• wsfic icfuturecontribution 21

last modified April 17, 2013 by facilitfsm

Between the Ideal and the Practical

The Paralyzed IC of WSF

Vinod Raina


Most people are aware that the International Council of the World Social Forum evolved after the first forum in Porto Alegre in 2001. It was not a body that was thought of at the beginning of the Forum. The Brazilians, perhaps overwhelmed by the international response to the first and second forums, thought it would be in fitness of things to constitute such a body to bring in an element of international ownership of what was essentially at that time a Brazilian process. Since this was an evolutionary addition to the WSF process, rather than a well-thought out theoretical structure at the very beginning, the journey of the IC has therefore seen incremental additions from time to time, on the basis of consolidation of experiences and specific needs.

Taking into account the need to have an international dimension to organizing World events, and the expansion of the Forum process, the most important evolution was to set up the various Commissions at the Miami meeting in 2003. Till 2003, all the experience of organizing an event was with the Brazilians. With the decision to hold the Forum for the first time outside Brazil in India, a decision now taken by the IC, it was necessary to transfer the experience of holding the event to a totally new set of people, constituting the India Organizing Committee. It is important to note that even though the negotiations initially were between the Brazilian and Indian movement people, the decision was taken only once the IC ratified it. The transfer of experience however was mostly from the Brazilians to Indians, simply because no other country group had that practical experience at that time. So some leading Brazilian organizers toured India to sensitize the movements there, and the Brazilian secretariat shifted for couple of months to Mumbai to help in the nitty-gritties of organizing the event. Clearly therefore the ‘political ideals’ were provided by the IC but the ‘know-how’ of holding an event, the practical aspects, came from knowledgeable people and the Secretariat from Brazil. As the WSF process has expanded tremendously since, it is this growing gulf between the ‘ideal’ role of the IC and the practical aspects of holding events, that is, in my opinion, at the heart of the crisis confronting the IC now.

The Ideal IC

Since the role of IC has been evolving rather than mandated in a founding document, it is perhaps not clear whether everyone associated with the IC or the Forum process have even a minimum common understanding of the role of the IC. To my mind the following may be a sub-set of the various perceptions of the role of the IC in people’s minds, in groups or individually, but not necessarily in the entire IC:

1.      IC is the supreme ‘controlling’ body of the IC. At least all the World and polycentric events of the WSF must be done under the ‘supervision’ of the IC, and other events must be authorized by the IC.

2.      Like the ‘open space’ concept of the WSF, IC must also be an open-space structure, with no boundaries or closure. It must be democratic, transparent and must communicate to all overcoming language barriers. More important, everyone present in an IC meeting must be associated with all the decisions at that meeting. Whatever is discussed in Commissions and working groups must finally be endorsed by the entire IC at a meeting.

3.      Same should be true for the Commissions. Meetings must be open for anyone who wishes to attend them; the membership should be voluntary, without any closure. A person should be free to be a member of any number of Commissions and working groups.

4.      The National Organizing Committees must work on the basis of decisions taken by the various Commissions and the full IC. The Methodology, Strategy, Communication strategy, Financial planning, Thematic Axes etc. of a World event would be worked out by the concerned Commissions of the IC and the NOCs would follow them.

5.      IC is the political body to review, analyze, theorize and strategize on global politics, which would inform the events and processes of the WSF.

6.      Following the Charter of Principles, the IC would be a horizontal body with no hierarchical structures, powers of representation of members, or powers to initiate action and statements.


This is just a brief list – there are perhaps many more such ideals in the minds of organizations and individuals associated with the WSF process.


The Practical Aspects


The practical functioning of the IC however appears to deviate considerably from these ideals, particularly as the Forum processes has expanded, bringing in a great deal of frustration, suspicion and unease. Some of these aspects are:


1.      Open- space and Membership. With many thousand organizations forming the WSF process, the notion of membership of IC being open to all is simply unfeasible. So the Expansion Commission and the IC worked out criterions for adding members to the IC. So there are membership ‘gate-keeping’ rules, which many can not reconcile with the ideal of democratic representation of all. Complaints range from non or less representation of regions – Asia, Africa, Australia, to over representation from Europe and South America.

