World Social Forum - Porto Alegre, Brazil, 25-30 January, 2001

An IPS Publication

Patricia Made


IPS World Daily News
World Social Forum
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DEMOCRACY-DEVELOPMENT: In Search of a New Utopia

By Mario Osava

RIO DE JANEIRO, Jan 21 (IPS) - The World Social Forum 2001 (WSF) to take place next week in Brazil will be a bold experiment in drawing together a broad range of interests and civil society groups with the ambitious aim of rebuilding the dreams of the left in today's globalised world.

The Jan 25-30 gathering in the southern Brazilian port city of Porto Alegre, the capital of the state of Rio Grande do Sul, will draw delegates of trade unions, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and political and social movements from throughout the world to identify new routes and proposals to mobilise civil society internationally.

The initial projection of 2,700 participants, divided in equal parts among the four abovementioned sectors, could actually be several times that, given the flood of registrations, said Fernanda Carvalho, with the Brazilian Institute of Socioeconomic Research, an NGO on the organising committee.

One example of the strong level of interest is Italy, where a flight will have to be chartered to bring all of the delegates. Other countries have also exceeded their quotas.

Given the enormous number of activists wishing to participate, the organising committee will have to modify the schedule of events, which was to involve morning panels in the four auditoriums of the Catholic University, with a capacity for 800 people each. Afternoon workshops and a number of parallel activities will complete the programme.

The total number of participants could be in excess of 10,000, said Rio Grande do Sul Deputy Governor Miguel Rossetto, one of the gathering's hosts, who recently made a European tour to publicise the event.

The WSF emerged as a counterpoint to the World Economic Forum, which has been taking place annually in late January in Davos, Switzerland for the past 29 years.

The World Economic Forum ''has played a key role in formulating economic policies throughout the world, sponsored by a Swiss organisation that serves as a consultant to the United Nations, and financed by more than one thousand corporations,'' according to the WSF website.

The idea to organise an alternative forum parallel to the World Economic Forum emerged from the demonstrations staged since 1998 against meetings of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation (WTO), such as the mass protests held at the WTO ministerial conference in the U.S. city of Seattle, Washington in late November and early December 1999.

The organisers describe the WSF as ''a new international arena for the creation and exchange of social and economic projects that promote human rights, social justice and sustainable development,'' and which ''will provide a space for building economic alternatives, for exchanging experiences and for strengthening South-North alliances between NGOs, unions and social movements.''

Participants will try to come up with ''strategies for grassroots organising'' and ''build proposals to democratise international institutions such as the WTO, the IMF, and the World Bank to limit the influence of multinational corporations on local communities.''

While the working agenda for the meeting is ''anti-Davos'', it will be based on the search for concrete proposals, said Carvalho, who stressed that this year's gathering would be a ''first test'' of joint reflection by organisations dedicated to a wide spectrum of issues, in the search for alternatives to neo-liberalism.

The theme ''Another World is Possible'' highlights the aim of coming up with global proposals that, in the words of the Brazilian organising committee, would place ''human development and participative democracy among the top priorities of governments and citizenries.''

The WSF is also an attempt to reorganise and give direction to the world's leftist forces, but not merely political parties. Taking part along with socially concerned trade unions, parliamentarians and government officials will be NGOs fighting for the broadest range of causes.

Human rights defenders, land reform advocates, environmentalists and activists working on issues ranging from the foreign debt to urban planning, the fight against poverty and inequalities, gender questions, and even the issue of a one percent tax on financial transactions - the so-called Tobin Tax - will exchange ideas in Porto Alegre.

The WSF will not be a decision-making body, and no final document will be approved, but the various groups represented at the forum will be free to disseminate the proposals and joint positions that arise from specific meetings.

The choice of Porto Alegre to host the gathering was a statement in and of itself. For the past 12 years, the city has been governed by Brazil's leftist Workers Party, which has run the city based on innovations and people-oriented policies such as the ''participative budget'', micro-credits, and top priority attention to social problems.

Depending on the results of this first attempt to draw together such a wide range of groups and interests, the WSF could become a regular event, held in Brazil or in different countries. Participants will also have to decide whether the WSF headquarters will remain in Porto Alegre, or rotate from country to country.

Among the personalities who have confirmed their attendance are U.S. linguist and activist Noam Chomsky, Indian physicist and ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, the leader of East Timor's independence struggle and 1996 Nobel Peace laureate José Ramos Horta, Egyptian economist Samir Amin, and Danielle Mitterrand, president of the France Liberté association.

Brazil's Landless Movement (Movimento dos Sem Terra, MST) will propose that seeds be named a common heritage of mankind, as part of the struggle against transgenic products. It will also organise group visits by participants to camps set up near Porto Alegre by landless rural folk waiting to be settled on their own parcels of land.

Chomsky sees the gathering as an ''opportunity of unparalleled importance to bring together popular forces from many and varied constituencies from the richer and poor countries alike, to develop constructive alternatives that will defend the overwhelming majority of the world's population from the attack on fundamental human rights.''

The panels in which the formally registered delegates will take part will focus on four main themes: the production of wealth; access to wealth and sustainability; civil society and the public arena; and political power and ethics in the new society.

A World Parliamentary Forum will also be held as part of the WSF, with some 500 delegates from throughout the world. Other events will be youth and indigenous camps, in which representatives of each sector will discuss their specific problems and concerns.

Afternoon workshops will be organised around a variety of issues, in 60 different meeting rooms. The aim is to ''cross agendas'' and promote dialogue between organisations and movements working on a range of issues and with different constituencies, in a search for ''symbiosis,'' said Carvalho.

The gathering will be brought to a close by some 350 events - including concerts, plays and art exhibits - throughout the city, the organisers reported. (END/IPS/tra-so/mo/dm/sw/00)


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