• gtiandwsf farewelltowsf discussion input15

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input#15/ The World Social Forum: a wasted opportunity?
Meena Menon

@1 Are we debating the role of the World Social Forum, 18 years after its inception, only as a thing of the past or as an actionable part of a future? If the former, it would be a question of drawing lessons in order to inform other processes.  If we are thinking of it as a process which still has relevance in the present context, then it becomes more immediate, even urgent. Has the context in which the Forum was founded, changed so much that it is no longer relevant?@2 Even if it has not, is it too late to revive the Forum given its current state?

To answer this, we may need to go back to what were the factors leading to the success of the Forum in the first place. Protests against globalization, especially free trade, were sweeping the globe from the year 2000. It was the age of social movements, small and big, for whom the opportunity, the possibility, and the usefulness of international solidarity were very apparent. Globalization meant greater access to news and information, and travel across borders was easier than ever before. Hence, when Oded Grajew, Chico Whitaker, and Le Monde diplomatique took the help of the Workers Party in Brazil to issue what became an audacious global call to the world community to challenge the philosophy of corporate globalization as symbolized by the World Economic Forum, social movements and all kinds of progressive groups and intellectuals responded, at first mainly from Latin America and Europe, and later from all over the world. Bolstered by this, the Forum grew, and it traveled from its home in Brazil to India, Venezuela, Nairobi, Senegal, Tunisia, and even Canada. All the forums were successful to lesser and greater degrees, although the Forum started to slowly lose its glitter and has now almost reached a dead end. @3 Some of the main factors for the popularity of the Forum were:

1.    The popularity and successes of anti-globalization mobilizations and the felt need for global solidarity at the level of the social movements.
2.    The support of left parties in Brazil and, subsequently, of other left parties, including those with strong electoral presence and those in government.
3.   The excitement of building what seemed like a global movement for an alternative politics, based on various approaches to socialism and radical democracy among the “organic intellectuals.”
4.     The access to funding for this project from various anti-globalization organizations.
5.    The popular rise of national consciousness against rapacious global corporate greed.
6.    The strength of the social forum process of working together across differences with the common aim of opposing corporate globalization and “Building another world,” which was the call of the Forum.
7.    The possibility of occupying the same space, and creating one’s own spaces within, without the pressure to agree, without the need for consensus.

As the Forum grew strong, then came the challenges of growth. There were weaknesses inherent in the foundation and the organization of the WSF:

1.    The ad hoc nature of the WSF International Council, which consisted of the organizations that were part of the first and second forum.  More organizations wanted to join, and it became impossible to decide on how to expand the IC. Hierarchy was anathema to social movements, and political parties tended to be bureaucratic.@4 A judicious combination of structure combined with consensus-based decision making, and core teams working with broad, open working groups at all levels might have been the answer, but this did not happen—or when they were attempted, they did not function.

2.  @5  The diversity of the organizations involved, especially as more countries came in, created a situation where a few organizations were seen as controlling the process, but in the absence of any alternative methodology, these conflicts became more intense. The popularity and the spontaneity of the various forums became a weakness rather than the strength that it should have been.

3.    Differences about inclusion and exclusion: The social forum process fell victim to the intrinsic sectarianism within the left political spectrum. @6 An open space was a difficult concept for most of the left and liberal intelligentsia and organizations led by the intelligentsia. Intense debates, jockeying for space within the open space without a healthy respect for the common space, corroded the spirit of the Forum.

4.    There were deep divisions regarding the role of the Forum. On one hand, some felt that the focus should become a network, issuing calls for action and developing consensus, even based on the majority, if consensus was not possible.@7 Others, especially from more diverse countries like India, felt that this would break the Forum because a total consensus was impossible on any issue in these countries.

5.    Funding for the Forum began to dry up as the cracks within the International Forum started to affect its functioning. The reluctance of the core organizations to let governments led by sympathetic political parties support (and therefore maybe overly influence) the Forum was another unresolved issue.@8 The WSF office could not function without funds, and the importance of a proper center was not appreciated by many social movements. Voluntarism could only go so far.

