World Social Forum: Origins and Aims

06 June 2005

World Social Forum: Origins and Aims
Francisco Whitaker, 22 June 2002

Early in 1998, the proposal for a Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI) was made public. It was to be signed by the worlds wealthiest countries, then to be "proposed" to - in practice, imposed on - the rest of the countries in the world. The agreement had been discussed in secret in the OECD, the intention being for it to become a kind of World Constitution for Capital, which would give capital all the rights and almost no duties - especially in Third World countries where the "investments" would be made. The French newspaper Le Monde Diplomatique published a first exposé prepared in the United States by the "Public Citizens" movement led by Ralph Nader, in an article by Lori Wallach, a lawyer with the movement. The outcry at the absurdities contained in the agreement led to the emergence of a social movement in protest, causing France to withdraw from the negotiations in late 1998 and finally preventing the agreement from being signed.

One of the organizations to spur this mobilization was ATTAC - at first the Association for a Tobin Tax for the Aid of Citizens, and now the Association for the Taxation of Financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens - that was starting to take shape in France at the time, also following a proposal in this direction by Le Monde Diplomatique. Today the association has some 20,000 of supporters all over France and has produced ATTACs in other countries round the world, including Brazil. The association is working to put into effect Economics Nobel laureate James Tobins proposal for a tax on speculative capital movements as a way of controlling their present absolute freedom to circulate worldwide, with the consequences we all know so well.

From the interactions these events helped to trigger everywhere among those who refuse to accept the scenario of a world wholly controlled by the interests of capital, a number of different forms of opposition to this type of globalization began to organize. Those that gained most fame by virtue of their media repercussion were the protests in Seattle against the WTO, in Washington against the IMF and the World Bank and, more recently, those in Prague, which led the government representatives gathered there to cut short their meeting one day ahead of schedule.

Now, for a good twenty years, the owners of the world had been meeting in a Forum they called the World Economic Forum, which they held in Davos, a small, luxury ski resort in Switzerland. Once a year - in addition to the regional meetings that it has also begun to organize - this group (that today is a major corporation) currently gathers together all those able to pay 20,000 dollars to hear and talk to the leading thinkers at the service of capital, as well as to hear even guest critics of globalization, invited along to lend legitimacy to the Forum. Davos - which attracts correspondents from all the worlds major newspapers, including systematically our friend Clovis Rossi - is where the theory of world domination by capital, within the parameters of neo-liberalism, is constructed and steadily put into practice.

Well, in the light of all this that was going on, a few Brazilians decided that it would be possible to launch a new stage of resistance to this school of thought which today prevails all over the world. Over and beyond the demonstrations and mass protests, though, it seemed possible to move on and to offer specific proposals, to seek concrete responses to the challenges of building "another world", one where the economy would serve people, and not the other way round. Economists and other academics opposed to neo-liberalism were already holding what they called Anti-Davos meetings in Europe. Now though, the intention was to go further than that. The idea was, with the participation of all the organizations that were already networking in the mass protests, to arrange another kind of meeting on a world scale - the World Social Forum - directed to social concerns. So as to give a symbolic dimension to the start of this new period, the meeting would take place on the same days as the powerful of the world were to meet in Davos.

Exactly who had this great idea? Our friend Oded Grajew. I dont know if he discussed it with anyone else beforehand, but he put it to me when we met in France in February this year. Together, we decided to take it to Bernard Cassen, director of Le Monde Diplomatique, who is also president of ATTAC in France, to see how well the idea would be received outside of Brazil.

Cassen was enthusiastic and made the proposal to hold the Forum in Brazil. He felt it had to be in the "Third World" - because that would also have a symbolic effect - and Brazil was among the countries in a better position to host a Forum like this. His too was the idea of hosting it in Porto Alegre, capital of a state that is steadily becoming known all over the world for its democratic experiences and efforts against neo-liberalism. Cassen then threw out a counter-challenge: if we were able to organize the Forum, we would have the support not only of his newspaper, but also of the organizations around the world that are positioning themselves against domination by capital.

Once back in Brazil, we started to find out what organizations were willing to accept this challenge and take on this huge task. On February 28, there was a meeting in Sao Paulo of delegates from 8 organizations that today have signed a "Cooperation Agreement" to hold the World Social Forum, the first edition of which will be held in Porto Alegre from January 25 to 30, 2001:

Brazilian Association of Non-Governmental Organizations (ABONG); Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens (ATTAC); Brazilian Justice & Peace Commission (CBJP); Brazilian Business Association for Citizenship (CIVES); Central Trade Union Federation (CUT); Brazilian Institute for Social and Economic Studies (IBASE); Centre for Global Justice (CJG); Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST).

In March these organizations sent a delegation to Porto Alegre to consult Olivio Dutra and Raul Pont on the state and municipal governments willingness to host the Forum, on the understanding that the event would be promoted not by these governments, but by the civil society organizations that embraced the proposal. Once the governor and mayor had given their consent, work was begun as quickly as possible to organize and actually realize this new world meeting. This included inviting other civil society organizations to set up a Brazilian Committee in Support of the Forum.

At Cassens suggestion, a delegation from the organizations travelled in late June to Geneva where a large part of the organizations linking up around the world in demonstrations against neo-liberalism would be meeting in an alternative "summit" parallel to the UNs "Copenhagen + 5" Summit. Room was made for us to present our proposal, which was very well received. Miguel Rossetto, Deputy Governor of Rio Grande do Sul State, also travelled to Geneva to confirm that the state would host the Forum. On that very occasion, an International Committee was set up in support of the Forum.

Since then, we have been working against the clock to ensure attendance by participants from all over the world, with quotas set for each continent and each type of activity. The programme drawn up provides for two kinds of dynamics: morning panels - 4 running simultaneously on all four days, with four participants each chosen from among leading names in the fight against the One Truth; and, in the early afternoon, workshops coordinated by the participants themselves to exchange experiences and for discussions, and in the late afternoon, meetings for networking. Also planned are sessions for testimonies from people involved in different kinds of struggle, and an extensive parallel programme in Porto Alegre city for all those unable to participate directly in the Forum, which is open only to people appointed and registered by social organizations.

The Forum is not deliberative in nature and time will not be wasted in discussing the commas in a final document. It will be the beginning of a process of thinking together at the world level on the four thematic areas dealt with in the morning panels: production of wealth and social reproduction; access to wealth and sustainability; empowering civil society and the public realm; and political power and ethics in the new society. For each of these thematic areas, questions were formulated to which we have to find answers and, for each question, there is a series of issues we have to consider. The intention is, by thinking together also on a "globalized" basis, to make room - in greater depth each year - for the search for alternatives to the dominant model. In fact, World Social Forum 2001 will be only the first step, but an entirely new step, which is increasingly finding an echo the whole world over. Our hope is that this echo really will secure the beginning of a new period in the struggle against human submission to the interests of capital.

English translation by Peter Lenny