2.      Even with gate keeping rules for membership, the organizations represented in the IC are perhaps around 150. With ‘non-members’ also joining, particularly at meetings held back to back with World events, there are at times around 250 persons present in a meeting. Rules like members will sit in the inner rows and observers in back rows can most of the time not even be suggested since it can upset the ‘democratic, non-hierarchical’ ideal. The result is that over two days of meetings, a formal member may at best get three minutes of time in the entire meeting to say what she has to say! This produces rather bizarre competition for speaking time, where facilitators, if they are somewhat strict are seen as dictatorial, and those who are ‘democratic’ and lenient in time allocation are seen ineffective in ‘controlling’ the meeting and arriving at decisions.

3.      Making the agenda becomes a nightmare. With so many expectations from the meeting, decisions to be made, political strategies to be discussed and so on, with three minutes for each member, theorists and analysts and strategists find the agenda too administrative and bureaucratic, too much analysis of the ‘World Situation’ frustrates those who require ‘organizational’ decisions for various practical aspects of events. In this, the biggest victim was the International Secretariat that used to help organize and set the agenda for meetings. It was perceived as a bureaucratic ‘power center’ not accountable to the IC or the Commissions. The Communication Commission and the Secretariat was in constant battle over turf and things suffered. It was this confrontation which to my mind demolished the Secretariat, rather than the lack of money (which was there, but if the IC had seen the value of the Secretariat, streamlined and expanded it, I believe funds could have been found. But seen as a non-democratic power center, it was sacrificed).

4.      The experiment of LG was to me a non-starter from the very beginning. Part time people dispersed over the globe without a fervent commitment to the IC work, which anyway was a part of dozens of other responsibilities they had in their organizations was unlikely to replace a committed secretariat. And that is where we are now.

5.      The task of providing technical assistance to organizers of World events – important in the beginning – receded as more and more national groups became experienced in holding events. If I am right 58 Forum events were held in 2010 alone. National Organizing Committees were free now to contact experienced persons and organizations directly rather than go through the cumbersome process of IC and Commissions finding time in packed and chaotic meetings to do so. In fact, the idea of a Forum of Forum Organizers has been on the table for long. The process was further streamlined by adopting the ‘Guidelines for Organizing a Form’ at the Copenhagen meeting, which along with the Charter of Principles was supposed to be the blueprint for the Forum process and events (though not many organizers, I think, take that document with any sense of seriousness).

6.      Given this situation where who would do what tasks was unclear, or groups with tasks were unable perform for whatever reasons (like the Commissions and the LG), at each meeting where some decisions had to be taken, a ‘fire-fighting’ group would try and salvage a meeting, to the dismay of the majority who found the process undemocratic and undermined by ‘power groups’ and so on. I am not discounting that there may have been, or are, individuals hankering for power, but I believe given the huge and diverse expectations of an ideal IC outlined in the beginning that can not be translated into practice, it is this conflict of the ideal and the practical that is at the source of various perceptions, rather than many ‘bad’ and ’scheming’ people.




Where do we go from here?


For that let us examine the need for an IC in this 12th year of the WSF. As a technical body helping organizing committees to hold events, I do not feel an IC is required for that today. There are enough experienced groups and individuals who can be directly contacted for that purpose. A revised and proper ‘Guidelines for Holding Events’ can further aid that process.


As Chico pointed out, the most important task today is to have a body that can review and evaluate (more the political aspects) of a recently held event (like the Tunis Forum), and ‘approve’ the venue of the next Forum. If a meeting of the IC is held at the end of each Forum (every two years) for just that, with no other agenda, that might suffice. However a new venue may not be ready at the end a Forum – so the evaluation cum new venue meeting may be held six months, roughly, after the end of a World event, by which time, some evaluation reports etc could also be prepared by the organizers of the previous event.

That means just one meeting in two years – that too with a very well defined and restricted agenda.

In between, if any organization/s comes forward to have an international gathering of IC members  along with other non-IC organizations in their region (like GRAP, Balkan Forum etc etc), for political debate and analysis, such a process may be encouraged, so that in addition to a Forum review and new venue meeting, a meeting solely devoted to the political state of the World is also held between to successive Forums.

Where as I find Chico’s radical idea of disbanding the IC and replacing it with a body of individuals innovative, I don’t quite think that it is politically expedient. Streamlining the membership of the IC, giving up omnibus IC meetings with political, administrative, Commission agendas might be the first step.

And I strongly urge that the idea of reviving a Secretariat, much more streamlined and not necessarily located in Brazil should be given serious thought. It could be a key in sustaining, deepening and giving continuity to the Forum process and events.


March 24, 2013