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Why Are We Here? What Do We Want?

When You Go to Porto Alegre…

by JENNIFER C. BERKSHIRE

Porto Alegre, Brazil. In Davos, Switzerland, they’re gearing up for the year’s biggest apres ski hour: the World Economic Forum. While Swiss officials unloaded the corporate cocktail party on the Americans last year–they insisted that the stopover in New York was intended as a gesture of solidarity after September 11–the event has been kicked back to the Alps in 2003.

Meanwhile, weighty deliberations await the 1,000 odd WEF delegates when they arrive in the Swiss resort town later this week. While the rest of the world watches and listens for word of material breaches, moneyed movers and shakers will mull menu choices at Alpine eateries–tafelspitz anyone? Also on the agenda, a selection of lectures seemingly better suited to a California spa vacation than a hegemonic retreat. Highlights this year include sessions entitled “Love: A Matter of Trust,” “Can’t We All Just Get Along?” and “Humour in the Workplace.” Conference planners also display an unusual preoccupation with aging; a reflection, perhaps, of the advancing years of WEF founder Klaus Schwab. While residents in countries rather south of Davos battle infant mortality and falling life expectancy rates, attendees can hear about the latest robotics technology (“Will people start replacing worn body parts with robotic parts?” muses the official program) and reflect upon “Why do we age and why do we hate it?”

On the other side of the Atlantic in Porto Alegre, Brazil, sight of the 3rd World Social Forum, the questions to be addressed are rather more fundamental. To begin with there is the logistical nightmare of the gathering itself. While Davos is confined to a relative handful of well-heeled delegates–and a smattering of handpicked NGO representatives–the Brazil gathering has exploded in growth since the first WSF was held in 2001. Just how many people are coming to Porto Alegre? “We think it will be 100,000, but we don’t know for sure,” said a member of the Brazilian organizing committee. “For certain there will be a lot,” he said, wearing the dazed and frazzled expression shared by anyone with an official connection to the event.

Already the city is teeming with delegates–those seasoned members of the globalization circuit armed with trademark black canvas attache cases; their youthful colleagues sporting Che t-shirts. 30,000 young people–many from elsewhere in Latin America, others from as far away as Japan–are expected to set up tent in the sprawling youth camp on the outskirts of the city.

Then there is the larger question of the Forum itself. Why exactly are we here? What is it that we’re demanding? And of whom? While organizers view the predicted size of the event as a sign of success, dramatic growth has also produced a gathering–and a movement–that is increasingly unwieldy. While delegates to Davos share a single economic agenda (and even the NGO reps attending this year’s Open Forum know better than to pick up any bricks), there is no such unity among attendees at the World Social Forum. Reform or revolution? Not a question one asks in mixed company here.

As Porto Alegre prepares for a human deluge, members of the somewhat murkily assembled International Council–the body that ostensibly runs the Forum and other related gatherings–have been meeting behind closed doors. Among the contentious topics: should next year’s forum take place in India, should the International Council come out against war in Iraq, and what, in fact, is the Council authorized to decide?

While the closed-door sessions brim with international–of the Third and Fourth variety–intrigue, outside it seems to make little difference what Council members determine; the sense of movement is already undeniable. Should the official body condemn Lula, Brazil’s newly elected president, for his decision to travel directly from Porto Alegre to Davos? The youth camp is already planning a protest. Is the International Council opposed to war? Some 70,000 Forum participants are expected to march against the war later this week.

But the most heated debate has been over the question of whether the Forum should leave Porto Alegre next year. A plan to hold the next global meeting in India has yet to be agreed upon, and determination by the Brazilians who currently dominate the decision making structure is strong and mounting. At a welcoming session attended by Porto Alegre’s Trotskyite mayor and a representative from the state of Rio Grande Do Sul, Brazilian officials urged Council delegates to keep the event in Porto Alegre–and seemed to regard plans to move the Forum as ill-fated. “If it were up to me, the World Social Forum would never leave,” said the mayor. “But we will still be here in 2005 when you return.”

While the Forum has proved to be a cash cow for the city, not everyone in Porto Alegre will be sad to see it go–if it does; closed-door deliberations continue with no end in sight. Late one evening, a large group of US delegates happened into a restaurant in a decidedly middle-class suburb of Porto Alegre. As we shuffled in, dreary from jet lag and clad in movement swag, a woman of obvious means was heard to sniff in our direction. “Foro,” she said derisively to her dining companions, signaling the waiter for more meat.

Next: Building the Party: Brazilian Style

Jennifer Berkshire can be reached at: jenniferberkshire@hotmail.com