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The world’s business and governmental elite held their annual meeting last month in New York City. More than 50,000 people gathered to focus on social justice at a “shadow event” in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Not a chain-link fence was in sight and police presence was minimal. Although overshadowed in the media by the World Economic […]

The View from Porto Alegre

by Robert O'Brien

The world’s business and governmental elite held their annual meeting last month in New York City. More than 50,000 people gathered to focus on social justice at a “shadow event” in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Not a chain-link fence was in sight and police presence was minimal.

Although overshadowed in the media by the World Economic Forum (WEF) in New York, the Porto Alegre meeting was equally significant. The second World Social Forum (WSF) met from Jan. 31 to Feb. 5, hosting delegates from almost 5,000 organizations. The largest numbers came from Brazil, Italy, Argentina, France, the United States and Spain.

The first WSF took place in Porto Alegre in 2001. It was created to provide a counterweight to the well established WEF which had met annually in Davos, Switzerland. The WEF had grown from a meeting of European industrialists to a yearly gathering of business and governmental elite. Whereas the economic forums are dominated by corporate and business elites discussing wealth creation, the social forum is populated by civic associations and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) stressing social justice. The environment in which the WSF takes place is in stark contrast with the meetings of international economic institutions that attract street protests. The WSF is supported by the city of Porto Alegre and the state government of Rio Grande do Sul. The downtown area is not surrounded by a large chain-link fence in the way that Quebec City was barricaded during the Summit of the Americas. Although the forum began with a large public march, the police presence was minimal throughout the week. The Porto Alegre meetings indicate that large gatherings of social activists need not lead to heavy-handed security.

Activists, politicians, journalists, social commentators and academics flocked to Brazil to consider the WSF’s main theme, Another World is Possible. The other world they seek is one less dominated by the power of corporations, more equal in its distribution of resources and life chances, more respectful of the environment and more dedicated to the peaceful resolution of conflicts.

The forum contains a number of elements that sometimes complement each other and are sometimes in tension. One element resembles a national meeting of Brazilian NGOs. They are the largest number of delegates and their sessions are conducted in Portuguese, which excludes most of the other delegates. Running alongside these meetings are sessions in English, Spanish or French which have a more international dimension and are closer to being part of a world forum.

A second dividing line is between the forum of the star personalities and the forum of the ordinary activists. The stars address large crowds in auditoriums and gyms. Prominent stars this year included Walden Bello from Focus on the Global South in Thailand, Martin Khor from the Third World Network, Noam Chomsky from the United States delivering his antiwar message, and Susan George from the French group ATTAC (Association for the Taxation of financial Transactions for the Aid of Citizens). Two Canadian stars of the activist circuit also attended: Maude Barlow from the Council of Canadians and journalist Naomi Klein. These sessions give activists a chance to hear some of the leading thinkers of the field expound their views.

Alongside these larger meetings were hundreds of workshops where smaller groups of activists met to share experiences and discuss strategies. The program of events runs over 130 pages and provides a dizzying choice of topics for discussion. An interesting example was a session discussing the campaign to Boycott World Bank Bonds. Approximately 20 people gathered in a room to listen to activists from the United States, Haiti and Africa recount how they have launched a campaign to pressure the World Bank by encouraging public agencies to stop buying World Bank Bonds. Participants left with an inspiring story and contact names to help them spread the boycott to their own universities, trade unions and local governments.

In addition to the large conferences, seminars and workshops, the forum contained numerous other events. Elected officials participated in a Parliamentary Forum. Mayors, city councillors and urban planners participated in the Local Authority Forum. Trade unions held a Unions Confederation Forum and tried to forge a consensus among competing international union groups. A mock trial was held to condemn the debt burden strangling the economies and peoples of many developing countries. A youth forum was held for young people and a large and diverse cultural program entertained and informed participants at all the events.

The WSF brings together many of the groups that have been active in street protests against the World Trade Organization and International Monetary Fund with other civil society activists concerned about social justice and growing economic inequality. The forum complements the more visible street protests by creating a space where activists can develop concrete proposals for change. The WSF has become a central meeting place for social activists to exchange ideas, consult with each other and build the relationships necessary to support campaigns across borders.

Activists also used the forum as a place to plan strategy for future international meetings. For example, strategy sessions were held for the United Nations Summit for Sustainable Development in Johannesburg in September and the Financing for Development Conference to be held in Mexico in March.

The forum is so vast and proposals for change so numerous that it is difficult to do justice to the diversity of the debate. Discussion was focused around four key themes: production of wealth; access to wealth and sustainability; civil society and the public realm; power politics and ethics.

Several proposals are notable. A large player in the forum is ATTAC, which started in France, but has opened up chapters in many countries. Its primary purpose is to lobby for mechanisms that will slow the movement of speculative capital. They propose taxing large, rapid foreign exchange transactions which undermine economic stability. Such steps might prevent financial crises like the ones that have hit Mexico, Asia and Russia in the 1990s.

Environmental issues also loomed large at the forum. These ranged from aboriginal groups lobbying for protection of the rainforest to a global initiative to keep water away from private enterprise and in the realm of public service and public good.

Beyond supporting a more just global community, there was no consensus in Porto Alegre about the detailed structure of what another world should look like. Agreement is not possible when so many types of groups from so many different backgrounds gather in one place. For example, one issue debated at the forum was whether the groups of people gathered there should be referred to as the antiglobalization movement or as the global justice movement. The first term indicates a reaction against the activity of corporations in extending their influence around the world while the second suggests a program of positive steps to improve social justice in a wide range of areas.

The WSF faces many challenges. One is size. It has grown from 20,000 to more than 50,000 participants in only two years. This creates large logistical hurdles for the organizers and any host city. A second challenge is to keep the forum open to as many groups as possible while fostering tolerance for diverse perspectives. A third challenge is for the participating groups to move from discussion at the WSF to action in their own states and in the international realm. While the obstacles are large, the extensive participation in Porto Alegre indicates that people concerned with a more equal global economy have moved from primarily engaging in protests at institutions to also providing alternative proposals for action.

Robert O’Brien is an associate professor of political science at McMaster University. He attended the WSF as a representative of McMaster’s Institute on Globalization and the Human Condition.