lead to some kind of activity. (see below)

iii. The stimulation of action

The aim was to build a drive towards practical outcomes. It was intended that this be done through

  1. Groups registering their proposals were asked to indicate the intended outcomes.
  2. The organizers of each event were urged to set up meetings between 6pm and 8pm, helped by the facilitators to create new dialogues between initiatives leading hopefully to stronger practical collaboration.
  3. The organization of special tents with walls for organizers to announce their proposed activities. ( see below)

iv. The living memory

The fourth part of the new methodology is the construction of the WSF's memory, the 'memoria viva' project. The plan involved 4 different projects - as I understand it (I did not explore this side of the methodology in detail:

  • Nomad: live streaming and filing of some activities' audio files.
  • Culture working group: this aims at building the memory of cultural events of all types that will be held at the forum.
  • Communication working group: this centres around the work of the Brazilian committee's communication working group. This incorporates different formats: written, audio, video, photos, etc.
  • Proposals: this project aims at collecting before, during and after the forum texts presenting the proposals of alternatives discussed at the Forum. These proposals will be published online and on proposal walls that will be located in each of the terrains.

Assessment by individual members of the WSF Organising Committee and the Methodology Commission.

  1. The web - site lacked adequate search and other tools to facilitate the self-managed process of fusing and making connections. With better tools on the web-site there would have been more merging and dialogue within and across terrains. In practice such processes depended on groups who already knew each other, already had the connections.
  2. There was too long a gap between the opening of the registration process, in the beginning of September and the appointment of the facilitators - mid-November. This did not give the facilitating teams long enough to be of much use for encouraging mergers or other kinds of connections within the programme. The process of encouraging and facilitating practical outcomes was also seriously set back by this inactivity at a crucial moment.
  3. The political judgements implicitly involved at certain moments of the process need to be more explicitly debated. For example, in choosing the terrains: the choice of the terrains was not self-evident from the results of the consulta. In other words the new methodology does not provide a technical alternative to political choices. There needs to be more thought about how these judgements concerning the framework of the process are made.
  4. Related to the above, several people felt that in general, the co-ordinating and cohering side of the process was the least developed.

How it worked out on the day: participants' assessment of the actual working of the methodology.

This will be very much a summary of a range of interviews and discussions. It does n't deal with the problems faced by the Nomads project.

Positive and negative assessments were often combined in people's assessments, in that people described problems but then saw possible solutions coming from the experiment itself. Therefore this report of assessments is not divided into a simple balance sheet of `positive' and `negative.'

1. The dissolution of the official programme of daily plenaries and the construction of the programme `from below' through self-managed but clustered activities was generally experienced as a real liberation, full of new potentialities. After some initial moments of disorientation and making sense of the new architecture of the Forum, people generally found that the new method enabled them to be more active participants, making more contacts, building more connections, being more alert to the possibilities of dialogue, even with their neighbour in a seminar or a food queue. Moreover, where they were dissatisfied with the programme they came away deciding what input they could make next time to improve it, rather than simply complaining about the organisers. In other words, the new methodology stimulated a greater sense of individual responsibility for the success of the collective process. In this sense the methodology very clearly established the Forum as something that was a process connected - in an uncertain, as yet undefined way - to the emergence of a new actor (s) for global social transformation rather than an annual political event or market place/celebration.

2. Fragmentation of activities was commonly experienced as a problem. The physical distance over which the activities were spread was one problem. Another was the inadequacy of the facilitation process. One result of this was that where groups focused only on their own concerns, there was no visible stimulus built into the framework of the Forum to make connections, to look at their activities in a wider political context. The extent to which connections were made between activities tended to depend on groups who had made connections independently of the Forum process; or on individuals sharing their personal connections to make a collective initiative beyond their own activity e.g the InterGalactical encounter with the IC.

3. Where there was a strong facilitation process, it was possible to see the advantages of the new methodology with regard to aims i & iii concerning strengthening the density of networks and encouraging practical outcome.The methodology reveals the priorities of the different movements/groups and how far there is a global convergence - unknown to individual groups - in choosing these priorities and where there are significant divisions. It gives us the tools to know ourselves as a global subjectivity, our commonality and our divergencies. This is exactly the kind of basis on which facilitators can facilitate: where there is a convergence helping to organise a coming together to explore collaboration; where there are divergencies, to explore the possibility of debate and dialogue to clarify the nature and dynamic of these divergencies and the possibilities - or not - of new syntheses based on co-operation across diverse activities. The former happened in Terrain F and Terrain G. The later not at all - thus aim v. was not met.
Thematic assemblies only happened around anti-war activities and the social economy.

4. This risky experiment helps to reveal the dynamics already working within the movements both those that are problematic and those full of potential.For example it revealed a strong desire to make connections, to build a cumulative cohesion based on the diversity of activities. It is now two years since there has been a common call to action resulting from the Forum - for example over Genoa in 2000 and over the war in 2003. Historically these mobilisations have provided an important riving force of cohesion. But it was clear in Porto Alegre that there is within the diversty of the movements a desire to connect, to construct a cohesion. It is unevenly felt. Sometimes tentative, sometimes little beyond the desire to be in the same place as other movements. No one knows the answer; there are many experiments.

5. Two different developments indicate this desire to build a coherence based on new forms of self-organised co-operation. On the one hand, the evident desire to collect and bring together all the outcomes of the different activities (for example over 400 proposals were registered on the special `proposal walls') indicated that people want the `live memory' to be a really active memory, a tool for shaping the future, to feed into a transparent process of connection and collaboration during the Forum itself. On the other hand the way that construction of the Statement of the Social Movement Assembly from a plurality of campaigns working together in the evening throughout the Forum demonstrated how the `live memory'/collection process could be built on through an active political process of negotiation and debate to arrive at common priorities for action. The practical experience of the methodology indicated a potential convergence of these two approaches - of collection of proposals and negotiation of common action.

6. The methodology also reveals where we are weak in terms, for example, of the absence or limited nature of activities proposed on important topics. This helps to guide future work.

Conclusion

The changes that were introduced in the preparation of WSF 2005 show that Forum is both a process of experiment and also of learning - from our mistakes as well as our successes. We have the opportunity now with the year long preparation for the next ESF to extend this experiment to very different cultural political conditions. We have the advantage of learning from the first experiment and overcoming some of its failings and the unanticipated problems. In the ESF we surely share the aims of the new methodology. In some of its most central aims, it proved successful. There were also many problems most of which are problems which go to the heart of how we develop the kind of tools of social transformation that we need - so they are not a reason for rejecting the experiment but for learning from it.


Based on interviews and discussions with many participants and organisers including, Alessandra Ceregatti, Jose Leite Correio, Gustavo Codas, Moema Miranda, Luciano Brunet, Christophe Aguiton, Pierre Rousset, Dot Keet, Marco Berlinguer, Camilla Lundberg and delegates from Swedish trade unions and popular education organisations, Mayo Fuster Morel, Jeff Jarvis, Emma Dowling and others from the Activist Research Network, Daniel Chavez, Leo Panitch, Gautam Mody, Meena Menon, Shalmali Guetal, Prabir Purkayastha.