6.   @9  Those who started the Forum and the forum process, in Brazil and in the various countries where the Forum was organized, were seen by other newer entrants as controlling the space. This charge was often true, with some people trying to “represent” the Forum and setting themselves up as leaders, as arbiters of inclusion and exclusion in the process. These differences became more and more bitter and unfriendly, seen as contrary to the spirit of the Forum.

The political situation had begun to change. The priority was no longer the battle against globalization. It was the rise of the right wing and the weakening of support for the left and progressive agendas. The left failed to build on and clarify their perspectives on globalization, to differentiate a progressive agenda from that of the anti-globalization right. They were more accustomed to fight for control than to celebrate diversity. @10 The tradition of fighting for and taking political ideological positions outweighed the urgent need to address rising right-wing politics, pulling together across the huge diversity of interests represented in the Forum despite differences, and building better alliances across social movements and left and liberal political parties.@11 Social movements were more comfortable with fighting centrist and left political parties and less prepared to fight the populist politics of the right wing. This led to the political crisis that helped the right wing to come to power on the same anti-globalization issues popularized by the Forum and the movements that created it. The agenda that mobilized participation in the various forums was changing, but this could not be captured by the Social Forum. @12 Instead of working with the International Council and the various organizing committees in the various regions and countries, those who differed failed to see the political urgency of closing ranks against the rising tide of right-wing populism. Efforts to work together despite differences, which should have been one of the main contributions of the social forum process, failed to overcome the traditional suspicions between the actors in the forum space. Sectarianism was fashionable among social movements and NGOs.@13 The International Council as well as the various regional and national working committees became more inward-looking instead of enabling more participation and moving outwards. Social forums began to be seen, quite simply, as a waste of time.

@14 Would the Forum have become more relevant if it had taken positions on world issues? This is speculative.@15 The earlier and very successive calls from the Forum were not signed by all the participants in the Forum; they were calls from different thematic axes within the Forum. @16 The positions that the Forum did take did not make many political waves. @17 The thematic forums were not as effective as the bigger, more open events.@18  If the IC had presumed to issue calls for action or even issued political statements, it would have been attacked for trying to represent the thousands of organizations that attended the various Social Forum events, without consulting them. This would have been the case even if the calls had been in the spirit of the Charter of the Forum. @19 The International Council did not enjoy that kind of credibility. Their role was to enable, not lead. The solution was the creation of strategy spaces which did issue statements, including those from the Social Movements Assemblies, and they were important mobilizing tools. The differences on the role of the Forum led to deep divisions and extreme positions.@20  The proponents of the open space concept included those who advocated that the inauguration and the opening plenaries of the Forum should not be organized, because the sessions might be seen as positions taken by the entire Forum. This was a puzzling position.@21 Also, there were some who felt that only social movements should have space to speak in the main plenaries, not "stars."@22 Unfortunately, the popular reaction to this was to not attend the sessions at all. A lot of the excitement of the Forum was for attendees to hear people whom they had read and heard a lot about.

@23 Maybe the more effective methodology to keep the Forum going would have been to open it up further, to take the help of political parties in government to organize the Forum, to have more commitment to diversity and political differences.@24 The reluctance of the IC toward holding forums in Europe and in OECD countries should have been overcome early. @25 Maybe the IC should have become an open forum (without support for attending meetings except in exceptional cases), with a small core and an office in Brazil.

@26 There are those who say that the very popularity of the Forum led to its downfall. That the very number of participants was so staggering that it became difficult to organize.@27  Although people came to the Forum and participated on their own, affordable space was required to stay for seminars, events, and cultural programs. @28 For most smaller organizations, this would not be possible unless they (a) built very broad alliances with all kinds of organizations in the city or (b) linked up with local government and political parties. @29 For India, the Social Forum represented a process that lasted for over two years, building unlikely friendships and alliances which deeply impacted the politics of protest movements in the country, and could have done more if it had not fallen apart due to bickering and sectarianism among those who were "leaders" of the Forum.

@30 Is the Forum still relevant? In its present form, perhaps not.@31  The decade-long work of popularizing the Forum has been jettisoned. @32 But clearly, the need for a political pole which is counter to the right wing globally, where there is a space to come together for debate, sharing, and solidarity, has never been as important as today.  And one can only hope that it is not political cynicism that is preventing this from happening.